Pasta alla Norma is the ultimate celebration of sweet summer eggplant. I first tasted the classic Sicilian dish years ago when I was a college student studying abroad in Italy and I’ve been mildly obsessed with it ever since. And who could blame me? The combination of pasta, meltingly tender fried eggplant, basil-kissed tomato sauce, and salty ricotta salata cheese is bursting with the flavors of Southern Italy.
Why Is It Called Pasta alla Norma?
Pasta alla Norma hails from Catania, Sicily’s second largest city. It is said to have been created in the early 1900s when a local poet, Nino Martoglio, tasted the dish and was so impressed by it that he likened it to Vincenzo Bellini’s highly praised opera, “Norma.” Since then, it has remained one of Sicily’s most beloved pasta dishes.
The Essential Elements of Classic Pasta alla Norma
Many pasta dishes that have been around for well over a century have been adjusted over time, but pasta alla Norma has remained largely unchanged. Any modifications are due to issues of what’s available outside of Italy.
- The pasta: The most traditional pasta for this dish is a short, tubular, ridged pasta, which grasps onto the sauce. Sedanini and tortiglioni are common choices in Italy, but they’re harder to find outside of the country unless you have an Italian speciality shop nearby. I call for rigatoni here, because it’s easy to find and is an authentic shape for the dish.
- The eggplant: Thin rounds of fried eggplant are the standard for pasta alla Norma. While some modern recipes swap in roasted eggplant, nothing compares to the silky richness that fried eggplant brings to the dish. Italian varieties of eggplant are smaller than standard grocery store globe eggplants and also sweeter, with thinner skins. They’re a little hard to come by Stateside, but Chinese and Japanese varieties of eggplant are generally easier to find and have the same thin skin and a similar size.
- The tomato sauce: The sauce for pasta alla Norma is very simple: crushed tomatoes, lots of garlic, fresh basil, and maybe a pinch or two of red pepper flakes. While you can certainly buy canned crushed tomatoes, I find their texture inconsistent and prefer to hand-crush whole peeled tomatoes for a rustic, homemade feel.
- The cheese: One more non-negotiable is the cheese. Ricotta salata is a firm, aged version of ricotta that’s shaved on top of the pasta. It’s dry, salty, and pleasantly sharp — there really isn’t anything else like it, and it brings a little kick to every forkful of pasta. If it’s not available at your local grocery store, try an Italian speciality shop or a cheese shop.
Pasta alla Norma Recipe
Prep time 15 minutes
Cook time 23 minutes to 35 minutes
- 1 pound
baby or small Japanese or Chinese eggplant (2 to 3)
- 3 cloves
- 2 ounces
ricotta salata cheese
- 1 (28-ounce) can
whole peeled tomatoes
- 7 tablespoons
olive oil, divided
large sprig fresh basil, plus more fresh basil leaves for garnish
- 1/2 teaspoon
kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
- 1/4 teaspoon
red pepper flakes (optional)
- 12 ounces
dried rigatoni pasta
Prepare the eggplant, garlic, cheese, and tomatoes. Slice 1 pound baby eggplant crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Thinly slice 3 garlic cloves. Grate 2 ounces ricotta salata cheese on the large holes of a box grater (about 1/2 cup). Pour 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes with their juices into a medium bowl and carefully crush the tomatoes with your hands into bite-sized pieces.
Sauté the aromatics and simmer the sauce. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large, high-sided sauté pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until pale golden-brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour in the tomatoes and bring to a rapid simmer. Reduce the heat to low, then add 1 large sprig fresh basil, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 red pepper flakes, if using. Stir to combine and simmer gently while you fry the eggplant and cook the pasta, 20 to 30 minutes.
Fry the eggplant. Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large (12-inch) cast iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add 1/3 of the eggplant and fry undisturbed until golden-brown on the bottom, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook until tender and browned on the second side, about 2 minutes more. Transfer to a paper towel-lined rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle lightly with salt. Repeat frying the remaining eggplant in two more batches, adding 1 tablespoon olive oil between each batch.
Boil the pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add 12 ounces dried rigatoni pasta and cook for 1 minute less than the package instructions for al dente, about 11 minutes. Reserve 1/4 cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta.
Combine the pasta and eggplant with the tomato sauce. Remove and discard the basil sprig from the sauce. Taste the sauce and season with more kosher salt as needed. Return the sauce to a rapid simmer. Add the pasta and eggplant and cook, tossing and stirring, and adding a splash or two of the pasta water as needed (you likely won’t use it all), until the sauce thickens and coats the pasta and the pasta is al dente, 1 to 2 minutes.
Serve the pasta. Divide among 4 shallow bowls. Garnish with torn fresh basil leaves and ricotta salata.
Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.