Pasta alla Norma: Finding a Good Grocer is Like Finding a Good Friend

Pasta alla Norma

4 Servings

I usually welcome the spring season by cooking pasta alla norma. The reason? Spring brings fresh tomatoes, which are key to the success of this dish. If I close my eyes and dig into my childhood memories, I can still smell the aroma of fresh tomatoes and onions simmering on the stove of my grandmother’s house in Sicily. Actually, this is one of the very few happy memories I have about my vacations in Sicily due to the very… (how do I put this?)… rocky relationship between my grandmother and my mom.

Anyway, whenever I go on a “hunt” for the right ingredients for this recipe, it is one of those moments I miss my country and, especially, my grocer the most. The place where I live is a supermarket kingdom: everything is beautifully displayed in these endless aisles but, when you approach the people who work there and start asking questions about a particular produce you are looking for, they look at you in astonishment. No, it’s not my accent… I’m pretty sure about that. 😉 The point is they have no idea what I am talking about. Such a different experience compared to the great feeling I had when I put my
foot into my grocery store in Italy in contemplation of the wonders expecting me.

Let me be honest here. I truly believe that finding the perfect grocer, as well as finding the perfect butcher, is like finding a good friend. Let me explain my metaphor a little more in detail, will you?

You are looking for someone you can totally trust and that is going to give you the best he can offer. It’s not an easy quest and, inevitably, you will encounter a few disappointments down the road but what a fulfilling feeling when you realize that you have found the one. He starts smiling at you when he sees you coming down the street and when you explain him what you are planning on cooking, he knows exactly what you need. Most of the time, he is even a better cook than you are, so he shares tips and cooking skills with you, little secrets that you are going to treasure forever. He goes out of his way to pamper you and make you happy to make sure that you come back over and over and the friendship endures. Do you see my point now?

I still remember the first time I decided to try out this recipe not long ago in Italy. With the list of ingredients based on my dad’s memory, I went to my grocer. I had no idea what to pick but, of course, he came to my rescue and told me that I needed “sauce tomatoes”, i.e., tomatoes that are so juicy and flavorful that not using them to make a sauce would be tantamount to a crime. Then he directed me toward the right type of eggplant to be used and, finally, he made me try this divine ricotta salata coming directly from his trusted farmer. When I came back home and the tomatoes on the stove started spreading their
aroma all over, I was taken back in time to a vacation at my grandmother’s house in an instant and I took a fidelity oath to him. Something like “until death do us part” but less dramatic and permanent! 😉

Enough with the chit chat. This pasta dish originates in the Sicilian city of Catania and, allegedly, it was named after “Norma”, an opera by famous composer Vincenzo Bellini. The ingredients are few: tomato sauce, fried eggplants, basil and grated ricotta salata (a hard, saltier and drier version of ricotta). The tomato sauce takes about three hours to make, so if you are in hurry to put a meal on the table, maybe this is not the right dish. Everybody knows that perfection takes time and the taste of this pasta is heaven.

Pasta alla NormaIngredients:

1 eggplant
6 lb, fresh tomatoes
half, red onion
10 leaves, fresh basil
1 cup, extravirgin olive oil
1 cup, grated ricotta salata
1 lb rigatoni
salt

Directions:

Cut the eggplant into slices (about 3/4 inch thick). In order to remove the excess water from the eggplant slices, place a big colander on a plate, put some sliced eggplants in the colander and salt them. Put another layer of slices on top and salt them. Keep going until all the slices have been layered and salted. Then place a plate on top of the eggplant slices in the colander and put some kind of weight on top of the plate (I usually use peeled tomato cans). Let the slices rest for a couple of hours.

In the meanwhile, remove the stem ends of the tomatoes, cut them in halves and cut each half in 4 quarters. Cut the onion into slices.

In a large non-stick pot, put the tomatoes, the onions and some basil leaves, put some salt (to taste) and cook on a low heat for about three hours, stirring often, or until you obtain a sort of tomato mixture (the water from the tomatoes must almost completely evaporate).

Dice up the eggplant slices. In a non-stick skillet, pour 3/4 cup of olive oil and fry the eggplant cubes. When the cubes are soft and brown, remove them from the olive oil and place them on an oil-absorbing paper tissue.

Run the tomato mixture into a food mill, place the tomato sauce back on the low heat, put the eggplant cubes and the rest of the basil leaves into the sauce and simmer for about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and pour the rest of the olive oil on the sauce.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, add the rigatoni and cook until al dente, stirring occasionally. Drain the rigatoni and toss them to coat with 3/4 of the sauce.

Put the rigatoni into the serving plates, pour some of the remaining sauce on top of them and dust each dish with the grated ricotta salata. Serve right away and enjoy!

I wish you all a very Happy Easter!

Pasta alla Norma

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About Francesca

I am a cook and the founder and art director of Flora's Table, the fine cooking and wine blog. Check us out at www.florastable.com :-)
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33 Responses to Pasta alla Norma: Finding a Good Grocer is Like Finding a Good Friend

  1. Oh Francesca, I can almost smell the aroma of the tomatoes cooking, I LOVE Pasta alla Norma, it’s absolutely delicious. You are so right about finding a good grocer, they are elusive really, when you do find that wonderful trusted purveyor of food they are as good as gold. Your post is beautiful and what wonderful memories (even with the contention between your Mom and Grandmother). Happiest of Holidays to you and Stefano.

