This meal is one of those ‘meal memories’ that I will remember always. I had very much enjoyed Pasta alla Norma previously but finding myself in Taormina, Sicily and a couple of years ago, enjoying Sicily’s best-known dish was magical.
Michael and I arrived in Italy a few days before the Relish Mama food and wine tour was to commence. It has been the only time that Michael has accompanied me on tour, and it felt pretty precious.
After the long flight, oddly, I was not ready to rest. I was back in Italy and eager to show Michael around.
Our accommodation was right on the water which was a fluke of luck on my part given I booked it only a week before us flying out. It seems to be my style these time-poor past few years. We had a pre-dinner drink looking out across the water and then headed out for a bite to eat. I was ravenous. We had received a recommendation from a local and felt alive wandering through some of Taormina’s beautiful laneways to get there. I know you will ask me the name and I wish I could tell you. I could guide my way back there in a heartbeat but was too caught up in the meal and the night to write the name of our restaurant down (yes, I do still kick myself). It was a small little place and jam-packed with locals (always a reassuring sign). We were shown to the very last table available, and at this stage, I was giddy with happiness – clearly, this was meant to be.
Despite the buzz of many conversations in the room, I could hear soft opera playing. Here I was in Sicily, opera playing, Michael opposite me, stupendous joy being felt (or was it jetlag)….so much so that I felt that I might weep in my wine. I think the waiter took it for jetlag and in true Italian style, food is always the answer. A platter of warm bread and antipasti was swiftly placed under our noses.
I don’t often order pasta when I am eating out, but this glorious pasta dish is Sicily’s best known and it was outstanding. It was also the first time I had the pleasure of enjoying ricotta Salata (dried salted ricotta)……oh my word….where had that been all of my life?
The name of the dish is said to originate from the famous Italian writer from Catania, Nino Martoglio who, upon tasting the dish, exclaimed “This is a real ‘Norma’!”, comparing it with the exceptional perfection of the Vincenzo Bellini opera ‘Norma’.
There are so many different versions of pasta alla norma. Over the years I have tweaked mine a little and added the slow roasted vine tomatoes to it too. Basil would be the typical fresh herb but I love it equally with oregano or basil.
This is a glorious Italian vegetarian pasta. I suggest you enjoy it with Norma opera playing in the background. I think you may find it to be unforgettable too.
Pasta alla Norma
Serves 4 as a main or 6 as a starter
2 medium-sized eggplants, about 300 grams each
Extra virgin olive oil (1/3 – 1/2 cup)
A good pinch red pepper flakes
Freshly cracked black pepper
1 bunch cherry tomatoes on the vine
1 small brown onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed or thinly sliced
1 x 400-gram tin diced tinned tomatoes or cherry tomatoes
1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon dried oregano (great quality)
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
30 grams of butter
320 grams pf pasta such as penne, spaghetti or rigatoni
100 grams freshly shaved or grated ricotta salata or pecorino cheese
Fresh oregano or basil leaves, to serve
Preheat the oven to 200oC.
Cut unpeeled eggplant into 1″ cubes. Toss the eggplant cubes with 3-4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, red pepper flakes, sea salt and freshly cracked pepper. Ensure they are well spread so that the eggplant does not steam. Bake for 30 minutes, tossing occasionally. The eggplant will be custard-like.
Drizzle the vine-ripened cherry tomatoes with olive oil and sea salt and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Set aside and reserve any oil.
Heat a little extra virgin olive oil and fry the onion until translucent. Add the garlic and cook this gently for another 2 minutes. Then add the tinned tomatoes, sugar, oregano, tomato paste and butter. Cover and cook on a gentle to medium heat for approximately 30 minutes or until the sauce becomes a little thicker. Season to taste. Add a small pinch of red chilli flakes should you want a bit more heat. Toss through the eggplant as well as the roasted tomatoes along with any remaining oil from the roasted tomatoes.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a pot of well-salted water until al dente. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Add the sauce and gently mix to combine.
Serve in individual bowls or a large platter and top with ricotta salata scattered over the top as well as freshly cracked black pepper and either fresh oregano or basil.