Pasta alla Norma takes you to Sicily, a sunny magic and charming island at the base of the Italian boot. Along with cannoli, this culinary symbol is one of the most favored Sicilian dishes.
It is made of fresh tomatoes, plenty of fried eggplant pieces, and enriched by scented basil leaves and grated salted ricotta cheese. That’s what makes up Pasta alla Norma—all the Mediterranean tastes and aromas in one dish. It’s a triumph of rich and authentic flavors.
Who is Norma?
A famous Sicilian playwright is believed to have shouted out: “Chista è na vera Norma,” or “This is a true Norma” during a dinner at a friend’s house where the playwright first tasted a dish of pasta with tomato sauce, salted ricotta cheese, fried eggplant, and basil. He was so impressed by the taste that he clearly compared it to Bellini’s operatic masterpiece, La Norma, composed in 1831. So this is the secret to the name of this Sicilian recipe.
Choose top-quality ingredients
- Tomato: choose sweet tomato sauce or very ripe tomatoes.
- Salted ricotta cheese: it should be salted and from sheep’s milk, if possible, and should be firm but not aged. How is it served? Just toss the tomato sauce, the fried eggplant pieces the grated salted ricotta, and garnish it with fresh basil leaves. Or just put pasta and tomato sauce on individual dishes and top them with pieces of eggplant and grated cheese. Everyone at the table can then toss their own pasta.
- Eggplant: Pasta alla Norma calls for fresh unblemished eggplant, so if you were in Italy, you would buy the purplish-black variety from Acireale, called Turca (or Turkish) or the Sita variety that are purple and slightly oval.
- Basil: if you grow it, freshly picked basil will give your Pasta alla Norma a superb taste. Otherwise, you can buy it fresh at the supermarket.
Draw out the bitter juices
Eggplant, mainly when they are not perfectly ripe, might leave a bitter after taste, which could spoil your dish. So, before frying, you should prepare them as follows:
- Remove the stem and leaves; then slice and dice them;
- Place the pieces in a strainer in a single layer and put the strainer directly in your kitchen sink;
- Generously sprinkle them with salt. Do not worry about the salt. Salted eggplant can sit for a long time without harming the taste or texture. Allow it to sit for 30 minutes;
- Rinse off the salt in cold running water;
- Pat them dry with a paper towel. This is important when frying eggplant pieces. If they are not dry, they will absorb too much oil and become indigestible.
A few secrets for a perfect Pasta alla Norma:
- Buy fresh eggplant and don’t peel them; just dice them. If they are ripe, they might not need salting. They may be fried in plenty of extra virgin olive oil, or you can grill them for a lighter version. If grilling, do it in slices and then cut them into pieces after. They must be drained on a paper towel, salted, and kept warm;
- Only use extra virgin olive oil which doesn’t only enhance the taste of the dish but also makes it healthier and easier to digest;
- Don’t wash the pan after frying the eggplant; it will season the tomato sauce;
- If you use fresh tomatoes, drop them into boiling water for a couple of minutes so that you can peel them more easily; the skins should just slide off. Remove the seeds and sauté the tomatoes with a little olive oil and a clove of garlic over low heat until softened. Blend the sauce with an immersion blender until smooth;
5. The authentic recipe only calls for aged, salted ricotta cheese from sheep’s milk, but you may replace it with cow’s milk ricotta cheese if you can’t find sheep’s ricotta. A more tolerant “school of thought” states that ricotta al forno or baked, where fresh ricotta is drained, sprinkled with salt, and baked in an oven, is by far tastier.
6. The very last piece of advice is to not toss the eggplant pieces in the sauce.
The authentic Italian Pasta alla Norma recipe
- 2 cups of durum wheat semolina pasta (360g)
- 5 medium whole (600g) very ripe tomatoes or 1½ cups (300g) of tomato puree
- 2 purple eggplant
- 1 clove of garlic
- Basil leaves
- ¾ cup of grated, salted ricotta cheese (150g)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Salt (to draw the juices from the eggplant and to cook and season pasta)
- Evenly dice the eggplant;
- Draw their bitter juices out. Place them into a strainer with salt for 30 minutes as described above;
- Fry the eggplant pieces in plenty of super-hot extra virgin olive oil;
- Make sure about the quantity and the temperature of the oil, it should be about 350°F (180°C). One trick to see if the oil is hot enough is to put a small piece of bread into the oil. If it sizzles, the oil is ready. The eggplant pieces should float easily to the top of the oil. The thermic shock will seal the surface and prevent the food from getting too greasy;
- Drain them on a paper towel and keep warm;
- Remove the excess oil from the pan; make sure there are no burnt remnants of eggplant. Leave a little oil in the pan;
- Drop the tomatoes into plenty of boiling water for a couple of minutes so that they peel more easily. Remove the skin and seeds, coarsely chop them, and put them into the pan. Add the garlic and cook over low heat until tender. Remove it from the heat when done;
- Wash and dry the basil and add it to the tomato sauce;
- Cook the pasta in plenty of salted boiling water (follow the cooking time on the package);
- Drain it and put it into a serving bowl, add the tomato sauce, and toss well;
- Divide it into single-serve dishes and top with the eggplant pieces; sprinkle the tops with grated ricotta cheese and add some fresh basil leaves for a strong Mediterranean taste;
- The typical Sicilian way to serve your Pasta alla Norma is to lay some eggplant pieces in a shallow bowl, then place some pasta in the shape of a small volcano and top with a little tomato sauce. Top with more eggplant pieces and sprinkle with grated ricotta cheese. It vaguely resembles the Etna volcano; the tomato sauce is the lava flow, the white of the cheese is the snow on the top. Your Pasta alla Norma is ready to be served and enjoyed!