Pasta alla Norma is a simple and delicious combination of pasta wrapped in a luscious eggplant and tomato sauce, topped with ricotta salata. It's an easy and satisfying vegetarian meal that lets summer produce shine.
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As is probably pretty common in a house with young kids, we're big pasta fans. Pasta with homemade arugula pesto is one of my go-tos for busy nights, but we also enjoy a few other classics, and more modern twists, too.
This dish is a wonderful traditional Italian pasta dish from the island of Sicily, but one that has become a favorite far beyond. You don't need many ingredients, and it's easy to make, though there are a few things to keep in mind to get the best out of this simple classic.
The origins of pasta alla Norma
Pasta alla Norma is from Catania, the second largest city in Sicily. I visited Sicily a number of years ago and instantly loved everything about the place, from the history and scenery to the bustling markets and restaurants.
As with Italy as a whole, food is a key part of Sicilian culture, and the cuisine is known for incorporating influences from different cultures that have inhabited the island, as well as making good use of local produce.
Citrus, tomatoes, eggplant, wild fennel, raisins, nuts and seafood are all common ingredients in Sicilian dishes, from other classics like caponata, pesto alla Trapanese and lemon granita to less well known ones like pasta con sarde a mare and Sicilian-style stuffed squid.
The origins of the dish's name are a little less clear. Some say the name "alla Norma" is because it respects 'the norms'. Others say it is named after local composer Vincenzo Bellini's opera called "Norma". The belief was it was to pay tribute to the composer and celebrate the greatness of local produce.
Whatever the story behind the name, the dish is nowadays a classic and also so easy to prepare at home.
A short list of ingredients
As mentioned, you don't need many ingredients for this, and probably especially as a result, quality is key.
- Eggplant - (aubergine in UK) - smaller eggplants are often best for this, such as those sometimes called Italian eggplants. When buying, look for an eggplant that feels heavy for its size, with a glossy skin.
- Tomatoes - you have a few options on how you add the tomatoes. You can use fresh, canned chopped tomatoes or a passata (pureed tomatoes). Personally I like either fresh, if good quality ones are available, or if not, passata. If using canned or passata, look for Italian San Marzano tomatoes as they have a better acidity level and flavor.
- Garlic - this adds flavor to the sauce. You cook it just enough to get it aromatic, but not so much you burn it.
- Basil - this too adds flavor to the sauce. It adds a freshness that balances the other ingredients. Fresh basil is key here, too. If you can't find any, you are probably best to just skip. Dried herbs are not quite the same here, and while some fresh oregano or thyme may be tasty, it won't be an authentic alla Norma sauce.
- Olive oil - This is definitely one not to skimp on quality. The eggplant is going to soak up the oil and you will taste it in the end result, so use a good, extra virgin olive oil.
- Ricotta salata - not to be confused with regular ricotta, this cheese is drier and a little salty ("salata" means salted). It's not as dry as a firm cheese, but instead more semi-soft and slightly crumbly. As with other ingredients, opt for a good quality, authentic cheese for best flavor. If you can't find any, about the best substitute would be pecorino romano, though it's not quite the same.
- Pasta - Rigatoni or penne are probably the most typical here, or you can also use boccole, a small ring-like pasta from Sicily. You are best to have something that the sauce can stick onto, so . Some also make this with spaghetti or buccatini.
Don't rush the eggplant - the texture of the eggplant is key to this dish. You are looking for silky smooth inside and gently crisp and browned on the outside.
Traditionally, you fry the eggplant and I do recommend this method. I have tried roasting, which does cut down on oil, but honestly, I think it's harder to get the texture quite right. There's some debate on whether you fry eggplant slices then chop, or cook diced eggplant. I think the texture with slices is generally better, but do as you prefer. You can keep a few slices whole to garnish the plate, too.
To fry the eggplant, cook over a medium heat and don't skimp on the oil. You don't want to deep fry it or have it drenched, but if you don't have enough oil, it won't get soft enough. So keep adding a little as you turn slices or add new ones in.
I like to put cooked slices on top of new slices in the skillet so that some of the oil drains into the next pieces as they cook. To me this feels less wasteful of any excess oil and also helps the eggplant soften.
If you prefer to roast the eggplant, toss cubes with olive oil, salt and black pepper and roast at around 400F/200C for about 25 minutes until brown outside and tender. Turn them once or twice as they cook so they brown more evenly.
