Italians voted overwhelmingly for Pasta alla Norma as their preferred regional dish in all of Italy. Tradition has it that the Catanian-Sicilian writer Nino Martoglio (1870-1921) was so impressed by pasta alla Norma that he called out “Chista è ‘na vera Norma!”, “This is the real Norma!”
Since Martoglio compared that pasta dish to the popular opera Norma by Catanian-Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini, this vegetable pasta recipe is known as pasta alla Norma. Although it has its origins in Catania, it has become the most representative dish of the whole island of Sicily.
This vegetable pasta recipe is a traditional recipe from the city of Catania, on the East coast of Sicily, at the foot of the Etna volcano, ‘a Muntagna, as they say in Siclian, and is a great example of the typical Mediterranean flavors and colors that bring the Mediterranean landscape to your table.
Pasta alla Norma is a first course, especially for the summer months and it’s cooked with few and simple ingredients: tomatoes, eggplants, basil, garlic and ricotta cheese but the results are surprisingly delicious.
As it happens with such famous recipes, there are endless discussions about the origin and authenticity of the recipe. Very often, pasta alla Norma is prepared with penne rigate. Some Sicilians accept macaroni, spaghetti, rigatoni or another kind of short pasta as a legitimate substitute of penne rigate, some don’t.
Below we give you the traditional Pasta alla Norma recipe as they prepare it in Catania. Although as I mentioned above, even among Catanians opinions differ to a certain extent on the way to prepare it and even on how to serve it! But when you look at the differences they are minimal and they are mostly due to specific family customs and traditions.
I don’t think we have ever done so much research on a recipe 🙂 —in theory and in practice— and we are confident that we have captured the essence and tradition of the pasta Norma, a rather easy pasta dish that wants some patience and attention to detail though.
This is a great vegetable pasta recipe that will delight vegetarians. If you are vegan and don’t eat cheese, leave it out and it will still be nutritious, healthy and a real treat.
Our final pasta dish was exquisite, I can assure you. Except for the ricotta salata cheese, the ingredients are easy to find. If you can’t find ricotta salata, replace it with another sheep’s cheese or Parmesan cheese Parmiggiano Reggiano. Only, in this case purists will tell you that you can’t technically call it Pasta alla Norma, but it will be delicious all the same, I know I have tried in several occasions!
- 400 gr or 1 pound penne rigate, macaroni or spaghetti
- 3 to 4 medium black or purple round eggplants — unpeeled
- 600 g or 1 1/3 pound ripe tomatoes — peeled and diced in small cubes
- 2 garlic cloves — peeled
- 16 leaves fresh basil
- 200 g or 7 ounces ricotta salata (salty sheep’s cheese) — grated.
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Coarse salt
- 1 pinch pepper
- Wash the eggplants and cut the ends. Cut them lengthwise into slices of about 1 cm, which is a little less than half an inch or 1/6 of an inch.
- Put the unpeeled eggplants on a colander in alternate layers and salt every layer to drain any liquid and remove any bitterness. Put the colander on a bowl or the sink, cover the eggplants with a plate, and put a weight on it. Set aside for about an hour. Detailed instructions here.
- In the meantime, boil some water and peel the tomatoes as explained in detail here. After peeling them, dice the tomatoes in small cubes.
- Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to a skillet or sauce pan and when it’s hot add the peeled garlic cloves whole or halved lengthwise. Sautee over low heat for a few moments until the garlic turns golden but take care not to burn it.
- Add the peeled and diced tomatoes to the same skillet with the garlic. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste but take into account that you already sprinkled salt over the eggplants. Cook over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes. Towards the end add a pinch of pepper.
- About 10 minutes into the tomato sauce cooking, remove the garlic or its taste will dominate.
- Remove the pan from heat and pass the tomato sauce through a vegetable mill or crush it with a fork if you like to feel the bits of tomato as we do. Cook the tomato sauce five more minutes so that it thickens a little bit more. The sauce should have a medium density, not too thick not too watery.
- Remove the skillet from heat, coarsely cut half of the basil leaves, better with scissors, add the basil to the tomato sauce, stir, cover and set aside.
- After letting the salted eggplants rest for about one hour, rinse the aubergine slices you put in the colander under tap water and dry them with a cloth towel or a paper towel.
- Keep 12 whole eggplant slices, three for each guest, to decorate the final pasta alla Norma dish and dice the remaining eggplant slices into medium cubes. If the cubes are too small they can burn easily.
- Fry the eggplants cubes in olive oil that’s not too hot until they are golden. Four tablespoons of olive oil should be enough if you use a non-stick skillet and the taste will still be as if you fried them with lots of oil as most home cooks did in the past. Start with medium low heat and after ten minutes reduce heat to low. It will take you about half an hour to 45 minutes. Place the fried eggplant cubes on paper towels to drain the excess olive oil.
- Fry the whole eggplant slices the same way as above but this time keep the heat to medium or medium low, the frying process is faster in this case. Watch that the slices don’t burn. Set the slices aside for the final mounting of the pasta dish.
- In the meantime, bring water to a boil and cook the penne rigate or the pasta of your choice al dente as explained in detail here.
- Grate the ricotta — medium size— and set apart.
- Now it’s time to serve the pasta alla Norma. Put pasta on each guest’s plate trying to model the beloved volcano of Sicilians —the Etna. Add a short dash of olive oil. Top with the eggplant cubes. Pour tomato sauce. Top with grated ricotta salata. Put two basil leaves on the Etna’s top and finally, decorate each pasta alla Norma dish with three whole eggplant slices.
Final observations about the pasta alla Norma recipe
As you’ll hear many Sicilians assert, pasta alla Norma represents their amato Etna, their beloved Etna, each ingredient brings your memory to some particular aspect of the volcano:
- The mountain of penne rigate are a symbol for the Etna
- The diced eggplants are the volcanic rocks
- The tomato sauce represents the hot lava
- The grated cheese represents the snow that often crowns the Etna
- The basil leaves symbolize the vegetation
Have you ever tried to cook pasta alla Norma? Were you successful? Share your experience in the comments below!