In Sicily it is called “alla Norma” in honor of Bellini, the famous musician born in Catania. I Catanesi (inhabitants of Catania), greatly impressed by that masterpiece of their fellow citizen, used his surname – Bellini – to name every example of excellence, any creation that met high quality standards. No exeption was made for a plate of pasta with eggplant and tomato sauce.
I never make the same pasta alla Norma. I can’t reach a conclusion about its best version. What type of eggplant should I use? What kind of pasta? Which cheese will melt better? Hamletic doubts.
In Catania, I heard, Sicilians cut eggplant into long slices, while in Messina they prefer to cut it into cubes. Fresh ricotta is usually the cheese of choice; not in Messina though, where it is more popular to use a salty firm ricotta called ricotta salata, usually grated on top similarly to Parmesan. In the “soffritto” some prefer to fry the onion while others opt for garlic.
In doubt, I decide to stick with a few key points: I am going to stir fry in extra-virgin olive oil the eggplant and then cook everything in abundant tomato sauce with fresh basil. All-right, but which type of tomato should I use?
A few people prepare it with fresh tomatoes, many others are happy with using tinned tomatoes. Do you understand now why I hardly ever come up with the same recipe? Maybe the secret for a great pasta alla Norma is just in a few details rather than in its main ingredients: extravirgin olive oil to build up character, a little of chilli and plenty of basil. Not to mention a sprinkling of cheese – firm and salty for me, please.
p.s. In the end I opted for a short pasta called “caserecce” from one of the best Italian producers of pasta (surprisingly found in a Chinese store at the outskirt of London!), canned tomatoes, Parmesan and a few bites of mozzarella to melt on top.
p.p.s. Right now I’m in Italy surrounded by the beauty of the Tuscan countryside. I really look forward to sharing with you my impressions of such a fecund and fascinating land.
- 1 eggplant
- Olive oil as needed (at least 1/4 cup)
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
- 1/2 dried chilli
- 1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, chopped (canned are fine; about 1 can)
- 250 gr pasta
- 1/4 cup chopped basil
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan
- Cut the eggplant in cubes about 1/2 inch thick. Cook in abundant olive oil, without crowding, sprinkling with salt and adding more oil as needed. Remove to a plate and set aside.
- In the same pan turn the heat to medium, add the garlic, chilies, and cook until the garlic for a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes and oregano, along with some salt and pepper; cook until saucy, about 10 minutes.
- Cook the pasta al dente in abundant boiling salted water (how long depends on the type of pasta you chose, in my case 7 minutes). Reheat the eggplant for 5 minutes in the tomato sauce. Drain the pasta and toss it with the tomato sauce and the eggplant. Top with the basil and grated cheese and serve.