Catania’s classic dish, pasta alla Norma, is perfect for a midweek dinner alone or with guests.
Like some of the best Italian recipes, the Bellini cocktail, carpaccio and so on, pasta alla Norma is dedicated to an important artist: Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835), perhaps Catania’s most famous son.
The recipe is quite simple: prepare a tomato sauce infused with garlic and basil; add some deep fried eggplant, serve with pasta and top it with grated ricotta salata (salted ricotta cheese) and you’re done. And when you taste it your reaction will be simple, ‘what a winner!’ you will exclaim.
Chista è ‘na vera Norma!
This is exactly how the dish got its name. The story goes that one day, a Sicilian playwright, Nino Martoglio (1870-1921), tasted this dish and cried out, ‘Chista è ‘na vera Norma!‘ (‘This is a real Norma!) What he meant was ‘an instant success’, as Bellini’s 1831 opera of that name had been. The name stuck and the rest is history.
Before I give you the recipe, here’s a word on cooking eggplant. This vegetable is, if cooked correctly, one of the most heavenly things imaginable. There is, however, a special place in Hell for chefs who, all too often, cook it badly. I have often been presented with undercooked eggplant which has something of the consistency and taste of an apple but not in a good way. Instead, a well-cooked eggplant will be soft with the piquancy of mature cheese.
Cooking them well
The key to cooking aubergine is to look at it carefully. While it retains its natural, off-white colour, it is undercooked. At a certain moment however, the eggplant flesh with turn a golden colour. At this point its ready.
Fried or roasted?
As with all traditional Sicilian cooking, in pasta alla Norma, the eggplant is fried. However, if you are averse to frying, the eggplant can be roasted in the oven, doused with plenty of olive oil for about twenty minutes at 200°C / 390°F. You sometimes see this dish made with the eggplant cut into chunks. I am reliably informed that in Catania, the true recipe requires the eggplant to be sliced. This is certainly how I’ve seen it served there.
Pasta alla Norma is usually made with short pasta such as rigatoni or penne. These work best with the sauce. Do not be tempted to use long pasta such as spaghetti. Serve with a nice glass of full-bodied red wine, particularly a local Etna Rosso if you can find it. Buon appetito!
2 eggplants rock salt peanut oil for frying 600g (4 cups) passata 1 clove garlic 3 basil leaves 320g (11 ounces) short pasta (rigatoni or penne) 3 1/2 liters (7 pints) water 3 teaspoons salt 100g (3 1/2 ounces) ricotta salata, grated
peanut oil for frying
600g (4 cups) passata
1 clove garlic
3 basil leaves
320g (11 ounces) short pasta (rigatoni or penne)
3 1/2 liters (7 pints) water
3 teaspoons salt
100g (3 1/2 ounces) ricotta salata, grated