Opera has alway been entwined with food, especially Italian. We’re not talking tour riders of the stars with Pavarotti apparently demanding a 24 hour kitchen be set up next to his room with fridges packed with pasta, tomatoes and roast chickens, enough to feed 20. It was a phobia from an impoverished childhood – the big man ate comparatively moderately.
No it’s the way great names have become attached to certain dishes – Tournedos Rossini, Spaghetti Caruso, Peach Melba, Salsa Verdi. OK, I employed artistic licence on that last one. And then there is a truly terrific dish called after an actual opera. It is also one of the simplest to prepare, provided you’ve sourced the exact ingredients.
Pasta alla Norma has become the unofficial signature dish of Sicily. Invented in Catania on the east coast about the time Vincenzo Bellini’s romantic opera Norma premiered, it is said that the pasta was created as a homage. Legend has it that Nino Martoglio, an Italian writer and poet, was so delighted when presented with this dish that he compared its splendour with that of the opera.
Alternatively, according to Ben Tish in his evocative cookbook, Sicilia (Bloomsbury, £26) – one of my Cookbooks of 2021 – “another story tells of a talented home cook who served her creation to a group of gourmands and was duly christened at the table via the classic Sicilian compliment of Chista e na vera Norma (‘this is a real Norma’). Whatever the truth, the dish became an instant classic and its fame spread around the world.”
At my last London review meal before the lockdowns I ate this iconic dish of rigatoni, aubergine, tomato, basil and ricotta salata, appropriately enough, at Norma, the restaurant Ben created in Fitzrovia for the Stafford Group, showcasing the dishes in his book, many with Moorish influences. He has recently moved on. I finally published my account of that memorable meal in June 2021.
Since when I’ve looked out for Pasta alla Norma on menus in my native north. Among the indies specifically offering the island’s cuisine you won’t find it at Sicilian NQ in Manchester or A Tavola Gastronomia Siciliana in New Mills, though Trinacria in York do serve it. Less surprisingly the more generic Rosso in Manchester or the PIccolino chain do not list it. Rivals San Carlo do, but substitute pecorino for the ricotta salata. A cardinal sin in Catania, even though these crumbly, grateable sharp cheeses have much in common.
Indeed, my home quest to replicate the perfect Norma has been hampered by the absence of ricotta salata in my life. Until recently.
So what makes the salata version separate from that mild soft whey cheese found in tubs across the land. For a start, it packs a pungent, salty punch. Hence the name. It is is only made over winter and spring when pastures are lush and herb-filled and the cooler air is perfect for ageing.
I located an authentic version from Bermondsey-based Italian Artisan food importers Ham and Cheese after being alerted by the folk behind new Hebden Bridge bar, Coin, who serve a range of their charcuterie.
The ricotta salata I bought online is made by the Agostino family, who sell it normally from their butchers shop in Mirto, on Sicily’s north coast, west of Messina. We must have driven past on a road trip from Etna to Cefalu (main picture) the other year.
Their version is made from full-fat, raw cow’s milk, sometimes with the addition of goat’s or sheep’s milk, and is curdled with lamb or kid rennet before being put in to moulds. After a couple of days it spends 48 hours in a brine bath and is then aged for three months. It was a wonderful component of the Tish recipe for Pasta alla Norma. My one deviation from the norm (sic)? I added salted capers. Because they go so well in that other Sicilian aubergine, classic, caponata. Below, it tasted as good as it looked…
Ingredients: 2 firm aubergines, trimmed and cut into 2cm dice; 150ml extra virgin olive oil; ½ onion, finely chopped; 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped; a good handful of basil leaves
800g quality canned chopped tomatoes or passata; 400g dried rigatoni; 200g ricotta salata cheese, grated; sea salt
Method: Put the diced aubergines in a colander in the sink and sprinkle with salt. Leave to drain for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to its highest temperature, around 250°C/230°C fan/Gas Mark 10.
Rinse the aubergine in cold water and pat dry with a kitchen towel, then toss in a bowl with half the oil. Spread out on a baking tray, place in the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes or until caramelised, turning occasionally to make sure the pieces don’t dry out.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a medium saucepan over a medium heat and add the onion and garlic. Sauté for a couple of minutes, then add half the basil and the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat and cook gently for 23–30 minutes or until thickened (the exact time will depend on your canned tomato brand).
When the sauce is almost ready, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water according to the packet instructions to al dente. Add the aubergine to the sauce. Drain the pasta (reserving a little of the cooking water) and toss in the sauce. If the sauce seems too thick, add some cooking water to loosen.
Divide among the plates and sprinkle with the ricotta and remaining basil leaves, roughly torn over the top. It’s best to allow this to cool slightly before eating.