Pasta alla Norma

'It's a Norma!'

‘It’s a Norma!’

Pasta alla Norma, or pasta in the style of Norma (more or less), is a classic Italian pasta dish with a quirky backstory. According to a widely-known anecdote, around 1920 the Catanese playwright and poet Nino Martoglio was lunching in the company of some theater friends. Upon being served a plate of pasta in a sauce of fried eggplant, tomato, basil, and ricotta salata, Martoglio is said to have exclaimed È una Norma! (‘It’s a Norma!’), a reference to Vincenzo Bellini’s celebrated opera and intended (curiously) as a compliment to the cook. Thanks to the roomful of writers and actors present, the expression immediately entered into the local word-stock of Catania’s historic town center.

Two things matter in making alla Norma: ingredients and method. Start with super fresh eggplant, tomato, basil. Regarding method, the eggplant is fried, separately from the tomato sauce, but you can work with one pan only. Spaghetti is the pasta traditionally associated with alla Norma, but use any shape you like.

Ingredients for 2

(can be easily doubled)

160-170 grams (6 ounces circa) spaghetti
1 long eggplant
300 grams (a little over 1/2 pound) tomatoes
1 handful (1/3 cup circa) grated ricotta salata
1-2 garlic cloves
3-4 fresh basil leaves, plus more for garnishing
olive oil


Score and boil the tomatoes for 5 minutes (use a large pot and you can cook the spaghetti in the same water; remember to salt the water). Remove the tomatoes from the water, let cool, peel and deseed. Set the pulp aside (you should have about a cup). Peel the garlic and roughly chop the basil. Slice half of the eggplant into thin rounds and cube the rest. Heat a few tablespoons olive oil in a large pan and fry the rounds on both sides until brown and slight crunchy on the edges. Transfer to paper towels and lightly salt. Re-oil the pan and cook the cubed eggplant until brown and soft. Transfer to a bowl temporarily. In the same pan, add another bit of oil, heat, and add the peeled garlic cloves. Swirl to flavor the oil. Add the tomato pulp and cook for a few minutes until the pulp liquifies a bit. Now add the cooked cubed eggplant, stir, and cook for another few minutes. Turn off the heat and add the chopped basil and half the grated cheese and combine well. Test the saltiness. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti al dente and when ready add to the pan of sauce and combine.

Serve the pasta on plates lined with the fried eggplant rounds. Dust with the remaining cheese and garnish with a basil leaf or two.

culture bite

Composer Vincenzo Bellini’s image appears on the 5,000 lire banknote. The mushroom Suillus bellinii is named after him.

Cherry Tomato & Zucchini Flower Tart

Hello. I'm your new favorite tart

Hello. I’m your new favorite tart.


for the pastry:
1 & 1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup very cold butter
ice water

for the topping:
1 large or 2 small zucchini
2-3 zucchini flowers
1 handful cherry tomatoes (about 7-8)
1 egg
3 heaping Tbls fresh ricotta
1 Tbls fresh thyme leaves
2-3 Tbls grated parmigiano or pecorino romano
salt & pepper


Make the pastry crust first. Combine the flour and salt in a bowl. Chunk in the butter with a knife or try my own favorite method: put the butter in the freezer for about 5 minutes then grate it into the flour using the large holes of a cheese grater. Crumble the butter into the flour with your fingers until you have a uniform crumbly mixture. Add a few spoonfuls of the ice water and continue combining with your fingers. Keep adding water and blending until a dough forms. Transfer to a flour-covered work surface and knead lightly and quickly. Form a ball and close it in plastic wrap and put in the fridge.

Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters. Slice the zucchini into very thin strips (I used the slicer of the cheese grater). Gently clean the flowers and cut them in half length-wise. Whisk the ricotta and egg together with 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper.

Heat the oven to 180° C / 350° F.  Roll out the pastry to about 1/8 inch thickness and cover the bottom of a 10″ or 12″ pie dish or cake pan with a spring form release. I used the latter, after having lined the bottom and trimmed the excess pastry from the edge. Spread the ricotta and egg mixture evenly across the crust, then arrange the tomato and zucchini slices and flowers as you prefer, gently pressing the ingredients into the soft mixure. Dust with another bit of salt and pepper and sprinkle with the fresh thyme and grated cheese. Bake for 20 minutes. The flowers and thyme will crisp and turn brown, so you could add those ingredients to the tart half-way through the cooking time to maintain their color (they will be softer, too). Let cool slightly before releasing the spring form and serving.

