Pasta alla Norma - Gustorotondo - Italian food boutique

How to cook Pasta alla Norma, a traditional Italian dish

Origins of Pasta alla Norma

Pasta alla norma, have you heard of it before? If so, we commend you, as this is not as famous and international a dish as tagliatelle al ragù bolognese or spaghetti carbonara. However it is equally (if not even more so) delicious, and is beautifully reflective of Southern Italy’s cooking methods and their wealth of wonderful ingredients.

This traditional Italian dish heralds from the beautiful island of Sicily, and it’s name is of course reflective of this heritage. The “norma” is often believed to be referring to the famous Sicilian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, who was born in Catania, and wrote the stunning opera “Norma”. If this is the case, we can be thankful that the dish is not as tragic as this seminal work, though it is every bit as bold and epic.

A less romantic story for the origins of Pasta alla Norma simply maintains that it is a kind of “normal pasta”. Normal of course only if you are resident to mediterranean islands that produce such magnificent aubergines and tomatoes, with the perfectly cultivated salted ricotta. This dish truly uses the summer staples of Sicily’s culinary treasure chest, and so for that reason we can understand why it would be called a “normal” pasta, even if the taste is anything but.

The secret to Pasta alla Norma

This traditional Italian dish is dependent on the use of well-sourced salted ricotta. You can make this dish with parmesan or pecorino, but it is simply not the same, and in fact in many Sicilian households, they would flat-out refuse to make it if the right cheese weren’t available!

Getting your hands on aubergines and tomatoes will always be easy enough, but good salted ricotta can be more tricky to find outside Italy. The commercially available kind is all too often unfortunately just like a slightly saltier version of ricotta, and is soft and almost spreadable. This is not the right taste and texture demanded for by perfect Pasta alla Norma. The pasta needs to be topped by something tangy and intense to bring out all the flavours of the tomato and aubergine.

So before you go about cooking it, make sure to find yourself a good source of hard, salted ricotta that you can grate over the finished dish to tantalising effect.

With that principle warning issued, it goes without saying of course that the quality of your tomatoes and aubergine are also top-drawer! Use DOP san marzano tomatoes for your sauce, and make this dish only in the summer when fresh basil and spectacularly purple aubergines and bulging on the grocer’s shelves.

Correct pasta type for Pasta alla Norma

A final note before we get to the recipe below: the correct pasta shape for this traditional Italian dish is tubular. Preferably you should use rigatoni though penne also would do. Pasta shape is hugely important when making a pasta sauce. It must act as a vehicle to properly transport the other ingredients to you, and in this case the thick tubes of pasta match up perfectly with the juicy cuts of aubergine and tomato.

Pasta alla Norma recipe


  • 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 100 g ricotta salata
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3–4 teaspoons sea salt (change depending on your ricotta and how salty it is)
  • 1 teaspoon tomato purée (optional)
  • 1½ teaspoons wild and dried oregano or 8 torn fresh basil leaves
  • 400 g fresh or canned San Marzano PDO tomatoes
  • 2 medium-large aubergines
  • 400 g rigatoni
  • ½ teaspoon dried chilli flakes

Method for Pasta alla Norma
Ok let’s get down to the nitty gritty of how to make truly authentic Pasta alla Norma. Take your aubergines and cut them into rounds roughly 2 cm thick. Wash them and pat them dry with some paper towel, and leave to the side.

The key is of course some fantastic extra virgin olive oil. Heat 3 tablespoons of your best oil in a shallow and large pan for frying, and now being to fry your aubergines (if you need to, do it in batches) until they are almost caramelized and have become golden brown. Move the aubergines to a plate, but importantly make sure to retain the oil in the pan. Now pour the rest of the oil from the recipe into the same pan with the garlic and chilli, and let that simmer in the oil gently until the garlic is just showing the faintest signs of beginning to brown. Add the tomatoes, salt, tomato purée (if you wish to use it) and oregano. Let it all cook together for 10-15 minutes. As the sauce looks cooked and the oil is beginning to separate from the tomatoes, pulp the tomatoes a bit using the back of your wooden spoon to give a rough consistency to the sauce.

As this is happening, get your rigatoni perfect for pasta alla norma and boil it in boiling salted water until ‘al dente’. Get your aubergine rounds and now cut them into slices that are similar in size to the pieces of pasta. Add them to your tomato sauce and heat gently.

Mmmm, the gorgeous smell of cooking pasta and simmering tomato sauce, the moment has almost arrived for having your Pasta alla Norma. But first, pick out and set aside at least 8 pieces of aubergine. Now drain the pasta but make sure as always to reserve a cupful of pasta water that may serve you later in loosening the sauce. Add the pasta to the pan of cooked sauce and a tablespoon or so of the reserved water if necessary, if the sauce is not managing to perfectly and evenly coat each piece of your pasta.

Divide the pasta between 4 plates. By now your pasta should be looking spectacular, and is only awaiting the crowning moment; grate the ricotta salata over each portion and garnish with 2 or 3 pieces of the reserved aubergine.

And there you have it, the recipe for truly perfect Pasta alla Norma; now all that remains is to sit down and enjoy properly with friends, and a rich and full bodied Sicilian red wine!

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