Pasta alla Norma is a traditional dish of Eastern Sicily born specifically in Catania, at the foot of Mount Etna, ‘a Muntagna, as they say in Siclian.
Seasoned with tomato sauce, basil and salted ricotta, and covered with fried aubergines, this flavorful vegetable pasta recipe embraces the best aromas of the luminous island of Sicily.
Sicilians say that the Pasta alla Norma recipe embodies their amato Etna, their beloved Etna, with each ingredient being reminiscent of a different aspect of the volcano:
- The mountain of penne rigate symbolizes Mount Etna.
- The diced eggplants represent the volcanic rocks.
- The tomato sauce stands for the hot lava.
- The grated ricotta illustrates the snow on the top of Mount Etna.
- The fresh basil leaves stand for the vegetation.
Traditionally, Pasta alla Norma is served as a first course in the summer months. True to Italy’s cuisine practices, it is based on a few humble ingredients: eggplants, tomatoes, garlic, basil and ricotta cheese that are wisely combined to produce an incredibly delicious taste.
The Origins of Pasta Norma
It is said that the Catanian-Sicilian writer Nino Martoglio (1870-1921) found pasta Norma so mouthwatering that he called out “Chista è ‘na vera Norma!”, “This is the true Norma!”
Since Martoglio compared that pasta dish to the popular opera Norma composed by Vincenzo Bellini, born in Catania, Sicily, it is known as Pasta alla Norma.
From Catania, the Pasta alla Norma recipe became the most characteristic, iconic dish of the island of Sicily.
It couldn’t be otherwise, the debate about the origins and authenticity of the recipe never ceases. Mostly, Pasta alla Norma is cooked with short pasta, specifically penne rigate. Many Sicilians welcome spaghetti, macaroni, rigatoni or other kinds of short pasta as legitimate alternatives to penne rigate, but some don’t.
We have chosen the traditional Pasta alla Norma recipe as they cook it in coastal Catania. As it happens, even among Catania-born there are disagreements on the exact way to prepare and serve the Pasta Norma dish!
However, the differences are actually negligible and are mostly due to particular family traditions and customs.
Basil Leaves and Our Secret
In our home it has become a tradition to cook Pasta alla Norma every Friday, in the summer for sure and in the winter months, when there isn’t fresh basil available in our garden, we have a little secret that some Sicilians find reprehensible.
We replace the basil leaves with one or two drops of basil essential oil. Now if you aren’t familiar with essential oils don’t just start adding them to your Pasta Alla Norma. Essential oils are extremely concentrated and you should know what you are doing. We learnt a lot from the French, which are the pioneers in taking essential oils internally.
If however you choose to use our secret, please add one single drop of a good quality Basil essential oil (Ocimum Basilicum), at least until you get acquainted with how essential oils work.
Vegetarian or Vegan Pasta Recipe
This is both an exquisite and healthy vegetable pasta recipe that vegetarians will love. If you are vegan, just leave the cheese out and the Sicilian pasta dish will still be nourishing and a great treat.
Regarding the Ingredients
Except perhaps for the ricotta salata cheese, the ingredients are easy to find. If you can’t get ricotta salata where you live, replace it with another sheep’s cheese or Parmesan cheese Parmiggiano Reggiano.
It doesn’t matter that purists say you can’t call it Pasta alla Norma if you aren’t using salty ricotta, it will still be a delicious pasta dish.
Regarding the Sweating Technique
There is are sometimes heated discussions about the need to sweat the eggplants. Some argue that nowadays you don’t need to do it as the eggplants aren’t as bitter any more, some maintain the dish is much better if you do sweat the eggplants.
We belong to the second group and still religiously sweat the eggplants every single time; we find the dish tastes much better if you remove any liquid from the eggpants. It’s up to you and depends on your preferences and your experience with the type of eggplants you get at home.
Pasta Norma Ingredients
- 400 gr or about 1 pound penne rigate, macaroni or spaghetti
- 600 g or 1 1/3 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced in small cubes
- 3 to 4 medium black or purple round eggplants with the skin
- 200 g or 7 ounces grated ricotta salata (salty sheep’s cheese)
- 16 leaves fresh basil
- 2 peeled garlic cloves
- Olive oil, extra-virgin if possible
- Coarse salt
- 1 pinch pepper
How to Cook Pasta alla Norma
- Wash the eggplants and cut the ends. Cut them lengthwise into slices of approx. half an inch or 1/6 of an inch, about 1 cm.
- Sweat the eggplants. Put the unpeeled eggplants on a colander in alternate layers. Salt each layer to drain any liquid and remove any bitterness. Set aside for about an hour.
- In the meantime, peel the tomatoes and dice them in small cubes.
- Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to a sauce pan or skillet and when it’s hot add the peeled garlic cloves whole or halved lengthwise. Sautee over low heat for a few minutes until the garlic turns golden.
- Add the diced tomatoes to the same skillet with the garlic. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste but remember that you already sprinkled salt over the eggplants. Cook over medium low heat for about 30 minutes and add a pinch of pepper towards the end.
- About 10 minutes into the tomato sauce cooking, remove the garlic so that the garlic taste isn’t too strong.
- Remove the pan from heat and pass the tomato sauce through a vegetable mill or simply crush it with a fork if you don’t mind the tomato bits. Cook the tomato sauce five more minutes to thicken it a little bit more. The sauce should have a medium density, not too watery not too thick.
- Remove the skillet from heat, coarsely cut half of the basil leaves with your hands or scissors, add the basil to the tomato sauce, stir, cover and set aside.
- After letting the salted eggplants rest for about one hour, thoroughly 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.
- Fry the eggplants cubes in olive oil that’s not too hot until they are golden. If you use a non-stick skillet, 4 tablespoons of olive oil is enough and the taste will still be as if you fried them with lots of oil as it was customary 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 faster. This time keep the heat to medium or medium low but watch that the slices don’t burn. Set them aside for the final mounting of the Pasta alla Norma dish.
- In the meantime, bring water to a boil and cook the penne rigate or the pasta of your choice al dente, that is pasta that is still firm when bitten.
- Grate the ricotta, medium size, and set it apart.
Serving the Pasta alla Norma dish
It’s time to serve the Pasta alla Norma. Put pasta on each guest’s plate trying to imitate Mount Etna, the admired and feared active volcano of Sicily.
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 Mount Etna’s top and finally, decorate each Pasta alla Norma dish with three whole eggplant slices.