    • Francesca says:

      Hi Suzanne. Thank you so much for your lovely comment. What a nice word you picked to describe it. Actually, you could have cut the tension with a knife 😉
      Stefano and I wish you a very happy Easter.

  2. Darya says:

    Francesca, what a wonderful post. I absolutely adore pasta alla Norma and yours sounds perfect, I love it when people associate memories and food. And I agree with you about finding a good grocer and butcher. I feel so lucky that I was able to find both! Happy Easter!

  3. I love the idea of finding a good butcher and grocer. I don’t eat a lot of meat but I do have a good butcher. But proper grocers shops are very difficult to find here, which is a real shame. What a wonderful experience you had at the grocery store in Italy. It makes such a difference when someone in a shop can give really good advice. I hope you all have a lovely Easter.;)

  4. Definitely one of my favourite pastas! … mmmmm …

  5. ladyredspecs says:

    My kind of sauce, let the quality of ingredients shout out loud!

  6. Happy Easter Francesca & Stefano!
    – I cannot say that I am lucky in finding a good grocer or a good butcher. When I go shopping, I stop at at least 5 markets to buy what I like from each one of them ;(
    – I am in a passionate love affair with anything with eggplant. The ingredients in this recipe are so much in harmony and superb.
    – My awe and kudos to Stefano’s photography. I don’t know what the style is called, it brings joy!
    – Yes, perfection takes time! 😀
    P.S. I enjoyed Jo’s touch of posting the video/opera music of “Norma”!

    • Francesca says:

      Thank you for your lovely words, Fae. I know exactly what you mean. Going grocery shopping is like going hunting and it is so time-consuming! 😦
      Hope you and your family have a lovely holiday.
      PS: Jo’s touch was brilliant! 🙂

  7. alisitaliankitchen says:

    Oh you just created a wonderful post that made the ingredients jump out for real! Isn’t it great how Grandma’s always create such good memories. I will have to soon post my Grandma’s Macaroni and Cheese recipe. Same good local ingredients! I also just love vegetarian food of this nature, even though I’m not vege! Thank you for sharing and Happy Easter!

  8. Hello Francesca, A good butcher, baker and fruits and vegetable market is the difference between good food and great food. I could not agree more, especially in the Italian markets. You really need to be able to trust the food source and feel free to ask them questions on best cooking methods or peak ripeness, etc. I love this dish as of course I am a huge fan of tender eggplant in Italian dishes. Wishing you a blessed Easter. Take Care, BAM

  9. Doesn’t food have such beautiful flavor when it comes with such great memories? I can smell the aroma of those tomatoes over here and imagine your Grandmothers kitchen… Beautiful post Francesca! xx Cheers! K.

  10. francescofleri@virgilio.it says:

    Brava! Belle le fotografie e la descrizione con i riferimenti alla nonna. Deve essere molto buona. Complimenti.

  11. I can’t wait to try this. Happy Easter, Francesca.

  12. I now feel like I’m really missing out without a good grocer friend in my life. I completely agree with you though, the people that work at a supermarket don’t know the first thing about their produce often to my frustration.

  13. gotasté says:

    Francesca, this is such a beautiful dish. And I envy that you are able to use fresh tomatoes. Lovely post….danny

  14. ChgoJohn says:

    So much good information in this post, Francesca. As you’ve read “at my house”, i’ve been advocating getting to know your fishmonger and ask questions as to where and how the seafood got to his market. It’s no different with the butcher or produce manager and I’ve no qualms asking questions of either of them. Although I really do enjoy Pasta alla Norma, I think of it more as a Summer dish. That’s probably because our local tomatoes don’t hit the markets till then. Even so, it is such a treat, especially when made with fresh ingredients, as you did. Your dish sounds fantastic!
    PS I “know” what you mean about Grandma and Mom. 😉

  15. Francesca says:

    Thank you, John. You too? Well, maybe one day you and I will sit down and, with a glass of wine in our hand and a pasta dish in front of us, will exchange memories of an ever ending story.
    Have a wonderful week, John.

  16. I know exactly what you mean about having a relationship with your grocer. In Greece when you walk into the grocers there is a smell that is heaven. I have never smelt it in England! When we went our grocer in Greece he would get a chair for my grandmother to sit on. Each item she asked for he would proudly make a show of selecting the best and then as a final flourish present the bag for her approval before closing it and moving on to the next item. You would think she alone kept his business going the way that he treated her! Beautiful recipe and my favourite opera.

    • Francesca says:

      Thank you, Maria. I knew you would relate. After all, we share the same “cultural background” 🙂 I can totally picture your grandmother in the grocery store carefully selecting the best fruit and vegetables. Thank you for sharing your memory with us. 🙂

  17. Francesca I could almost imagine you gathering all the ingredients. Such a lovely post this is. Would love to try it not sure though if I can get plump juicy tomatoes here in Perth in a super market. Will have to perhaps go to a Farmers market to source them 🙂 But would be totally worth it no.

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