A quick and tasty version of the classic Sicilian pasta sauce. You’ll fall in love with this! Roasted eggplant, chunky tomato sauce, fresh basil and pasta topped with a shower of ricotta salata cheese.
Pasta with tomato sauce — not a week goes by in our house when we’re not enjoying it in some form.
Well, sometimes our pasta is sauced with shrimp in garlic butter – but that’s another story!
Depending on the mood and the weather — not to mention how urgently dinner needs to be made and consumed — I might pull out the pressure cooker to make Red Wine Meat Sauce, or simply make the most basic 20-minute marinara sauce.
Well, this time I came home after a trip to the farmer’s market with an armload of eggplants and tomatoes (because it’s the middle of summer).
That’s the short story about the inspiration for this downright delicious pasta sauce, full of roasted eggplant, spicy red pepper and sweet fresh tomatoes, a/k/a Pasta alla Norma.
what is pasta alla norma
Pasta alla Norma is a classic Sicilian dish of pasta with eggplant and tomato.
Pasta alle melanzane e pomodoro in Italian, is a classic simple dish that packs in flavor and good-for-you ingredients.
Supposedly, the name of the dish comes from a famous Sicilian opera (yes, it’s Norma) composed by Vincenzo Bellini.
After briefly reading the tragic plot of the opera, I can’t quite figure out the connection between an ancient Roman love triangle and a delectable plate of pasta.
It is what it is, as the saying goes.
Steps for making pasta with eggplant and tomato sauce
Alla Norma sauce is typically a spicy tomato sauce, strewed with pieces of fried eggplant and basil, all served over pasta.
The finished dish is strewn with dazzlingly white ricotta salata cheese so that it’s “like snow falling on the mountain.”
Traditionally, the eggplant is fried in abundant amounts of olive oil before it gets combined with the rest of the sauce.
That sounded like too much of an endeavor for a weeknight dinner.
So, I employed my favorite method for dealing with eggplant on the fly: baked eggplant.
- Peel (if you want) and slice the eggplant into chunks.
- Toss with extra-virgin olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet.
- Put into a 450-degree oven and roast for about 25 minutes.
The eggplant soaks up all the flavorful oil, which makes it comes out with golden edges and soft, creamy insides.
That is what I call eggplant perfection!
Like any great eggplant pasta sauce, it’s a perfect match with tomatoes.
The sauce is just a variation of easy marinara or fresh cherry tomato sauce, with the addition of spice and chili pepper.
I know it sounds really simple.
I’m telling you the combination of ingredients in this pasta is out of this world delicious.
The meaty eggplant makes this dish feel so satisfying.
But I gotta say, it’s that flourish of ricotta salata cheese at the end that really makes it shine.
If you’re not familiar with ricotta salata cheese, I urge you to give it a try.
Good substitutes for ricotta salata
Ricotta salata is a staple in Sicilian kitchens. It’s a creamy fresh (not aged) cheese made with sheep’s milk.
You can buy it at many supermarket cheese counters and Italian markets.
In the event you have trouble tracking it down, here are some cheeses that will work beautifully in this recipe instead:
- Feta is a bit creamier and salter than ricotta salata, but will taste delicious in this dish.
- Mexican cotija or Greek mizithra which is made with a mixture of sheep and goat’s milk, will both taste great.
- And, you can never go wrong with good fresh mozzarella or burrata.
Using either of the latter two in this dish will change the character and authenticity somewhat.
As always, go with what tastes good to you!
Pasta alla Norma - Spicy Eggplant and Tomato Pasta
- 1 1/2 pounds (680 g) eggplant, peeled and sliced into bite-size chunks
- 1/4 cup (90 ml) plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- 1/2 cup (80 g) thinly sliced white or red onion
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic, 2 or 3 cloves
- 1 fresh red chili pepper, such as Fresno, finely chopped
- 1/2-1 teaspoon crushed red chili, to taste
- 2 pounds (900 g) ripe tomatoes, such as cherry or Campari, diced (or 4 cups canned)
- 12 ounces (350 g) tubular pasta, such as penne, rigatoni or ziti
- 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
- 4 ounces (125 g) ricotta salata cheese, shredded or shaved on a grater into thin slices
- Preheat the oven to 450 (230 C) degrees.
- Put the eggplant on a large rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with 1/4 cup of the olive oil. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and toss together to coat the eggplant with the oil. Bake 25-30 minutes, until the eggplant is tender and golden brown.
- Meanwhile, place a large (12-inch) skillet over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and the onion. Cook about 5 minutes to soften the onion.
- Stir in the garlic, fresh and dried crushed chili pepper, tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook at a simmer until the tomatoes give up their liquid and then reduce to a chunky sauce - this should take about 10 minutes.
- While the tomatoes simmer, bring a large pot (4-6 quarts) of water to a boil and add 3 tablespoons salt. Cook the pasta according to package directions, or until al dente.
- Drain the pasta. Lower the heat under the tomatoes, then stir in the pasta and eggplant until blended with the sauce.
- Transfer to a serving dish and top with the basil leaves and cheese. Serve and enjoy!