Although Pasta alla Norma is internationally well-known and appreciated, not everyone knows the story of its name. This simple but delicious Mediterranean dish finds its origins in Catania, the Sicilian province where the lively Etna volcano lies.
A true emblem of Sicilian culinary tradition, Pasta alla Norma is a very simple dish where maccaroni are mixed with fresh tomato sauce and enhanced with grated salted ricotta cheese and aubergines simply fried in olive oil. A Sicilian favorite, especially during the summer season when red ripe tomatoes are at their best and fresh aubergines arrive daily at the markets. Not forgetting the appetite-enhancing aromatic basil leaves!
Many stories are told about the origin of the title “Pasta alla Norma” but the most accredited dates back to the year 1920. Before telling the story, it is necessary to explain that in Catania there is a common expression used to indicate something extraordinary or “non plus ultra”, the expression is: “pare ‘na Norma” (seems like a Norma). Here we have a clear reference to Vincenzo Bellini’s most famous opera “Norma”.
Returning to our story, back in the year 1920 in Catania at the Musco-Pandolfini household, a group of guests is at the table for the midday meal or pranzo. Angelo Musco, a famous drama actor from Catania, is seated with his relatives and friends. When his sister, Donna Saridda, presents the traditional spaghetti dish with tomato sauce, aubergines, basil and salted ricotta, Nino Martoglio, the poet and gourmand, wanting to compliment her, said: “Chista è ‘na vera Norma!” (this is a real Norma). The presence of journalists at the table popularized the expression and since then this culinary delight is called “Pasta alla Norma”.
Although the place of origin of Pasta alla Norma is considered to be Catania, other cities claim it for their own. Many versions of the dish are prepared and although the main ingredients remain the same, what changes is the cheese. Some prefer the strong caciocavallo cheese while others use the more delicate parmesan cheese. Mozzarella cheese is fantastic because when melting it spreads on the pasta. Another acceptable change is the shape of the pasta, some prefer spaghetti while others use maccheroni or rigatoni. In Trapani, in the north-western part of the island, a particular form of pasta called busiata is preferred for this recipe, best when homemade.
For those interested here’s the recipe for four portions of this Sicilian delight:
- 500 gr. Peeled tomatoes or 4 cups of tomato sauce
- 400 gr pasta of your choice (spaghetti, pennette, rigatoni, etc.)
- 2 medium-sized aubergines
- 2 cloves garlic
- Basil leaves
- Salted ricotta cheese
- Olive oil and salt
Slice the aubergines, lightly salt them then place in a strainer for at least 30 minutes. In the meantime, prepare the sauce, sauteeing the peeled garlic cloves in 4 Tbs olive oil. When the garlic becomes golden, add the peeled tomatoes or sauce. Add half a teaspoon of salt and cook at a low temperature. Fry the aubergine slices in olive oil. Cook the pasta al dente, strain and mix with the tomato sauce. Add grated cheese, basil leaves, the aubergines and serve.
The question now may be what wine to match with such a delicious plate, with aroma, flavor and sweet tendencies? Sicily offers a great variety of wines but it is best to choose within the territory of the dish. Why not an Etna Doc, either Red or Rosè, a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grape varieties? What’s important is the serving temperature of the wine, let’s say 16 – 18° C.