Penne alla Norma is one of my favorite Italian dishes. I encountered it at our favourite Italian restaurants in Abu Dhabi, where the chef is from Italy. I ordered it multiple times and eventually decided to make it myself. After a bit of research I found the recipe I liked most on Martha Stewart’s website. I adjusted it slightly to come as close as possible to the one I fell in love with.
Penne alla Norma has its own history. It is a Sicilian dish, which originates in Catania. It received its name from the famous opera La Norma, composed by the Catanian composer, Vincenzo Bellini, in 1831.
I have heard two urban legends about Penne alla Norma. One of them suggests that the dish was named by Nino Martoglio, a Catanian playwright. When he tasted the pasta, he associated it with the opera La Norma. He then exclaimed the phrase: “This is a Norma!”. The other legend around the dish suggests that Bellini routinely ordered this pasta in an Italian tavern. In tribute to the composer, the owner named the dish after his masterpiece, La Norma.
Though the origins of the dish are the stuff of urban myth, it is unclear who created it. Whoever came up with the dish, they made something incredible. Try it and impress your loved ones with this Italian delight of vegetarian cooking!
- 1 pack of penne pasta, preferably whole wheat (you may use eggless brown rice penne or durum semolina)
- Coarse salt and ground pepper according to taste
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)
- 1 large eggplant, cut into 2 cm chunks
- 1 kilogram plum tomatoes, cored and cut into 4 cm chunks (you may use two cans of organic tomatoes, it will taste equally good)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- A handful of torn fresh basil, plus more for garnish (you may use a couple of tablespoons of dried basil, too, according to taste)
- 200 gram of ricotta or fresh mozzarella cheese
- Cook pasta until al dente, according to packet instructions.
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add onion, garlic (and the optional crushed red pepper). If you use crushed red pepper, coat the onion and garlic with the crushed red pepper. Cook and stir occasionally for 5 minutes.
- Add eggplant to the saucepan and season with salt and pepper. Cover the saucepan and cook for a while until the eggplant browns slightly and starts to release its juices. Remove the lid of the pan and cook for a few more minutes. If it becomes sticky, add a little water to the pan. Don’t allow the contents stick to the pan as it will burn.
- Add the tomato paste, the tomatoes and 200 ml water to cook the sauce further. Until all the ingredients are cooked through and soften. It may take 5 minutes.
- Add basil to the sauce and then mix in the pasta. Cook the sauce and pasta for a little while to help the tastes mature.
- Put some ricotta or mozzarella on top, garnish with basil and serve. Use some grated parmesan, according to taste, to add flavours to the dish.
- If your local supermarket does not store crushed red pepper, you may make your own one. Use a blender to blend a whole red pepper.
- I prefer mozzarella to ricotta and I always buy fresh mini mozzarellas for this dish. They mix well with the pasta.
- You may make the dish vegan if you use eggless pasta (and omit the cheese). Preferably the pasta should be made of brown rice. Be careful when you cook it, as it may be prone to sticking together. Use vegan cheese substitute instead of ricotta or mozzarella and enjoy a vegan delight.
- If you are bored of penne, you may use other types of noodle. Experiment and create your own Pasta alla Norma.
Let me know in the comments what you think of this dish. If you have any great variations that you’d like to share, be sure to let everyone know below.