Pasta alla Norma is a very simple but seriously tasty dish from the city of Catania in Sicily. It is usually made with pasta tubes such as rigatoni or penne rigate seasoned with tomato sauce and with the addition of fried eggplant, salted ricotta and basil.
I have to confess that before meeting my Sicilian hubby Salvatore, I had never eaten pasta alla Norma. Now, of course, I have lost count of how many times I’ve enjoyed this classic and famous Sicilian pasta recipe. My hubby has cooked it for me, his mum and sisters have cooked it for me and I’ve eaten it in Sicily.
I have made an ‘alla Norma’ baked lasagna which was pretty good! But, this is my hubby’s recipe and since he hails from Catania, I guess you can’t get much more authentic than this! There are a number of other pasta alla Norma recipes out there which include ingredients such as capers, wine, onions, pecorino etc. but, the classic alla Norma is extremely simple and makes use of only a few ingredients.
A little pasta alla Norma history.
There are a few theories on how this dish got its name. ‘Norma’ is an opera by Vincenzo Bellini, who was born in Catania. One commonly quoted story is that the name was created by Nino Martoglio, a Sicilian writer, poet and theatre director, who loved this dish so much that he compared it to Bellini’s operatic masterpiece.
Another story is that while Bellini was writing his masterpiece, he regularly went to a restaurant and ordered just this dish of pasta, so the owner finally named it after the opera in honour of his famous customer. Some say that at that time, the dish was plated in a slightly different way to make it look like Sicily’s famous volcano, Etna. The eggplant was placed at the bottom, a hill of pasta was piled on top of the eggplant and the tomato sauce with grated ricotta salata covered everything!
The main ingredients for pasta alla Norma.
Introduced to Sicily by the Arabs in about 900AD, eggplants are to Sicily what potatoes are to Ireland. There are three main types of eggplants found on the island; the very dark oval or long ones that most people outside of Italy know, oval zebra eggplants which have a lighter striped skin and the more rotund, lighter coloured Sicilian eggplant.
The latter are what my husband used for this recipe. This eggplant has a dense whiter flesh and less seeds than the more common eggplant. But, of course, you can use whichever kind you find.
When it comes to the tomatoes, fresh is best especially if you can get hold of San Marzano tomatoes. However, a good quality Italian passata rustica or tinned whole tomatoes from Italy work well too. Alternatively you can use a mixture of fresh tomatoes and passata. This time we used just passata.
As with many pasta recipes, cheese is more than mere seasoning for pasta alla Norma. You can’t have it without the cheese which really should be ricotta salata. This is a typical Sicilian cheese. The word ‘ricotta’ means re-cooked and ‘salata’ means salted. Ricotta Salata is cheese made from the whey of sheep’s milk, which is pressed, salted and aged for at least 90 days. It is milky white in colour with a firm texture and salty taste.
Ricotta salata can be bought from Italian speciality food shops or online, but if you can’t find it, you can use feta, preferably aged feta. You will need to let the feta dry out a bit before grating it. Just pat it dry with kitchen paper and leave it to dry out at room temperature for a couple of hours.
As I mentioned above pasta alla Norma is traditionally made with short pasta tubes such as rigatoni. We used rigatoni from pasta makers Liguori. This company is located in Gragnano near Naples. Gragnano is famous for its dried pasta. In fact, they have been making pasta there for more than 500 years! And, I think some of the best Italian pasta comes from there! However, you can use other pasta tubes or even spaghetti.
Let me know what you think.
In Catania, families traditionally place the remaining ricotta salata with the grater and a plate with extra fried eggplant slices in the middle of the table. As they eat their pasta alla Norma, they often add extra cheese and eggplant along the way! Not a bad idea!
If you do try this pasta alla Norma, I’d love to hear what you think. Please write a comment here on the blog or post a comment on the Pasta Project Facebook page.
Your feedback means a lot to me!
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Other classic Sicilian pasta recipes to try.
- Pasta con sarde with sardines and wild fennel
- Baked anelletti
- Pasta with ricotta and pistachio pesto
- Spaghetti with salt cod (baccalà)
This recipe was first published in 2017, but it has been updated with new photos and text.
Pasta alla Norma
- 400 g Rigatoni (14oz) or other pasta tubes
- 500 g San Marzano tomatoes (1lb) or tomato passata or half and half
- 2-4 eggplants Depending on size
- 3 garlic cloves peeled
- 10-12 basil leaves chopped
- 150 g Ricotta Salata (5oz) grated
- extra virgin olive oil. as required
- salt for pasta water and to taste
- ground black pepper to taste
- Cut the eggplants into slices and place them in layers in a dish or colander with some salt sprinkled between the slices. Let them sweat for 30 minutes to draw out the moisture. When ready rinse off the salt and pat dry.
Prepare the tomato sauce;
- If you are using fresh tomatoes, peel them by immersing them in boiling water and then cold water and then removing the skin. Cut them in half, remove most of the pips and chop them into pieces
- Heat up 4 tablespoons olive oil in a frying pan or skillet, Add the peeled cloves of garlic and let them brown a little.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and cook for 5-10 minutes until they start to soften.
- Add the passata, stir well, add a pinch of salt and cook for another 10 minutes (20 minutes if you are using only passata)
Fry the eggplants;
- Fry the eggplant slices in plenty of hot olive oil until they turn golden on each side, dry them with kitchen paper if required, then cut some of them into small squares (leave at least one slice for each person).
- Add some of these squares to the saucepan of tomato sauce (leave enough to add a few to each person’s plate)
Cook the pasta;
- Cook the pasta al dente in boiling salted water, drain it and add it to the sauce, which may need to be reheated first if you cooked it earlier. Add black pepper to taste and the basil. Mix the pasta and the sauce together well.
How to serve alla Norma;
- Put one whole fried eggplant slice into the bottom of each plate, cover with the pasta and sauce, add a few more squares of fried eggplant and sprinkle with grated ricotta salata. Serve immediately
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