Top tip: prepare all the eggplant first
I recommend you cook all the eggplant before you start the tomato sauce and pasta. Cooking the eggplant might take longer than you expect. You can easily re-heat the eggplant in the sauce, but you don't really want to keep cooked pasta sitting.
Cook the pasta al dente - this means "to the bite" in Italian and is when it is tender but still with the tiniest bit undercooked. Cook it for a couple minutes less than the time suggested on the packet then try some. If it's not quite there, cook a little more. A little more is always possible, but you can't undo overcooked pasta.
Simply add grated ricotta salata over the top of the pasta once plated, rather than mixing it in. This lets you get a little with each bite as you enjoy the dish.
You have a couple of options for preparing this dish ahead, at least in part. You can cook the eggplant ahead of time and store the cooked, cooled pieces in a container in the fridge. Then make the tomato sauce and cook the pasta when needed. Just give the sauce enough time with the eggplant mixed in to let it warm through.
Alternatively, you can completely make the sauce and store in the fridge before re-heating. I do not recommend cooking the pasta ahead as it will not be al dente and can become rubbery in texture if re-heated.
If you cook extra sauce to use another time, you are better to remove some and store that before mixing in the amount of cooked pasta you need there and then to the sauce amount that pairs with it.
This is not really a sauce I would recommend freezing as the textures and flavors are not best suited to that. But storing in the fridge for a day or two and re-heating over medium heat works well.
Pasta alla Norma is such a tasty, yet simple traditional dish. The eggplant becomes meltingly soft, the tomato sauce is rich and the ricotta salata gives that slightly salty contrasting bite. It's no wonder this Sicilian pasta is loved both locally and beyond. While it may not have the spectacular backdrop of Sicily, it can still be just as delicious made at home. Try it soon and hopefully you will agree.
Try these other tasty easy pasta dishes:
- Crab pasta
- Pasta puttanesca (with capers, olives and tomatoes)
- Spaghetti alla carbonara with mushrooms
- Sardinian fregola with clams (a small pasta in a tomato-based sauce)
- Plus get more Italian recipes in the archives.
Pasta alla Norma
- 1 lb eggplant aubergine (multiple smaller better)
- 4 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (or a little more/less as needed)
For rest of dish
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 lb tomatoes see notes
- 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 lb pasta rigatoni works well, or eg penne
- 10 basil leaves approx
- 2 oz ricotta salata approx (to serve)
To prepare the eggplant
- Cut the eggplant into slices (relatively thin is best) and cut larger slices in half. If you like, lay the slices out and lightly salt them. Leave to sit a minute then pat dry. Warm around 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a wide skillet/frying pan over a medium heat.
- Once the oil is warm, add a few slices of the eggplant in a single layer, but filling the skillet relatively well. Cook a few minutes each side until the slices are golden brown on the outside and soft and tender inside.
- Once cooked, remove the slices from the skillet and set aside. Add the next batch of eggplant slices. Add additional oil as needed, mainly when you turn slices or add new ones. I often add back the just-cooked slices on top of the new ones in the skillet to let any additional oil drip onto the uncooked slices as the other side cooks (and to help soften them), then remove before turning the lower slices.
- As the eggplant is cooking, prepare the ingredients for the rest of the sauce though I suggest you don't start cooking until all the eggplant is cooked.
For rest of dish
- Peel and finely chop the garlic.
- If using fresh tomatoes, peel the tomatoes - place them in a bowl of boiling water for a few minutes then remove, prick with a knife then peel. Chop the tomatoes relatively finely, removing the tough core. If using canned tomatoes or passata, this step isn't needed.
- Warm around 2 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet or wide pot/pan over a medium heat. Add the garlic and cook just a minute until it becomes aromatic but is not browning. Before it browns, add the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes to simmer, soften and for the flavors to mingle. Stir now and then and break up the tomatoes, as needed.
- As the sauce is cooking, boil water to cook the pasta and cook a couple minutes less that the packet, test, and if needed cook slightly longer to cook to "al dente" (only just cooked).
- Tear up the basil leaves and add to the tomato sauce. Roughly chop the eggplant and mix in, then let it cook a minute or two more.
- Drain the pasta then add it to the tomato eggplant sauce. Mix well and cook a minute before serving.
- Serve the pasta with ricotta salata grated over the top.
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This post was first shared in November 2016 and has been updated, in particular with new photos and additional information.