Zucchini Butter Crostini with Flowers

better than butter. almost.

crunchy, savory, buttery, cheesy crostini

I came across this recipe for zucchini butter today courtesy of Jennie Cook’s column ‘Weeknights with Jenny’ at Food52, a class act food and recipe resource you should definitely know if you don’t already. I modified Cook’s recipe only slightly (and halved it), then served it on grilled bread with a sprinkle of grated parmigiano and zucchini flowers. Viva l’estate!

Ingredients for 4 crostini

4 slices of Tuscan or other firm bread
3 or 4 medium-large zucchini (about 1 pound)
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
4 zucchini flowers
salt & pepper


Grate the zucchini using the large holes of the grater and place in a colander. Dust with salt and toss to cover all the zucchini and let rest over a bowl for 15 minutes, squeezing periodically with your hands to express the liquid. After 15 minutes wring out the final bit of liquid with a clean towel or paper towels.

Mince the garlic. Heat the butter in a large saucepan. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Add the zucchini and combine well. Cook over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the veg becomes very soft and like ‘a nice vegetable jam’ (you are basically carmelizing the zucchini). Turn off the heat, correct for salt, grind in some black pepper, stir and let rest.

Grill the bread on a regular grill or in grill pan. Spread a scoop of the zucchini butter on each slice, and top with a fresh zucchini flower and a sprinkle of the cheese. Then transfer the crostini to a very hot oven on the grill setting for a few minutes to melt the cheese and crisp the flowers.

Pasta alla Caprese with Mozzarella di Bufala


…just a caprese salad with added pasta…

Ingredients for 4 servings

350 grams of pasta (such as penne, fusilli, or bowties)
4 or 5 medium-large round tomatoes
1 or 2 garlic cloves
1 small fresh red chili pepper
1 large buffalo mozzarella (about 300 grams/10-11 ounces)
fresh basil
dried oregano
olive oil


Make the salad while the pasta water boils. Chop the tomato into cubes and place the pieces in a colander (one with fairly large holes, not the fine mesh type). Dust the tomato pieces generously with salt, gently toss to get all the pieces covered, and let rest for 15 minutes (on a plate or over the sink, since liquid will be draining out from the tomato). Meanwhile, mince the garlic and chili pepper and cut the mozzarella into chunks roughly the size of the tomato cubes. Roughly chop 4 or 5 basil leaves.

Shake the tomatoes over the sink (while still in the colander) so that all the liquid expressed from the salting and most of the seeds drain through. Place the tomato, mozzarella, garlic, pepper, and basil in a large bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and stir well. Cook the pasta al dente and when drained and slightly cooled add to the bowl of salad. Toss well and serve with a sprinkling of dried oregano and (optional) grated Parmesan cheese. Can also be served chilled, like a pasta salad.

Cream of Tomato with Caprino & Herbs

aka crema di pomodoro

aka crema di pomodoro

Ingredients for 4 servings

(This recipe yields enough cream of tomato for 6 smallish ‘starter’ servings or 4 normal soup servings. It can be easily doubled.)

1 kilo of fresh tomatoes (a little less than 2 pounds)
125 mls heavy cream (about 1/2 cup)
2 or 3 garlic cloves
1 small fresh red chili pepper
fresh basil and chives
olive oil
salt & pepper
175 mls water (about 3/4 cup)
200 grams circa of caprino cheese (about 15-16 ounces)


Take the caprino from the fridge and let warm to room temp.

Score and boil the tomatoes for 5-6 minutes. Drain, cool, peel, and chop the tomato into pieces. Mince the garlic and chili together. Heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan. Cook the garlic and chili for a few minutes then add the chopped tomato pulp and the water. Cook for another five minutes on low heat. Turn off the heat, tear in a few leaves of basil, and salt well. Transfer all of the tomato mixture to a food processor and blend until a uniform liquid forms (about 30 seconds). Add the cream slowly with the blender on low. Test the saltiness again.

Serve the cream of tomato slightly warm, room temp, or even chilled, with a spoonful of caprino on each serving. Dust with fresh ground pepper and garnish with a basil leaf and chives.

Fried Bavette with Bottarga & Tomato Sorbet

You will love me

I put the marvel in marvelous.

