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