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Pasta alla Norma: It’s extraordinary

Julie Falsetti
For The York Dispatch

Eponyms abound in the food world. Nachos and Caesar salad are prime examples. Both were named after their creators.

In 1943, when Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya got the idea to fry some stale tortillas and cover them with melted cheese and jalapeno peppers, a snack classic was born.

Chef Caesar Cardini took the available ingredients in his Tijuana restaurant and made a salad that he tossed tableside for added flair. High-end restaurants perform the same task for current customers.

One of my favorite dishes is Pasta alla Norma. In this case, the classic Sicilian dish was named after an opera rather than its creator. There are many variations on how the dish got its name, but the one I like best goes like this. A playwright from Catania, birthplace of the composer Vincenzo Bellini, decreed that the pasta dish he had just tasted was “a Norma,” indicating something extraordinary.

Pasta alla Norma is a simple dish using two Sicilian gastronomic pairings: tomatoes and eggplant. It is usually topped with grated ricotta salata cheese. Piled high on the plate, some people liken it to Mount Etna, the volcano of lore.

Many recipes dictate the frying of the eggplant. I find the same texture and even a better taste can be achieved by roasting it in the oven.

Although shaved Parmesan or Romano cheese can be substituted, ricotta salata gives the dish true authenticity. With a few phone calls, I found it available at the Giant on Cape Horn Road. If you feel like a drive, Caputo Brothers Creamery has its own ricotta salata made right in Spring Grove.

Pasta alla Norma

2 medium eggplants, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

7 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 small yellow onion, minced

1 teaspoon crushed red chile flakes

5 cloves garlic, minced

1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes with their juices, crushed by hand

1/4 cup fresh basil, roughly chopped

1 pound spaghetti

Ricotta salata, for grating on top

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Put the eggplant cubes into a bowl and toss with 4 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Place the eggplant on a large baking sheet and bake, turning occasionally, until soft and caramelized, about 40 minutes. All ovens are different, so watch that it doesn’t burn. Set aside when done.

Heat the remaining oil over medium heat in a pot large enough to hold the cooked spaghetti. Add the onion and sauté until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the chile flakes and garlic and cook until the garlic softens, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and basil, season with salt, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook, stirring occasionally, until just al dente. Drain the pasta and transfer to the pot with the tomato sauce. Stir in reserved eggplant and toss to combine. Serve topped with ricotta salata.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section.