I’m not usually one to brag, but I’m afraid it would be altogether disingenuous of me to describe this dish as anything less than marvelous. You can use spaghetti, linguine, or bucatini in place of bavette pasta. Just be sure to drain the pasta as soon as it’s al dente. Make the tomato sorbet a couple hours prior. If you can’t get any bottarga, use grated cheese instead.

Ingredients for 4 people

350 grams of long pasta, such as bavette or spaghetti
125 grams (½ cup) tomato pulp (premade is fine)
grated bottarga (or grated parmesan or ricotta salata)
olive oil
fresh basil
tomato sorbet
salt & pepper


Cook the pasta al dente (and not a second more!), drain, and return to the pot, adding a few tablespoons of olive oil, the tomato pulp, some chopped fresh basil, salt and pepper. Stir well so all the pasta is covered. Heat a generous amount of olive oil in a non-stick or iron pan. With a ladle, scoop a serving of the cooked pasta and, using a fork or large kitchen pincers, twirl the pasta until you have a neat, round ‘basket’ or ‘nest’ shape. You can make 4 largish baskets or 6 to 8 smaller ones. Very carefully transfer the pasta ‘basket’ to the hot oil. Fry on one side for a couple minutes, until the bottom is brown and crunchy. Turn, only once, very carefully, to fry the top side. When the fried pasta is ready, transfer to the serving plate. Dust with grated bottarga (or cheese) and top with a small scoop of the tomato sorbet. Garnish with a basil leaf or two.

Tomato Sorbet

sorbetto al pomodoro

sorbetto al pomodoro

I tasted tomato sorbet for the first time quite recently, while participating in the Food Blogger Contest hosted by Chef Academy Italy in Terni in May. The morning of the event, we bloggers had been assigned to teams of students, each team under the supervision of a professional chef instructor of the Academy. I had the privilege that morning of working alongside Chef Maurizio Serva, who runs La Trota restaurant in Rivodutri in the province of Rieti in Lazio. Chef Serva stopped me at one point amid the controlled kitchen chaos to have me taste a tomato sorbet (a nearby student offering me a spoon quickly produced from his shirtsleeve pocket), to later be paired with a revamped version of this dish of mine during the competition tastings. Things were so busy that day I didn’t think to ask for the recipe, but today I decided to try to make it based on taste-memory.

This savory and tangy sorbet could be served in between courses, especially during a seafood or fish-based meal; or as an accompaniment to any spicy or crunchy vegetable dish, such as fried eggplant or zucchini.


500 grams tomatoes (about a pound)
juice of 1/2 a lemon
fresh basil


Score and boil the tomatoes for 5 minutes. Remove from the water and let cool. Peel and deseed the tomatoes and place the pulp in a bowl or tall container. Add the lemon juice, a few basil leaves, and a few pinches of salt. Either pulse with a wand mixer or use a blender. You want a well-blended, smoothie-like texture, not too liquidy. Taste the mixture to check for the right level of saltiness. Freeze for about 2 hours, checking and forking the sorbet occasionally. If you let the sorbet freeze completely, be sure to take it out of the freezer about an hour before you intend to serve it. You will need to reblend it after it partially thaws.

Lavender Sorbet

yummy & gorgeous

sorbetto alla lavanda

Depending on where you live, the early days of July could be late for fresh lavender, but if you happen to have any lovely purple buds still left on your plants, here’s a refreshing sorbet recipe to try. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil and add 10 to 12 lavender buds with about 3/4 cups plain white sugar. Turn off the heat, stir well, and let the mixture cool for at least 15 minutes. Strain the mixture and transfer it to a ceramic or metal container (ideally one that’s been in the freezer for about 30 minutes prior). Fork up the mixture every now and then. It should be ready after about 3 hours. When you serve this sorbet, you’ll notice that the natural color leaves a bit to be desired: it’s almost a dark grey. An entirely optional trick is to dust the sorbet with colored sugar made by blending blue and red food coloring into a few teaspoons of white sugar.

Pasta Mediterranea

mediterranea meravigliosa

marvelous mediterranea

What I’m calling mediterranea is a sauce made from an assortment of veggies and herbs common in Italy this time of year: zucchini,  eggplant, bell pepper, basil, and so on. This dish is super flavorful and nicely-textured, colorful on the plate, and quite healthy (if you’re into that sort of thing). Skip the ricotta and it’s a vegan dish.

