Catania, the second largest city in Sicily, has an airport that daily brings hundreds of people to the beautiful beaches on the island’s southeastern coast. It’s also famous for one of the signature Sicilian dishes: Pasta alla Norma. A wonderful blend of classic Italian ingredients such as tomatoes, eggplant, basil, garlic, olive oil and cheese, this dish owes much to the nearby slopes of Mount Etna, which is a stone’s throw away and a destination for serious wine lovers.
Pasta alla Norma when properly made even resembles the famous volcano: the mound of pasta is like the mountain, the dark purple eggplant seems like lava and the sharp, salty cheese is the ‘dusting’ of snow that is sprinkled on top of the hill. Its name also is derived from a mythic story about the famous 19th-century composer and native of Catania, Vincenzo Bellini, whose friends listened to his opera Norma and allegedly began calling everything that was excellent “una vera Norma” (a true Norma).
Even if the tale isn’t proven fact it’s lovely and the simplicity and deliciousness of the recipe remain the same. Here I’m offering a bastardized version that I’m calling Pasta alla Wilma as it’s definitely not a Norma because I’m improvising it in my son Francesco’s tiny apartment in Los Angeles for him and his 3 roommates while listening to hip-hop and electronic music. But, it still turned out very tasty and the boys (and girls) loved it.
Pasta alla Wilma
For 4-6 people
1½ lbs (700 g) eggplant sliced in ½ inch rounds
1½ (700 g) lbs chopped good quality, fresh tomatoes or 2 large tins of San Marzano tomatoes
Cheese (ricotta salata is traditional but greek feta or pecorino work)
2 lbs (1 kg) of short pasta, preferably rigatoni (penne work well)
Good quality olive oil (extra virgin preferred)
3 or more (!) cloves of garlic crushed
Pepper flakes to taste
The traditional version insists on frying the eggplant in oil but I like a lighter version that roasts them with just a brushing of oil on each side in a 425° F oven for 10 minutes, or toasting them on the stovetop.
Slice the roasted eggplant into strips while making a tomato sauce: the tinned or fresh tomatoes simmered in a garlic-infused olive oil with some pepper flakes.
Cook the pasta in salted water until al dente, strain then put in a large serving bowl, drizzle with more EVOO, mix in the tomato sauce, top with eggplant, sprinkle with grated cheese (I used Greek feta which is heresy to Sicilians but worked as a substitute to the ricotta salata) and top with fresh basil leaves.
And there you have an Etna-esque meal in a makeshift kitchen. If you can pair it with a Sicilian Catarratto white wine the dinner will be delicious and slightly more authentic but we had a Californian Sauvignon Blanc and it worked just fine.
Elizabeth Janus is a passionate traveller, and makes it a point to peruse the farmer’s markets in every place she visits to get an immediate pulse of the city. For the last decade, she has been guiding discerning clients on food adventures at farmer’s markets, speciality shops and into her home for unique Italian meals to experience Italy as an Italian..