Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: A Sicilian pasta dish worthy of the highest praise.
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I used to think that this dish was simply named after someone's nonna -- after all, someone's nonna is usually the creator of Italy's best classic dishes. In my mind, Norma loved eggplants, and this was her signature dish. As a 20-year-old art student living in Italy, I used to hypothesize the origins of this recipe -- one of the first I learned -- as I attempted to master it.
As it turns out, the namesake of the dish isn't just any old Norma. The pasta is named after Bellini's 19th-century opera, Norma, which is widely considered the composer's best achievement. If you're not familiar, think about work worthy of La Scala and Maria Callas -- now go ahead, be impressed.
In fact, the phrase una vera Norma, “a real Norma," is used to sing praise to something remarkable. And this simple and essential Sicilian dish of deep-fried eggplant and punchy tomato sauce is indeed remarkable -- no wonder it's one of the region's most famous recipes.
Like a true legend, there are countless stories about how this dish got its name. There's the one where a chef, after hearing a performance of Norma, was so inspired that he rushed back to his kitchen to create a meal in its honor. Another says that a group of artists from the opera visited Catania (the pasta's hometown), and upon tasting the dish exclaimed, “Why, it's Norma!" -- likening the opera's perfection to that of the pasta.
The final -- and most essential -- touch to Pasta alla Norma is a dusting of salted ricotta (ricotta salata). It's said to represent the snow on Mount Etna, the volcano that stands over the city of Catania. Ricotta salata is a drier, pressed, and aged version of fresh ricotta; the firm, slightly crumbly grateable cheese lends the pasta a hint of saltiness. If you can't find ricotta salata, you can use Parmesan or caciocavallo -- but purists will point out that the flavor substitution isn't authentic.
Don't skimp when salting and frying the eggplant -- the result is a wonderful sauce with a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture.
1 large eggplant (or 2 finger eggplants) Salt, as needed Olive oil for frying 2 garlic cloves, peeled and squashed One 14-ounce (400-gram) can of chopped tomato 8 to 10 basil leaves, torn 11 ounces (320 grams) rigatoni, penne, or maccheroncini pasta 3 ounces (80 grams) grated ricotta salata
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.