There’s nothing normal about alla Norma, a Sicilian way of serving pasta smothered in an eggplant tomato sauce. If you enjoy ratatouille, imam bayildi, eggplant Parmesan, or any other eggplant-and-tomato dish, you probably understand that they form a special combination.
Although the resemblance may not be obvious at first, the two fruits are close relatives, sharing not only the same plant family but also the same genus—which means they are closer than they look to being the same species. When you put them together and apply heat, magic happens in the pan.
Pasta alla Norma is named after an opera by the Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini, and christened by the poet Nino Martoglio, also of Sicily, who tried a bite and declared it to be the “Norma” of pasta. The best, in other words. It didn’t hurt that the soprano for whom Bellini wrote the opera had the fortunate name Guiditta Pasta.
Centuries later, alla Norma lives on at the foot of Montana’s Beartooth Mountains, where chef Philip Guardione of the acclaimed Piccola Cucina in Red Lodge serves alla Norma with a house-made maccheroni pasta.
“Pasta alla Norma was our family’s binding agent on Sundays,” he told me. “I have many related childhood memories, like when my grandma was in the kitchen and the smell of her tomato sauce and eggplants would welcome you the minute you opened the front door.”
These days, when the tomatoes and eggplant are fresh and abundant, it’s easy to whip up a quick Norma.
Guardione kindly shared his recipe for maccheroni alla Norma. There are two recipes, really, because en route to Norma we learn an easy pan-fried tomato sauce. It’s abnormally good when you put it all together, a brilliant representation of the glory and power of tomatoes and eggplants. Meaty and satisfying, it leaves you wanting more. It might even make you break into an emotional aria.
Pasta alla Norma (alla Chef Philip Guardione)
I’ve lightly edited chef Guardione’s recipe for clarity. Below are some notes of my own on pasta in general, and how to follow this recipe.
The pasta, if not homemade, should be 100 percent semolina. Furthermore, the package should specify that the pasta within had been dried in cold air. I like pieces with nooks and crannies to hold the eggplant chunks.
Immediately after cooking the pasta, toss it in olive oil and freshly pressed or minced garlic (not from a jar). Add these dressed noodles to the sauce. I do this step to every pasta dish I make.
To puree the tomatoes for the sauce, I added a cup of the pasta water to dilute it to the point that my blender had enough to work with. I then cooked off the excess water.
When deep-frying the eggplant like this, I was surprised at how little oil it absorbed—less than half a cup!
Serves 4 to 6
- 1 pound cherry or grape tomatoes
- 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 pound eggplants
- 12 ounces pasta
- Salt, for seasoning and for the water
- 10 leaves fresh basil
- 7 ounces ricotta salata, grated
Rinse and dry the tomatoes and cut them into pieces.
In a large saucepan, pour 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil and sauté the garlic. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, stir, and cover with a lid. Cook over low heat until the tomatoes are soft and have released their juices, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool for 15 minutes.
Transfer the tomatoes to a vegetable mill or blender and puree. Pour the tomato sauce back into the saucepan, salt to taste, and let simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until it has thickened.
Rinse and dry the eggplants, then chop them into 1/2-inch cubes. Toss the cubes in 1/2 teaspoon salt.
Heat the remaining 2 cups extra-virgin olive oil at about 340 degrees F—medium/high-ish, if you’re guessing—and fry the eggplant pieces until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Drain the eggplant.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta al dente.
Add the eggplant to the sauce. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add the pasta and basil leaves to the sauce and stir well.
Plate the pasta and garnish with plenty of ricotta salata cheese.
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.