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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.


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.

Place a large frying pan on a hot fire and add 4 tbsp olive oil. Crush half the garlic into the oil and let it brown slowly. When the garlic is dry and medium-brown, remove it and discard it (photo). The point is to flavor the oil. Don't let the garlic become black, that would be very bitter.

Peel and slice the eggplants crosswise. Cut half in small dices and the rest in nice 1 cm / 0.5'' thick slices. Place the eggplants in the frying pan (photo) and fry over medium-high heat for as long as it takes for them to be soft and browned on both sides.

 

Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan, fry the rest of the crushed garlic with 30 gr diced guanciale or pancetta or a finely chopped small onion.

When the garlic is dry and brown, remove it and add the tomatoes (photo). Season with salt and pepper or a pinch of red chili flakes and a little thyme or oregano or some snipped basil. The seasoning depends on your taste, tomato sauces are very personal things!

Cook and drain the pasta, crumble the ricotta and snip the basil using scissors (a knife and board would ruin their taste for reasons still left unexplained). Heat your serving plates and summon the guests.

Carefully place a portion of pasta on each plate. Garnish with a few spoonfuls tomato sauce. Sprinkle a generous amount of ricotta over the tomato sauce and cover with the diced eggplants. Sprinkle a tablespoon snipped basil over the top, then add the eggplant slices for effect and finish with a particularly nice whole basil leaf.

Although I go to great lengths to build an attractive pile on each plate, the dish really takes off when the guests combine the ingredients with their fork.

This is a dish that makes you cry and sing and bang your head against the floor all at the same time - it is that good. A real Sicilian cult classic!

update: Here is another time I did Pasta alla Norma for some friends. Too much pasta, not enough time. I served it on a large platter.


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36 Comments

  • #1
  • Comment by abby
Hi francois, this looks delicious, thanks for taking part in vegetables, beautiful vegetables!
  • #2
  • Comment by ganimede
Your recipes are really funny, great! I would suggest to slice the eggplants and pour some salt on them. after 1 hour, rinse the salt, squeeze them a little to take out the bitter juice and then fry. That's my way. Enjoy!
  • #3
  • Comment by Tien Douglas
Hi, I am in awe with your website.  I can not wait to try the recipes.  What brand do you recommend for an ice cream maker?Sincerely,Tien
  • #4
  • Comment by Penny Lane
Hi FX!  I finally made this dish last night following your instructions - it was lovely!  I also dutifully copied your presentation style, but as you mentioned, it was even better mixed up together with my fork!  You really were not exaggerating with your praise of this dish.  It seems so simple, but each of the ingredients lends a special flavour to the dish and the end result is truly incredible.
  • #5
  • Answered by fx
Penny Lane I'm so glad this worked for you - this is such a beautiful dish when prepared correctly it really makes for a magical moment by its own power. Thanks!
  • #6
  • Comment by Sandy
The best recipes website, wonderful pictures, clear concised easy to prepare. Definitively SLOW FOOD is a total winner. Thank you for taking the time to share your passion with the world.Greetings from Bogota - Colombia - South America
  • #7
  • Comment by agatha
OMG, I think I am addicted to your website! This is the third recipe I prepare in a row, and for the third time it was a HIT! Wonderful pictures, you really make very easy to follow the recipe... I served this delicious pasta to my Italian grandmother and she said it was better than hers!!! Now I am going for the fourth one hehehe...
  • #8
  • Answered by fx
Agatha, thank you so much for your comment! I am so glad your grandmother liked this recipe. I hope you try other recipes!
  • #9
  • Comment by Magdolna
wonderful website, I love your pasta equipments, grazie!!!
  • #10
  • Answered by fx
Thank you Magdolna, I hope to see you back on my blog!
  • #11
  • Comment by Alan
Great photos and lots of good information.
My only comment on pasta alla Norma is that fresh ricotta does not really work. My suggestion (if you can't get a properly made ricotta salata), is to try a mixture of ricotta and pecorino (to add a little saltiness and character).
  • #12
  • Answered by fx
Alan, thanks for visiting! Yes fresh ricotta is not used in the original recipe but most people in Europe use it nonetheless since ricotta salata is not widely known. I think it can work but you definitely get a very different result.
  • #13
  • Comment by Cameron Williams
The ricotta salata I've found is a firm, white cheese, while your photos seem to show ordinary ricotta. Is that correct, or is there another type of ricotta salata? Either way, the recipe seems divine; I'll try it soon.
  • #14
  • Answered by fx
Cameron, indeed I have used many times regular ricotta (soft and unsalted) to make this dish, and to great results. But in the pictures it is proper ricotta salata I bought on a market in Sicily. The older the ricotta salata, the harder it gets, a bit like some people in fact. So you can get relatively soft ones or really hard ricotta salatas.
  • #15
  • Comment by jonathan
hi again. i worked for a while in a italian restaurant and we used to make a rich tomato sauce the pasta was cooked half in salted water and half in the sauce. at the end we added  mint, basil and deep fried melanzani blocks and finished it with fresh grated caccia ricotta (no sure about the spelling), give it a try!! i prefer the crisp of deep fried aubergines.
  • FX's answer→ Sounds great, restaurants often finish cooking the pasta in the sauce, it has the advantage of taming the endemic overcooking problem, however the extra starch in the sauce is not enjoyed by all. Have you read my article about pasta cooked like a risotto?

