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Italian cuisine has my heart for proving that you can transform a few simple ingredients into a magnificent meal. Pasta alla Norma is a perfect example. Short pasta is tossed in a silky, spicy sauce of custardy eggplant and jammy tomato then finished with fresh basil and ricotta salata or pecorino cheese. A dish worthy of a special occasion, but simple enough for a weeknight dinner.
This Pasta alla Norma recipe is a simple riff on the famous Italian pasta dish, a Sicilian recipe that originated in Catania, the second largest city in the Sicily region of Italy. It's traditionally made with macaroni, fried eggplant, tomatoes, ricotta salata cheese and fresh basil.
My version is lightened up by roasting eggplant instead of frying. Not only does it create less mess than frying, but it also frees you up to work on the rest of the recipe as your eggplant roasts. And roasted eggplant is heavenly. It takes on such a beautiful texture and flavor that you won't miss the fried version at all.
I've also called pecorino cheese instead of the classic ricotta salata. Both are hard, salty sheep's milk cheeses, but pecorino is typically easier to find. Either work wonderfully to round out this dish and parmesan is also an option if you prefer cow's milk cheese.
Ingredients You Need to Make Pasta Alla Norma
- Eggplant: Look for deeply purple eggplants (aubergines) with firm, smooth skin.
- Kosher Salt: I use Diamond Crystal brand.
- Olive Oil: Use a good, fruity, extra-virgin olive oil.
- Garlic: Look for a plump solid bulb with taut, smooth skin.
- Crushed Red Pepper Flakes: Add more or less to control the spiciness of the dish.
- Canned Whole Tomatoes: Ideally San Marzano.
- Rigatoni: You can also use another tubular pasta like penne or ziti or stick with traditional macaroni.
- Fresh Basil Leaves: I call for ample fresh basil because it's wonderful in this dish! Feel free to reduce the amount for a more subtle flavor.
- Pecorino or Ricotta Salata cheese: Either work well.
How did Pasta alla Norma get its name?
Legend has it that the name came from an Italian author named Nino Maroglio who likened the perfection of this dish to the famed Italian opera, “Norma,” composed by Vincenzo Bellini. While that’s widely believed, another legend claims that Pasta alla Norma was created on December 26, 1831, the night of the premiere of “Norma” to be served to all those invited.
More Recipe Options
If you can find San Marzano canned tomatoes, I recommend them for extra sweetness. I've called for whole tomatoes, but crushed tomatoes with their juices will also work well. If you choose whole tomatoes, you may remember the technique I mentioned in my Bucatini all'Amatriciana recipe? Instead of crushing tomatoes in the skillet, which can be messy, you can cut them up right in the can with kitchen shears. (Pictured below.)
You can also make Pasta alla Norma with fresh tomatoes. You'll need 10 to 12 whole, peeled tomatoes, about 2 pounds, to equal 1 28-ounce can. Here is an easy method for peeling tomatoes (or just leave the skin on if you don't mind the added texture).
More Classic Italian Pasta Dishes to Try
- Pasta Aglio e Olio (If you've seen the movie "Chef," you know this one! ;))
- Authentic Bolognese Sauce
- Broccoli Rabe and Sausage Pasta
- Shrimp Fra Diavolo
- Spaghetti alla Puttanesca
How to Make Pasta Alla Norma
Step 1: Toss diced eggplant with olive oil and kosher salt. Spread in a single layer onto a parchment lined baking sheet and bake at 400˚F for 30-35 minutes.
Step 2: In a large skillet, sauté garlic and red pepper flakes until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes; cook and stir until thickened, crushing tomatoes with a spoon, 10-12 minutes.
Step 3: Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions until al dente; drain, reserving 1 cup of cooking water.
Step 4: Add pasta and eggplant to tomato mixture; cook and stir until combined and heated through, adding pasta water as needed to loosen the sauce. Season to taste with salt. Remove from heat and stir in half of the basil. Transfer to serving bowl or platter and top with remaining basil and cheese. Serve.
Pasta alla Norma
- 1 ½ pounds eggplant cut into ¾-inch cubes
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt plus more for final seasoning
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil divided
- 4 large garlic cloves finely chopped
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 28-ounce can whole tomatoes with juice
- 12 ounces rigatoni or penne
- ½ cup coarsely chopped fresh basil about ⅓ ounce
- 2 ounces grated pecorino Romano or grated ricotta salata
- Preheat oven to 400˚F.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- In a large bowl, toss eggplant cubes with kosher salt and 4 tablespoons (¼ cup) of the olive oil. Spread onto prepared baking sheet in an even layer. Bake until very tender, 35 to 40 minutes, tossing halfway through baking time.
- Meanwhile, heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and red pepper flakes; cook and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes; cook and stir until thickened, stirring occasionally and crushing tomatoes with a spoon (recipe note #1), 10-12 minutes. (If sauce thickens before eggplant finishes cooking, remove from heat. Return to heat in step 6 adding a minute or two to ensure that sauce is heated through.)
- While tomato mixture cooks, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta until firm to the bite (al dente) according to package directions. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup cooking water.
- Add eggplant and pasta to tomato mixture; cook and stir 2 to 3 minutes until combined and pasta is well coated, adding reserved pasta water a little at a time if it seems too dry. Season to taste with salt. Remove from heat and stir in half of the basil. Transfer to platter or individual pasta bowls and top with remaining basil and grated cheese. Serve.
- TIP: Crushing whole tomatoes in the pan can be messy. Instead, use kitchen shears to cut them into smaller pieces right in the can!