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Serious Pasta alla Norma

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Pasta alla Norma, a divine combination of eggplants, tomatoes, basil and ricotta, is one of the most elegant traditional Sicilian recipes. A real cult classic!

Simple to make and yet classy enough for a first course in a serious dinner, Pasta alla Norma was so popular in 19th century Sicily that it was named after Sicilian composer Bellini's hugely successful opera Norma to honor both the dish and the opera, whose perfection matched each other in the eyes of Nino Martoglio, a famous Sicilian theater director. It kept the name.

Maria Callas as Norma

See how moving this opera is by treating yourself to casta diva, the most famous aria of Norma, sung by Maria Callas in 1958. A most appropriate dish to entertain opera lovers - ideally you should show them a rare version of Norma on DVD or CD before dessert and they'll leave content with your impeccable opera credentials.

But Pasta alla Norma is not only for opera buffs. It is a hugely popular dish in Sicily. For instance, in Il ladro di merendine, the 1996 Sicilian novel I told you about in Pasta con i broccoli, inspector Montalbano visits some old mama who witnessed a disappearance. When she invites him for lunch, Montalbano tries to decline until he hears the menu:

"'Why don't you stay and eat with me?"
Montalbano felt his stomach blanch. Signora Clementina was sweet and nice, but she probably lived on semolina and boiled potatoes.
"Actually, I have so much to do ..."
"Pina, the housekeeper, is an excellent cook, believe me. She's made Pasta alla Norma, you know, the one with fried eggplant and ricotta salata."
"Jesus!" said Montalbano, sitting back down.
"And braised beef for the second course"
"Jesus!" repeated Montalbano.

 

The concept is simple: pasta with fried eggplants in a tomato salsa sprinkled with fresh basil and ricotta. And there lies the rub. For the ricotta called for real 'alla Norma' is ricotta salata, a Southern cousin of the regular sweet ricotta found outside Italy. God know how many times I've made Pasta alla Norma with regular ricotta with excellent results, but yesterday was the first time I could do it with real ricotta salata, bought in Naples, Italy. Ricotta salata is salted and slightly sour and gives the dish a unique rustic flavor. For a Sicilian gourmet, this sets apart serious Pasta alla Norma from the mundane version cooked all over Italy.

 

Pasta alla Norma
For 4 as a first course
2 large eggplants
4-6 garlic cloves
1 large bunch fresh basil
200 gr ricotta salata*
500 gr pasta**
400 gr puréed tomatoes***
35 gr guanciale or a small onion
olive oil
salt, pepper

* If you can't find ricotta salata by all means use good quality regular ricotta. It won't be the same dish but still well worth making.

** For the pasta you can use any good quality, durum wheat bronze-extruded tubular pasta, for instance maccheroni or paccheri.

*** The tomato sauce can be made with fresh or canned tomatoes. like many Italians I use passata, but fresh would be even better.

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