Tomato and Eggplant Flavor This Classic Sicilian Dish
Pasta alla Norma showcases the deep flavor of eggplant, combining it in a spicy tomato sauce with basil and ricotta salata to create one of Sicily’s most famous pasta dishes.
But actually, it’s enjoyed all over Italy. Indeed, it’s almost a cultural institution, having been named (reportedly, at least) in honor of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma. Bellini was a native of Sicily and is considered one of its finest composers — and Norma is his best-loved opera. So naming a pasta dish after it was high praise indeed.
Unfortunately, Pasta alla Norma isn’t well known in the US. I sometimes see it on restaurant menus, but not often. Which is too bad, because it’s an exceptionally tasty dish. Fortunately, it’s also simple to prepare, and once you taste it, you’ll want to make it often.
Pasta alla Norma combines all its ingredients to create a beautiful harmony — just like Bellini’s opera.
Recipe: Pasta alla Norma
This recipe has 3 distinct — but easy — steps. First, you need to prepare your eggplant. Traditionally this is done by frying or sautéing, but I prefer to use Roast Eggplant, which is lighter and tastier. Second, you need to make a tasty tomato sauce. I provide instructions, but if you have a favorite homemade tomato sauce, you can substitute that. Third, you need to combine the eggplant and tomato sauce, and then add freshly cooked pasta. Toss it all together, and serve (adding ricotta salata at table).
Most recipes for this dish are pretty similar, though you’ll see a few differences. My favorite discussion of the dish can be found in Bugialli on Pasta (I have the original version of this book, not the revised one), where Bugialli details three different recipes for Pasta alla Norma.
This recipe serves 4. You can easily double it if necessary. Leftovers keep well in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several days. Prep time for this recipe is about 20 minutes, and cooking time is 30 to 40 minutes total.
- 1 onion
- 3 garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons pure olive oil (the cheap stuff)
- salt and pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste)
- 28-ounce can of diced or crushed tomatoes (may substitute canned whole tomatoes; see Notes)
- 2 pounds eggplant cut into cubes of ½ to ¾ inch, and Roasted.
- 1 pound dried tubular pasta of choice (or any shape you prefer; see Notes)
- ~4 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
- 4 ounces grated ricotta salata (this isn’t the soft ricotta you may be familiar with; see Notes for details and substitutions)
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F (for the Roast Eggplant).
- Peel the onion and chop it into ¼ inch dice. Peel and mince or slice the garlic cloves.
- Heat a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. When hot, add the olive oil and let it heat (this will take only seconds; it ripples when hot). Immediately add the diced onion and minced garlic. Stir, salt and pepper to taste, and cook until the onion is translucent (5 - 8 minutes).
- When the onion is ready, add the red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the tomato.
- Cook at a simmer for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, dice the eggplant and combine with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast using my recipe for Roast Eggplant.
- While the eggplant is roasting, wash and chop the basil, and grate the ricotta salata (I use the coarse side of a 4-sided standing grater).
- A few minutes before the eggplant is done, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. When it’s boiling, salt to taste (I use a tablespoon) and add pasta. Stir. Set timer for 6 minutes. Usually tubular pasta takes 7 to 8 minutes to cook al dente, but I start testing at 6 minutes.
- Once the eggplant is done, remove it from the oven and add it to the tomato sauce. Let it simmer.
- When the pasta is done, drain and add it to a serving bowl. Pour the tomato sauce with eggplant over the pasta, and toss to combine. Add the basil, toss briefly, then serve the pasta. Pass the grated ricotta salata at table so people can add as much as they like.
- If you use canned whole tomatoes, either break them up with a spoon (or your hand) or whirl them in the blender for a couple of seconds before adding to the pot in Step 4.
- I sometimes add a couple of anchovies (or an inch or so of anchovy paste from a tube) to this recipe for extra zip. Add the anchovy when you add the red pepper flakes in Step 4.
- You can also add a bit of tomato paste if you want a more substantial sauce. I sometimes add a tablespoon or two. Add the tomato paste to the onions before you add the red pepper flakes in Step 4. Stir and sauté the tomato paste for a minute or two. Then add the pepper flakes and proceed with the recipe.
- I like this dish best when made with a sturdy tubular pasta like rigatoni or penne. You can use any shape you prefer. However, because the sauce is chunky (the eggplant), a thin pasta like spaghetti doesn’t work well, IMO — and also doesn’t look attractive.
- Ricotta salata isn’t at all like the moist ricotta cheese that is sold in tubs (the kind you use when making lasagna or cheesecake). Ricotta salata is firm with a sharp flavor — it’s similar in texture, shape, and taste to Pecorino Romano. Which is what I use as a substitute when I can’t find ricotta salata. You could also use Parmesan, but that has a milder flavor (which gets a bit lost in this dish IMO, although it’s still pretty good).
Exactly how Pasta alla Norma got its name is unclear; there are several competing stories. The one I favor says that Nino Martoglio — a Sicilian writer, publisher, journalist, and theater producer — was so impressed by the dish that he compared it to Bellini’s operatic masterpiece, Norma. True or not? Who knows? It’s a good story, though.
As it happens, Mrs. Kitchen Riffs is a self-described “operaholic.” So I’m turning to her to finish this post, and tell us about Bellini’s opera:
Norma premiered at La Scala opera house in Milan in December 1831, and was an immediate hit. It’s a perfect example of the operatic style called bel canto (Italian for “beautiful singing”) and it features one of opera’s most storied arias, “Casta diva.” Many of the world’s best-known sopranos have braved the title role. In the mid-20th century, it was a favorite vehicle of Maria Callas.
Norma is a gorgeous potboiler, with all the elements that opera fans find irresistible: love, betrayal, violent death, and blood-curdling high notes. Here’s the storyline: Norma is a druid high priestess in Gaul at the time of the Roman occupation, circa 50 BCE. Though sworn to fight the Roman invaders, Norma has secretly been engaged in a love affair with Pollione, the Roman proconsul. She has borne him two children, whom she is raising at a hidden forest location. But now Pollione has fallen for Adalgisa, a young trophy temple virgin.
The clueless Adalgisa innocently confesses her love of Pollione to Norma — who goes ballistic as only a druid priestess can. She first vows to kill her children, Medea-style, but can’t bring herself to carry out the deed. Instead, she strikes the Druids’ sacred bronze shield, summoning them to war, shouting “vendetta . . . sangue!” (“vengeance . . . blood!”)
When the hordes arrive, she tells them that a priestess has violated her sacred vows and must die. Pollione assumes she means Adalgisa, and tries to stop her from speaking further. But then Norma dramatically announces that she herself is the transgressor, and orders a funeral pyre to be lighted. At last, Pollione recognizes Norma’s nobility. Remorseful, he vows to die with her, and the two mount the pyre together as the music swells to a thrilling crescendo.
At this point, 19th century opera goers might have been shrieking in grief, rending their garments, throwing bouquets, and shouting “brava . . . bellisima!” Nowadays, we just stand up and applaud politely. I like the old way better myself.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Pasta with Tomato and Bacon Sauce
Pasta Cacio e Pepe
Hungarian Noodles and Cabbage with Bacon
Old School Macaroni and Cheese
Summer Pasta Salad
White Bean and Tuna Salad
Tuna Pasta Salad
Tuna Noodle Casserole