Pasta alla norma was born in Catania, soon becoming – thanks to its success – a dish spread throughout Sicily. After all, it is difficult to resist a plate of tomato sauce pasta (generally macaroni) to which fried eggplants, grated salted ricotta cheese and basil are added to give it that touch of Mediterranean freshness, which distinguishes the dish and balances the fried vegetables.
But why is this first course called "alla norma"? It seems that this name was baptized by the Catania playwright Nino Martoglio who, bewitched by the scent and tastiness of the dish, exclaimed: "Chista è 'na vera Norma!" (This is a real Norma!). The reference is to the "Norma", a famous opera by composer Vincenzo Bellini, a fellow countryman of the playwright and of the pasta itself. The opera – initially received in a cold way – soon became the best known of the ten composed by Bellini. Later on, it had such a success that many of the most famous opera singers of the twentieth century have recorded a version of it: from Placido Domingo to Luciano Pavarotti, from Monserrat Caballé to Renata Scotto. The "Norma" (certainly as an opera, who knows about the pasta!) became then the signature role for Maria Callas who recorded it twice, in 1954 and 1960. It is also passed down that the dish and the opera are also linked – as a double lock – by another coincidence: in fact, it seems that pasta alla norma was publicly presented for the first time on the very same evening of the world premiere of Bellini's opera, on December 26th, 1831.
Other sources claim that the "pasta alla Norma" was invented precisely in honour of the composer to whom the theatre of Catania is entitled to today. In any case, between legend and truth, what is certain is the remarkably close link between the recipe – appreciated throughout Italy – and the Etnean city. In addition to the fact that Catanians, and not only them, like pasta alla norma to such an extent that they compared it to a masterpiece of the opera. As always, when a dish is remarkably successful, the recipe passes through word of mouth, from one kitchen to another, changing to the point that it is difficult to identify the original ingredients.
Talking about pasta alla norma there are some documents that suggest the path of tradition, a street where we find, in addition to pasta, tomatoes, salted ricotta, eggplant and basil, all strictly local to maintain that varied flavours typical of the island. Tradition also wants the eggplants to be cut into thin slices, chopped or striped, then fried strictly in extra virgin olive oil. However, today there are those who prefer to cook them on the grill, triggering the wrath of the grandmothers faithful to the original recipe. Apart from the historical curiosities about the birth of this dish that represents Italy, we just have to see what the original recipe is, trying to identify the 4 tricks for a perfect alla norma sauce.
Eggplants: better to use black and long ones. Before frying, cut them in strips and put them in the drain, covered with salt, with a weight on top, for half an hour, to eliminate excess liquid and the bitter taste.
Frying: it should be carried out strictly with extra virgin olive oil. No various seeds or other types of fats. Once fried, drain the eggplants and set them on a plate with oil-absorbing cooking paper or just simple kitchen paper towel to eliminate the excess oil.
The tomato: it must be peeled, no puree or chopped. Only peeled tomatoes, even better if homemade, with the addition of a little salt and basil. What we suggest, moreover, is to use the same pan where you fried the eggplants, after getting rid of the excess of oil: in this way the sauce will be soaked with the flavour of the eggplants.
Ricotta cheese. As we already told you, the original recipe of pasta alla norma requires salted and seasoned sheep ricotta cheese. All the alternatives – such as baked ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan cheese – move away and make the purists of this dish cringe.
Pasta: the sauce for the pasta alla norma requires a particular pasta shape, which is short, even better if rigatoni. Penne and fusilli are also allowed.