This, one of my favorite summertime pastas, comes from Sicily. Along with pasta con le sarde, it is perhaps the most famous of Sicilian pasta dishes. And it is a fairly simple dish to make, the only slight complication coming from the initial preparation of the eggplant.
To make pasta alla Norma for 5 or 6 people, cut up a large eggplant (or two smaller eggplants) into slices or cubes and put them in a colander. Sprinkle the eggplant liberally with salt, weigh the eggplant down (a small plate with a can of tomatoes or beans on top works well) and allow them to sit for 30-60 minutes.
Then, by handfuls, take the eggplant pieces and squeeze them dry in paper or cotton towel, then fry them in light olive oil (or canola oil mixed with a bit of olive oil) until golden brown. Drain them and proceed with the next handful until all the eggplant has been fried.
Make a simple sugo di pomodoro (tomato sauce, sometimes called a ‘marinara’ sauce in English) by sautéing a few slightly crushed garlic cloves in a generous amount of olive oil and, when the garlic begins to give off its aroma and is just beginning to brown, add about 500g (1 lb.) of fresh or canned tomatoes. Allow the tomatoes to simmer for about 15 minutes or so, until the tomato is thick and smooth and has separated from the oil. Add a handful of basil leaves and about 1/3 of the fried eggplant pieces. Turn off the heat but leave the sauce on the burner so it continues to cook with residual heat.
In the meanwhile, cook your pasta of choice (see below) until al dente. Drain and pour into the pot with the tomato and eggplant sauce, mix well. Turn the pasta into a large serving bowl, top with the rest of the eggplant pieces and a generous, coarse grating of ricotta salata, and serve immediately.
NOTES: This dish is named in honor of the opera by the 19th century Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini (hence the capital ‘N’). One story goes that the chef who invented the dish was so taken by the opera that he named it after Bellini’s work. Another story goes that a group of musicians (or, in some versions, the author Nino Martagli), when presented with this dish, exclaimed “Chista è una vera Norma!“, which is to say, “Wow! This is a real Norma!” because, at the time, the opera was a by-word for all that was really, really good. Whatever the origins, this dish really is delicious, especially in the summer, made with good, fresh tomatoes and eggplant. (By the way, the famous Venetian cocktail called the Bellini was not named after Vincenzo, but rather Giovanni Bellini, a 15th century Venetian painter.)
Most versions of this dish call for the eggplant to be sliced, but personally I prefer eggplant is smaller cubes, which, to my mind, make the dish easier to eat and ‘integrate’ the eggplant more thoroughly into the dish. (For this reason, I also like to mix some of the eggplant into the sauce, while many recipes call for all of the eggplant slices to be served on top of the pasta.)
Probably the most common pasta shape to use when making pasta alla Norma is spaghetti, but short pasta—maccheroni—is equally popular and, according to some sources, the original. I find that this versatile sauce goes with just about any pasta shape (other than very small, so-called ‘spoon’ pastas). On this occasion, I used an unusual pasta shape called organetti, which some visiting friends had brought as a gift. Organetto, literally meaning ‘little organ, is Italian for melodian (a kind of accordion) which the pasta shape, rectangular and slightly convex with ridges on one side, is said to resemble. It worked very well.
The use of ricotta salata, ricotta that has been pressed, salted and allowed to dry out a bit, is considered an intrinsic element of the dish which, along with the eggplant, gives the dish its typically Sicilian character. Ricotta salata comes from the area around Catania, in Sicily. But, if you can’t find ricotta salata, although Sicilians will no doubt object, I find that grated pecorino is an acceptable substitute.
There are a few other minor variations among recipes for pasta alla Norma. Some call for some of the ricotta salata to be mixed in with the sauce rather than solely sprinkled on top. Some call, like this recipe, call for some of the eggplant to be mixed with the sauce. Others call for all of the eggplant to be placed on top of the pasta. And some recipes call for making the sugo with onion rather than or in addition to garlic, or with neither. A few also call for some peperoncino for a bit of ‘heat’.Post scriptum: Norma was said to have been Maria Callas’ favorite opera role. Here she is, in a 1958 concert in Paris, singing Casta Diva, the best-known aria from Norma.