  • #17
  • Comment by Sistwo
Your recipe for pasta alla norma came up when I googled that dish. I had it the first day I was in Sicily and, I think, every day after-I love it!! I have not been able to find any restaurant,even "Sicilian" ones, that has ever heard of it.
I can't wait to try your version!
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Sistwo - follow the recipe and you'll be able to make it for Sis One!

  • #19
  • Comment by Amanda
The first time I followed this dish it came out amazing, but I think another time I let the eggplant absorb too much oil. Any suggesitons for how to prevent that?

Also, I found this recipe after eating Pasta Alla Norma in Calabria and it was delicious and I was POSITIVE I tasted the guanciale, but my half-Calabrian half-Roman relatives insist the dish is made without it.  Why would they think that?  They seemed to think guanciale was for an amatriciana ONLY.
  • FX's answer→ Amanda, you need to read my article "How to fry an eggplant like a Sicilian mama" regarding your first question. As for guanciale, well, it's just not used in Sicily, I mean not at all. Sure it tastes nice but Italian food is very much about regional identity for Italians. In Rome you need guanciale to make "proper" amatriciana though.

  • #21
  • Comment by barbara kralis
your pasta alla norma had me at 'hello.'  Making it tonight.  I love to cook, had two restaurants, one large bakery.
I also make Italian bread in my home kitchen, lots of tricks there to get the same bakery results at home.
I too use Muir Glen tomatoes, plus I grow 200 of my own heirloom tomatoes each year and can them, here in
Texas. Live on an 80-acre estate, 1 hr. North of Dallas. Come and see us!
barb & mitch kralis
We'll be in Sorrento, this October, at the Excelsior Victoria.  Any suggestions for us?
barb
  • FX's answer→ Thanks for dropping by, Barbara, wow an 80 acres estate seems as big as half of Switzerland! You could build one of those wood fired bread ovens, there are several excellent books in English on Amazon to explain how to do that, might help with the home baking!

  • #23
  • Comment by Fasulye (HTLAL-Forum)
Today I cooked this pasta meal strictly according to the recipe using salted ricotta (I was lucky that my supermarket offers this) and fresh tomatoes and eggplants. The meal tasted good. In the past I cooked very seldom and after having received your FX-reply of my last meal I decided that I will get myself some more regular cooking practice - using my own multilingual recipes - to avoid that I get stuck on the level of an "eternal beginner". Without more quantity of cooking I will not achieve a higher level of quality, this has become very clear to me. Fasulye
  • FX's answer→ Wow, I've never seen ricotta salata outside Southern Italy, let alone in Holland. Congratulations on your supermarket!

  • #25
  • Comment by Morz
Made this with fresh ricotta, and although it was tasty it was missing something.  For Australians, the dairy producer Donnybrook Farms makes ricotta salata.  I don't recall seeing it in delis or supermarkets from memory, from but you can order directly from their website.  You'd like them FX, they make all their cheeses by hand.  Thankyou for sharing another delicious recipe!

  • FX's answer→ I'll check them out - thanks!

Mon trés cher FX! I was looking for a Norma recipe today, and yours popped up. How I miss your beautiful posts! I hope you return to your adoring fans someday-- I think your life must have gotten in the way of blog maintenance, but perhaps you're writing a book. I wish you all the best things in life and cuisine, and have enjoyed re-reading some of the golden posts of the past. Your idolatrix, Maria J. in Minneapolis
  • #28
  • Comment by Suzanne Murphy Larronde
I first discovered you raita recipe on line and have loved it and prepared it a couple of times here at my home in Sarasota, Florida.  As a vegetarian, I LOVED your piece on frying eggplant; what a revelation.  I am interested in any vegetable recipe that is tasty, low fat and healthy.  Thanks so much for all you do.  Suzanne
  • #29
  • Comment by Lori
Hi,
I was recently in Italy and they kept mentioning this "alla Norma", which they now top their pizza's with it as well... but I didn't know at first what it was.
I had the pasta, and it was amazing!
I want to try this recipe at home.. it's just that I worry that the fresh ricotta won't give it the same taste.
  • #30
  • Comment by CARMEN GRUNEWALD
Acaba de mandarme la receta mi hijo q. vive en Israel, quedo encantado, ...ya la estoy haciendo, me parece fantastica, y facil, ...gracias
Guao, la probé en Sicilia y me ha encantado pero prepararé tu versión, qué buena se ve. Las fotos, excelentes.
Saludos
  • #32
  • Comment by martin
great recipe, but please, PLEASE mix the pasta with the sauce BEFORE serving !!!, that is the NUMBER ONE rule when cooking pasta !! all that effort, for centuries to design pasta that absorbs, or sticks to the sauce, to ruin it at the last moment ! (and your pasta will become sticky if you don't), mixing pasta with the sauce in a plate doesn't work well, and it's too late anyway.
  • FX's answer→ Yes good idea but it does not make a nicer picture for the blog, that's the reason.

  • #34
  • Comment by TOM
In the recipe for Pasta alla Norma 35 gr guanciale or a small onion is listed in the ingredients.  They are not the same thing.  Which is it 35 gr guanciale or a small onion?
  • FX's answer→ Try which one you like best.

  • #36
  • Comment by g di cuore
beautiful recipe. i would like to subscribe to your website please.



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