Ingredients for 4 people

350 grams mezze maniche or penne pasta
1/2 an eggplant
1 red bell pepper
2 zucchini (plus their flowers, if available)
1 small handful of capers (if salt-packed, rinsed)
2 cloves of garlic
1/2 a red onion (Tropea, if possible)
1 small red chili pepper (dried or fresh)
fresh basil
dried oregano
olive oil
salt & pepper
grated ricotta salata for topping


Start by setting the pasta water to boil, salted. Mince the garlic and onion together. Crumble or chop the chili pepper, removing the seeds especially if the pepper is fresh. Cube the eggplant. Dice the bell pepper. Slice the zucchini into half-rounds (after removing the flowers). Roughly chop the capers. Have the basil and oregano, zucchini flowers, and grated cheese prepped and set aside.

Heat a generous amount of olive oil (4 to 5 Tbls at least) in a large pan. When very hot, add the onion/garlic, chili pepper, and the eggplant. Begin tossing immediately and quickly to get as much of the veg evenly covered in oil as possible. Cook on medium-high for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the eggplant is softened. If it starts to stick, add some spoonfuls of the pasta water and stir. Add the bell pepper, zucchini, and capers, combine and cook for another 5 minutes. The total cooking time should not be more than 10-12 minutes. Taste before salting, as the capers and the ricotta cheese are both rather salty. It should not need much but a a very light sprinkle of salt at this point along with a good amount of fresh ground pepper is a good idea.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente. When ready, strain and add the pasta to the vegetable sauce and stir thoroughly. Now dust with pinches of dried oregano and tear in some of the fresh basil and the pieces of the zucchini flower. Combine gently, then serve with the grated ricotta and another leaf or two of fresh basil.

The Revival of Magalotti Beer

a tall glass of history

a tall glass of history

Magalotti Brewery was in operation in the Umbrian town of Terni from 1845 to 1936. At the height of its production, it made ice and soft beverages in addition to beer, putting to use the natural spring waters abundant in the area. Magalotti was a thriving business in the old center of Terni, where today the original brewery structure still exists, though damaged and currently unused, on a tiny side street named for this enterprise once so vital to the town, Vico Birreria.

Last month I spent two fast-paced, spirited days in Terni as a guest of Chef Academy Italy, an experience probably best described as enlightening. I learned some valuable tricks and techniques and gained familiarity with a professional kitchen, to be sure, yet what I really took away from those two days was something more substantial, weightier, if you will, than practical skill. As those circa 48 whirlwind hours passed—hours filled with tours, chats, laughter both nervous and hearty, kitchen work, a seemingly endless succession of gorgeous dishes, some 300 plus photos—I felt at times I was undergoing a kind of information and sensory saturation. Nearly every moment brought some new piece of knowledge, fascinating factoid, flavor, or quasi-mini-epiphany, sustaining a state of cerebral overdrive (and aching feet) until the moment I flat-lined on my hotel bed. I learned, saw, and tasted so much that even a month later the many ideas ignited by the experience have not yet died out, but rather have stayed in my memory bank like embers of enduring inspiration. In the midst of this, something even more remarkable was happening—meeting awesome people.

Back to the beer. Andrea Goracci is a professional chef and instructor at the Academy who specializes in, among other things, cooking with beer. In 2000 Andrea, together with two friends, brought Magalotti beer production back to life. Their research led to a rediscovery of the original Magalotti recipe, and through a partnership they arranged with a top quality Austrian beer maker, they reinstated the Magalotti label, once so fundamental to their town. At the Magalotti Restaurant, Andrea and his partners serve traditional Umbrian as well as international cuisine, and, you guessed it, dishes prepared with their beers. These include meatballs with pine nuts and pilsner; ciriole (pasta) in a sauce of guanciale, stout, marjoram and pecorino;  and slow-cooked pork shank braised in stout.

Nothing piques my curiosity like a forgotten food-related custom or tradition, so when our guide pointed out the old brewery during a tour of Terni, I immediately made a mental note to look into it and was thrilled to learn shortly after that one of the chefs we were working with was involved! When it came time to say farewell to our gracious hosts at the Chef Academy Italy, we bloggers were given hefty gift bags filled with all sorts of amazing yummies and local specialties, among them, some samples of this brew with a history, reborn thanks to the efforts of one of the very special chefs I had the fortune to meet last month.


‘Brewery Alley’ in Terni’s old town center