Pasta alla Norma
We’re going back to Sicily! Pasta alla Norma is a delicious Sicilian pasta dish with eggplant, marinara and basil. I’m excited to introduce you to this dish because it is a completely satisfying vegetarian dinner. If you enjoy eggplant Parmesan, you’re going to love pasta alla Norma. I’m craving a bowl as I type.
Most pasta alla Norma recipes are made with fried eggplant, but this recipe features roasted eggplant. Eggplant really absorbs oil like a sponge, so this lightens up the dish. Another plus? Roasting eggplant is easier and less messy.
I further lightened this classic recipe by using more eggplant and less pasta, so this dish won’t put you to sleep. It’s nice and saucy, just the way I like it.
I don’t speak Italian, so I first assumed that “norma” meant eggplant. Not the case! Norma is capitalized because she’s a lady. Or an opera, depending on how you look at it.
Here’s the backstory: Pasta alla Norma comes from Catania, a city on the eastern coast of Sicily. Catania is the hometown of Vincenzo Bellini, an Italian opera composer who lived in the early 1800s. One of Bellini’s most famous operas, Norma, is named after its lead character.
Folklore has it that playwright Nino Martoglio, after his first bite of this pasta dish, exclaimed, “Chista è ‘na vera Norma!” (“This is a true Norma!”) That’s quite a compliment.
Pasta alla Norma Ingredients
Pasta alla Norma is proof that simple ingredients can yield spectacular results. This classic Italian dish is especially appropriate in late summer or early fall when eggplant is in season. It’s so hearty that I’ll be enjoying it through the winter.
You really can’t beat my Super Simple Marinara Sauce, which comes together with minimal fuss. It’ll be ready around the time the eggplant is done roasting, and yields exactly the amount of sauce you’ll need for this dish (two cups). If you’d like to simplify the recipe, you could use a good store-bought marinara. My favorite is Rao’s.
Look for two medium eggplants with firm, shiny skin and no bruises. They should feel heavy for their size. We won’t bother salting the eggplant before roasting—it’s truly unnecessary with modern eggplants.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Any quality extra-virgin olive oil will do. Use an Italian variety if you want to be as authentic as possible.
Use rigatoni, ziti, spaghetti, or any pasta along those lines. You’ll see rigatoni in these photos, but I’ve also really enjoyed spaghetti.
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.
A Few Basic Spices
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, which is difficult to find in the United States. For something fairly similar, try equal parts store-bought ricotta salata and Parmesan. Other suggestions I’ve found online include Grana Padano or mature Pecorino Romano (with or without some crumbled feta). All that said, I don’t think you could go wrong with mozzarella. Some recipes also include dollops of ricotta, which would surely be tasty.
If you’re following a dairy-free or vegan diet, I believe you’ll still love this dish without cheese. Or, you could finish your bowls with a sprinkle of vegan Parmesan and perhaps even a dollop of vegan sour cream in place of ricotta.
How to Make Pasta alla Norma
This recipe is simple enough to pull off on a weeknight if you start an hour before dinnertime. It calls for a few simple components and you’ll get the hang of it quickly. Pour yourself a glass of Italian red wine, perhaps a Sangiovese, and make the most of it!
You’ll find the full recipe below, but here’s the gist:
1) Start the marinara sauce.
That is, assuming you’re going the homemade route. You really won’t believe how quickly my marinara comes together!
2) Prepare and roast the eggplant.
We’re going to follow Ottolenghi’s lead here and use a vegetable peeler to shave off strips of eggplant peel to make it look rather zebra-like. This way, you still get some of the nice texture of the eggplant skin, but you don’t end up with distracting long strips of it in your finished dish (the eggplant tends to fall apart in the sauce, in a good way). Then, we’ll slice the eggplant into rounds, brush them with oil, and roast them until deeply golden.
3) Cook the pasta in salted water.
Salting the water infuses your pasta with more flavor. Try to remember to reserve some of the pasta cooking water before draining it—the starch in the water helps unite the sauce with the pasta. I typically scoop some into a Pyrex glass measuring cup just before draining. (If you forget, as I often do, no worries.)
4) Stir it all together.
This is when we add the fresh basil, most of the cheese (reserve some for garnish), and some spices. Add salt to taste, and your meal is ready to serve. Buon appetito.
As always, please let me know how your pasta alla Norma turns out in the comments! I love hearing from you. If you’re hungry for more pasta dishes, I’ve got you covered.
Pasta alla Norma
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cook Time: 50 minutes
- Total Time: 1 hour 10 minutes
- Yield: 4 servings 1x
- Category: Entree
- Method: Roasted and stovetop
- Cuisine: Sicilian
- Diet: Vegetarian
Pasta alla Norma is a delicious Sicilian pasta dish with eggplant, marinara and basil. This amazing recipe features roasted eggplant, not fried! Recipe yields 4 entrée servings.
- 1 batch Super Simple Marinara Sauce, or 2 cups (16 ounces) store-bought marinara
- 2 medium eggplants (about 2 ¼ pounds total)
- ¼ cup + 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
- ¼ teaspoon fine salt, more to taste
- 8 ounces rigatoni, ziti or spaghetti
- ½ cup chopped fresh basil, plus a handful more small basil leaves or torn leaves for garnish
- ½ to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ¾ cup (1.5 ounces) finely grated ricotta salata and/or Parmesan cheese
- If making your own marinara: Cook the sauce per instructions. If it’s done cooking before you’re ready to assemble, cover the pot and keep it warm over very low heat. If you’re using store-bought marinara, warm it in a pot over medium-low heat while you cook the pasta.
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit with racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two large, rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper for easy cleanup.
- Use a vegetable peeler to shave off long alternating strips of eggplant peel. The eggplants will look striped like zebras when you’re done. Then slice the eggplants into ½-inch thick rounds, discarding the end pieces.
- Place the eggplant on the lined baking sheets. Brush the rounds with olive oil on both sides. Sprinkle the eggplant with the salt and plenty of pepper. Roast until deeply golden and tender, about 40 to 45 minutes, flipping after 20 minutes. Set aside.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta until al dente, according to package directions. Reserve some pasta cooking water before draining (about ½ cup should be plenty), then return the pasta to the pot.
- When the eggplant is done and the marinara is finished cooking (or warmed through, if using store-bought), gently stir the roasted eggplant into the sauce. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon olive oil, fresh basil, red pepper flakes (skip if you don’t like spice, or load it up if you do). Crush the dried oregano between your fingers as you drop it in.
- Add the pasta to the sauce with a couple tablespoons of the reserved pasta cooking water, and gently stir it in. Add about two-thirds of the cheese, reserving the rest for garnish. Season to taste with additional salt (I usually add ¼ teaspoon more) and black pepper. You can add a bit more of the reserved pasta cooking water to loosen up the sauce, if desired.
- Divide the pasta between four bowls. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top of the individual servings, followed by some extra fresh basil. For added richness, drizzle the servings lightly with olive oil. Enjoy! Leftover pasta will keep well in the refrigerator, covered, for 4 to 5 days.
Recipe roughly adapted from Ottolenghi Simple (a cookbook, affiliate link) and my eggplant Parmesan.
Make it gluten free: This dish would likely be nice with sturdy gluten-free noodles, such as a corn and quinoa blend.
Make it dairy free/vegan: Omit the cheese (this pasta is still very nice without it). You could sprinkle individual servings with vegan Parmesan. You might enjoy a dollop of vegan sour cream for some creaminess, too.
Parmesan note: Whole Foods 365 and BelGioioso brands offer vegetarian Parmesan cheese.