Last updated on November 18th, 2016
Written and photographed by Lara O’Brien
Pasta alla Norma might be one of the simplest yet most satisfying of all Italian pasta dishes. This is a great time of year to make it as basil is at its freshest and most fragrant.
When I first arrived in Florence for a year of study, my three roommates and I decided to explore the winding roads of Chianti and its spectacular vineyards. As we putted along in our rented Peugeot 306, we came across an unpretentious farmhouse and vineyard called Podere Terreno.
The small agro-turismo functioned as a B&B and produced and sold some of the most delicious Chianti wine one could imagine. Their production may have been small, but their wines were robust. As we tasted, my roommates and I quickly became acquainted with the proprietor’s son, Pierfrancesco. Charming, suave and impeccably dressed in the relentless heat of the September Tuscan sun, we were smitten. Our visit ended with a promise from Pierfrancesco to come cook for us at our apartment in Florence and our Peugeot substantially heavier.
The following Friday, Pierfrancesco introduced us to Pasta alla Norma.
A popular 19th century dish, it was named after the Sicilian composer Bellini’s highly successful opera Norma. The ingredients were simple and noble, the combination sublime. Pierfrancesco made it seem effortless, and truth be told, it is. That meal was the catalyst for hundreds more that would be shared with friends around our big wooden kitchen table on Via Castellani in Florence.
This is best made with ricotta salata, a dried form of ricotta cheese, but regular ricotta will do in a pinch.
Pasta alla Norma
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Makes 4 first-course servings
- 1/2 pound rigatoni
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- kosher salt
- 2 medium Italian eggplants, cubed
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
- 1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 cups grated ricotta salata or equivalent of soft ricotta
- 1 bunch fresh basil leaves (about 1-2 cups)
- freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large (6-quart) pot of salted water to boil, then add the rigatoni and cook according to package directions.
While the water boils and the pasta cooks, heat the oil in a large skillet or saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onion and a pinch of kosher salt, and cook for 5-7 minutes until the onion is soft and translucent.
Increase the heat to medium-high. Add the eggplant and garlic, and cook for about 8 minutes. You may need to add a touch more olive oil as the eggplant will absorb it.
Add the canned tomatoes, sugar, and an additional pinch of salt. Cook for 6 minutes more. The eggplant should remain somewhat firm.
Add the drained rigatoni, ricotta salata, fresh basil, and fresh pepper to the skillet, toss, and enjoy.