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Bright with explosive flavors, this pasta alla norma authentic recipe, brings you the tastes of a classic Sicilian pasta dish from Catania. With eggplants, tomatoes, a generous amount of salted ricotta cheese plus fresh basil, this beautiful dish comes easily together in no time.
What is Sicilian Pasta alla Norma
Pasta alla Norma is an iconic Sicilian pasta and a culinary specialty of the Catania area. Although, this pasta dish is found on tables across the island and beyond Italy.
It is typically prepared with penne or rigatoni, eggplants fried to perfection and excellent tomatoes. Topping it is grated salted ricotta cheese and fragrant fresh basil.
This pasta alla norma authentic recipe is simple to make and very tasty. It’s loaded with Mediterranean flavors and is incredibly delicious.
Like many traditional recipes, there are variations to the recipes that change from family to family. The way the eggplants are sliced and cooked differs and the type of pasta and cheese used varies.
However, what is consistent are the four simple ingredients. Short tubular pasta, tomatoes, eggplants, ricotta salata cheese and basil, which contain the flavors of summer and Sicily.
This pasta alla norma authentic recipe calls for frying the eggplants until soft, golden, and slightly caramelized, which is the traditional preparation style.
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Pasta alla Norma History
You’ll find pasta alla norma on menus all over Sicily. And, the origin of this dish is linked to Catania and the city’s most famous composer.
Catania, on the eastern coast of Sicily is the hometown of Vincenzo Bellini, the opera composer from the early 1800s.
The dish is a culinary tribute to his most famous opera “Norma.” Legend has it that a playwright took a bite of this simple pasta dish and exclaimed, it was “true Norma” meaning instant success.
Today, the “National Day of Pasta alla Norma” dedicated to this traditional dish is celebrated every 23rd of September.
Watch Norma “Casta Diva” Aria
In the video, watch Maria Callas sing “Casta Diva” from Norma, in Paris in 1958. This aria from Act 1 is one of the most beloved opera arias and the performance by Maria Callas remains unmatched.
Discovering Pasta alla Norma – The Best Pasta in Catania
Pasta alla norma, the famous Sicilian pasta, was on our radar even before traveling to the island.
We had heard and read about this iconic pasta dish from Catania and could not wait to try it.
Shortly after we arrived in Catania, Sicily, this was one of the first dishes we tried.
We embarked with eager abandon trying pasta alla norma at different local restaurants. And, each time delighting in its simple, fresh flavors.
Along the way, we noticed slight differences in the way pasta alla norma was prepared. Sometimes, the tomato sauce was rich and thick.
At times, the eggplants were chopped in cubes rather than sliced. And, the eggplant texture was at times more or less crunchy.
Regardless of how we had it, this simple dish was consistently fresh and always delicious.
So intrigued by the simple and wonderful flavors of this iconic Catanese dish, we took a cooking class with Cooking Sicily to learn how to make it.
Deb, our cooking instructor shared this pasta alla norma authentic recipe with us and we’re excited for you to make this Sicilian pasta at home.
Sicilian Pasta alla Norma Authentic Recipe – How To Make It at Home
Making pasta alla norma is very simple to make and yields spectacular results. The key is to use the freshest and highest quality ingredients you can find.
Piccadilly tomatoes or Tomato Passata Sauce
Tomatoes are arguably the star of this delicious dish. If you can use fresh tomatoes, the better your Sicilian pasta will be.
According to our instructor, piccadilly tomatoes, which are commonly found at the local farmers markets in Catania are the best. These tomatoes are small, bright red with a slightly elongated drop-like shape.
Piccadilly tomatoes are native to the south of Italy. They also have thin skin ideal for making sauces and are prized for their juicy and sweet flavors.
Finding piccadilly tomatoes outside of Italy is not easy. Given the importance of fresh tomato flavors, if you can’t find quality thin skinned tomatoes, it’s better to use passata.
Passata, a staple in Italian kitchens, is a type of tomato puree taken directly from crushed fresh tomatoes.
We learned from Deb that passata is preferred over poor quality tomatoes or tomato puree for their authentic tomato taste.
Mutti is a very popular brand in Italy and the one Deb recommends for this pasta alla norma recipe. The rich tomato sauce is more flavorful than other brands.
You can find Mutti from Italy at an Italian grocery store in your area, or have Mutti delivered to your home via Amazon.
Passata is perfect for pasta dishes, homemade pizza, to simmer with meatballs and more.
One tip regarding using passata. As it is raw, you want to cook it for this Sicilian pasta recipe.
Fry some whole garlic cloves in olive oil and let them brown. Then add the passata sauce over the fried garlic.
Add salt and black pepper to taste. If the sauce is sour, you can add a little sugar to sweeten it.
Don’t forget to remove the fried whole garlic cloves before serving the sauce over cooked pasta.
Substitutes for Ricotta Salata Cheese
Ricotta salata cheese is a dry salted ricotta cheese and the traditional cheese used in pasta alla norma.
It is a hard cheese and traditionally made using sheep milk.
Finding ricotta salata outside of Italy may be challenging. However, gourmet food stores and specialty food stores may have it available.
For the Gourmet is a chef-driven store that focuses on sourcing the best specialty products from around the world. You can have ricotta salata delivered to your home and enjoy the same Italian quality in your kitchen.
If you cannot find ricotta salata cheese, other acceptable substitutes are Italian parmesan cheese or the flavorful pecorino cheese. The key is to make sure the cheese has flavor.
Sicily Pasta – What To Use For Pasta alla Norma
For this pasta alla norma authentic recipe, dry pasta is recommended over fresh pasta. The key is to use short pasta like fusilli, penne, casarecce or rigatoni.
