By Rick Riozza
I don’t know what signals the fall season better than a plate of Pasta alla Norma! Upon landing in Catania, we love to celebrate the classic cuisine of Sicily by gorging on a full plate of pasta, veggies, cheese, and wine. And that’s saying a lot since the fish market in the city is probably one of the best in world! Not to worry, we’ll have the scrumptious swordfish on the next day.
Benvenuti Tutti! Welcome everyone! To one of our first autumn food & wine columns of this year. Pasta alla Norma is a classic Sicilian dish that combines gently fried cubes of eggplant with al dente pasta in a tomato sauce that’s finished with fresh basil and plenty of ricotta salata. It’s one of the best vegetarian meals to be enjoyed by everyone!
We know many desert dwellers are still afraid of eggplant—yeah, the soft mealy stuff doesn’t attract a lot of folks, but in this dish, the eggplant is seared in oil and then roasted or grilled. It’s very tasty; and, your veggie friends will surely be impressed with your sense of adventure: especially after a few glasses of some of the red wines we’re recommending below. By the way—most top chefs and sommeliers consider this dish to be one of the most wine-friendly of all pasta preparations.
Legend says that this iconic Sicilian dish was created in the 1800s after opening night of Vicenzo Bellini’s opera Norma. And legend continues in that playwright Nino Martoglio, after his first bite of this pasta dish, exclaimed, “Chista è ‘na vera Norma!” (“This is a true Norma!”)
Whenever the great Italian tenor Pavarotti performed in Catania—or anywhere in Sicily really, he insisted on Pasta alla Norma. But since he was from Emilia-Romana (in northern-central Italy), he also insisted on a high-end chilled Lambrusco produced from that very wine region. Allora—va bene! Luciano!
Okay—so really quick. One can find an excellent recipe on-line, so we don’t have to play Cucina Italiana magazine here—however watch as we’ll offer our two cents below:
We’ve already talked about the eggplant—but remember to partially peel the eggplant and to cut it in small pieces. There is no need to salt and drain these. We mentioned a quick sear in olive oil, and then to oven-roast or grill than to continually fry those pieces. The result is small, tender, almost caramelized bites of eggplant that have no bitterness, greasiness or mushy texture.
As to the sauce: You’ll need only five basic pantry ingredients to make this delicious marinara sauce: good canned tomatoes, onion, garlic, dried oregano and olive oil. That’s it! Rao’s in the glass container works fine if you wish to use it instead.
Any quality extra-virgin olive oil will do. Use an Italian variety if you want to be as authentic as possible. As to the pasta, Use rigatoni, ziti, spaghetti, or any pasta along those lines. You’ll always see rigatoni in food magazine photos, but regular spaghetti works fine.
Fresh basil livens up this saucy meal. We’ll use a pretty generous amount, about 1/2 cup or an entire small store-bought container. It’s worth it. And a touch of mint adds to the food party. Freshly ground black pepper, dried oregano and red pepper flakes round out the flavors in this dish. If you’re sensitive to spice, go light on the red pepper flakes or omit them entirely.
True pasta alla Norma is made with aged ricotta salata, an Italian cheese much favored in Sicily—of course difficult to find in the United States. Made from sheep’s milk, it is pressed, salted and aged until it has a firm texture and a distinctive, somewhat salty flavor. For something fairly similar, try equal parts store-bought ricotta salata and Parmesan. This cheese can be found in most Italian specialty or grocery stores.
If you cannot find it, Pecorino Romano would make a good substitute. Grand Padano works; but you know, you can’t go that wrong with mozzarella. Some recipes also include dollops of ricotta, which would surely be tasty.
For a full Sicilian experience serve this pasta followed with an orange and fennel salad and some cannoli for dessert. Allora! Ancora!
Should we follow Pavarotti’s pitch? Then our Lambrusco recommendation is: Lini non-vintage 910 Labrusca Lambrusco Rosso ($15) “The Lini Lambrusco is tangy and mostly dry, with snappy plum-skin tannins, bright red fruit and berry flavors balanced by juicy minerality, with a frame of dense dark-berry flavors. Labrusca is a superb value. Their clean but lingering finish makes it an ideal pairing for our pasta alla Norma!
The usual pitch is of course a Sicilian red: Anticaia Salice Salentino Rosato Cantina San Donaci. It’s a blend of two Sicilian grapes, Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera. The fruit in a glass of Cantina San Donaci, paired with this dish is characterized by its freshness, smoothness, softness, and versatility. Intense hints of fresh fruit such as strawberry, cherry, pomegranate, plum and floral hints of wild rose emerge on the nose.
For you Syrah lovers, consider an Italian version, th Sole di Sesta Cottanera. With the classic Syrah profile of meat, dark fruit, earth, and violets, “A majestic wine, with a creaminess and persuasive taste that is truly perfectly enveloping, with great softness on the nose, and a sweetness that enhances its deep color.”
Buon Appetito & Saluti Tutti!