Long pasta, like spaghetti, can also be used. Feel free to make this pasta alla norma recipe with your favorite Italian pasta.
How To Serve Pasta alla Norma
In Sicily, as we learned from our Catanese instructor, Deb, there is a particular way of serving pasta alla norma.
You never mix the eggplants and sauce together. First, after you have drained the pasta, mix the pasta and sauce together.
Serve the cooked pasta and sauce on a plate, and then place the cooked eggplants on top. Grate a generous amount of salty ricotta cheese on the pasta and top with fresh basil.
This way, you let all the individual elements of the famous pasta alla norma stand out.
How To Eat Pasta alla Norma
In Sicily, pasta alla norma is typically eaten at room temperature and most often as a starter or “primi piatti.”
However, you can enjoy it as a complete meal. With the eggplants and tomato sauce you can enjoy a healthy and satisfying meal.
A nice Sicilian wine like Nero d’Avola pairs nicely with this dish. This red wine made from Sicilian indigenous red grape varietals is one of the most important on the island and in Italy.
Soak in the Mediterranean flavors of Sicily, with this classic and beautiful pasta dish. Immerse even deeper with Sicilian wine while listening to Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma.
Pasta alla Norma Recipe Tips
How to Cut the Eggplants for Pasta Alla Norma
The way the eggplants are cut and cooked differs within Sicily in restaurants and homes.
For this pasta alla norma authentic recipe, we learned to cut and cook the eggplants the Cantanese style.
In this case, the eggplants are cut in thin stripes on the long side, rather than cut in cubes that is common in other parts of Sicily.
After cleaning the eggplants, peel off the skin completely. Using the long side of the eggplant, cut thin slices of about ¼ inch or 7mm thick.
Make sure the slices are all about the same size so that they can cook evenly.
In the past, we learned, Sicilian grandmothers would put the cut eggplant slices in a bowl of salty water to remove the bitterness.
It is not necessary to do that for this Sicily pasta recipe. However, if you have time and would like to put your sliced eggplants in salty water, let them rest for about 20 minutes.
Once you remove the eggplants from the bowl, make sure you dry them very well before frying them, so as not to mix water and hot oil.
Frying Pasta alla Norma Eggplants
In Sicily, many dishes are fried in sunflower oil. The key is to fry well at the right temperature and for the right amount of time.
Once the oil is hot, cook the eggplants until they are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Fry only a few eggplant slices at a time and once they turn golden brown. Set aside the cooked eggplant slices in a bowl. Keep the oil on the eggplants as we use it to dress the pasta.
To check if the eggplants are ready, see that they float in the oil. When the edges brown, carefully flip them just one time and let the other side cook for a few minutes.
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Pasta alla Norma Step by Step Instructions
Prepare The Homemade Tomato Sauce
Slice your thin skinned tomatoes in half and place them in a pot, covered, and cook under low heat. Let tomatoes cook for about 20 -30 minutes until they release their rich juice. Stir occasionally.
Strain the tomatoes to remove any leftover peel or seeds. Mix the tomato sauce using either a hand blender or by hand. Add salt to taste and a little olive oil. Add fresh basil leaves to the mixture.
Fry the Eggplants
Traditionally, pasta alla norma is made using fried eggplant. Once the oil is hot in the large skillet, place a few slices in eggplants and let them cook until they take on a nice golden brown color.
Once the slices are perfectly cooked, flip them over once and let the other side cook. When ready, place the cooked eggplants in a bowl. Continue until you have cooked all the eggplant pieces.
Do not drain the excess oil from the eggplants by placing them on paper towels. For this pasta alla norma recipe, we let the eggplants hold onto their oil for extra flavoring.
Pasta alla Norma Recipe
Making the fresh tomato sauce
- Wash and dry the tomatoes, then cut them into quarters. If your tomatoes have a thin skin, there is no need to remove the skin.
- Place the tomatoes in a pot and cover with a lid. Cook on very low heat for about 20 minutes until tomatoes release their juice.
- Stir occasionally to make sure the sauce doesn’t stick to the pan.
- Once the tomatoes are ready, strain to remove any seeds or peel.
- Use a hand mixer or electric blender to puree the tomatoes to obtain a creamy texture.
- Add salt, if needed, a little olive oil and basil leaves to the mixture.
Preparing the eggplants
- While the tomatoes are cooking, cut off the edges of the eggplants and peel the skin off.
- Heat the oil in a deep large skillet on high heat.
- Cut the eggplants on the long side about ¼ inch or 7mm in thickness.
- Make sure the eggplants are dry before cooking them in hot oil.
- Cook the eggplant slices until they turn golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove cooked eggplants and place them in a bowl. Keep the oil on the eggplants as we use it to dress the pasta.
Cooking the pasta
- In a large pot, bring water to boil. Add salt and then cook the pasta al dente.
- Once the pasta is cooked, drain it very well and then mix it to the pot with the tomatoes.
Serving Pasta alla Norma
- Serve the pasta with tomato sauce onto plates.
- Top the plates with generous portions of fried eggplants cut up into slices.
- Grate a fair amount of salty ricotta cheese on the plates.
- And, top each plate with fresh basil leaves.
When frying the eggplants, cook them batch by batch. When the first few are ready, remove them all and then add the next batch. If you mix the raw and cooked eggplant slices it drops the temperature of the oil.
You can reuse the sunflower oil from eggplants for cooking at least 2 or 3 times.
It is generally recommended to eat pasta alla norma immediately after cooking. It does not freeze well.
Curious by nature, Rosemary loves exploring new flavors and connecting with locals. She shares her insights and culinary finds from her travels to inspire people to connect local through food.