The first time I had Pasta Alla Norma—the Sicilian dish of pasta tossed with tomato sauce, sautéed eggplant, and ricotta salata—it was at a red sauce Italian joint in New York. I must admit I came away questioning whether the Sicilians really knew as much about fine food and good living as the movies give them credit for. It's not that pasta in an oilve-oily red sauce or sautéed eggplant can't be great, it was more that I just didn't understand what they were all doing on a plate together, nor did I get why one would want to top a dish with a cheese so bland as ricotta salata. I mean, aren't condiment cheese supposed to pack a punch?
My next experience with it was many years later when I was working at Cook's Illustrated. One of my colleagues was developing a recipe for it. Again, those same questions came up. Namely, what really makes this dish special?
It wasn't until a couple months ago that I really got it, and it took a trip all the way to the source to figure it out. When you're staying in Catania, the mid-sized city on the east coast of the island of Sicily, it's near impossible to avoid eating pasta alla norma at least once. It's on every single menu. The ingredients are used to top pizza. Even the ricotta salata sold in markets is advertised as being for pasta alla norma. I ordered it the first chance I could get, in the lovely rooftop restaurant at our hotel.
What we got was not like any pasta alla norma I've seen in the states. Rather than mushy chunks of sautéed eggplant, the eggplant came in slices that had been slowly cooked in excellent extra-virgin olive oil until deeply burnished and caramelized, with an almost meaty texture. The pasta came coated in a rich tomato sauce lightly flavored with extra-virgin olive oil and basil.
The biggest shocker was the ricotta salata. Unlike the mildly salty, tame ricotta salata I'm used to from the states, this stuff was funky as all get out with a punchy barnyard flavor, an intense saltiness, and a savory aroma somewhere in between a good aged pecorino and a feta. It's the kind of cheese that ends up stinking up your whole bag when you try to smuggle home a chunk triple bagged, wrapped in plastic, and buried in your socks and underwear. This dish is just as much about the cheese as it is about anything else. No wonder I'd never understood it before—I may as well have been eating a different dish altogether.
Ever since tasting it in Siciliy, I've been trying to replicate it with satisfactory results at home. I think I've got pretty close.
First off, the eggplant. In order to get that intense, meaty texture, I've found it essential to use very small, dense eggplants. Either Italian or Japanese eggplants do well, but they must feel heavy for their size. Cooking them is all about low, slow heat. Cook 'em too fast, and you end up charring them in spots before they've had a chance to fully tenderize.
While many eggplant recipes suggest purging them and pressing them before cooking, in this case, you actually want them to suck up some oil—that olive oil? That's the flavor of Sicily.
The sauce is the easy part. A simple tomato sauce flavored with a bit of garlic, more olive oil, a pinch of pepper flakes, and a dash of oregano. Tomato paste helps give it body, which lets it cling to the fat, ridged pasta traditionally used for the dish, while whole peeled tomatoes crushed between your fingers leaves nice juicy chunks of tomato.
The toughest part, predictably, was finding a suitable ricotta salata replacement. I happen to work across the street fro DiPalo dairy, which imports the real deal from Sicily. I know. Lucky me, right?
Fortunately, there are good options right there in your supermarket. Worst case scenario, you can always use Parmesan. It's not quite the same, but it'll serve the same function. Much better would be to seek out different aged sheep's milk cheese. An aged caciocavallo works wonderfully well, but even a good sheep's milk feta will come close to capturing that salty funk. The best combination of common cheeses I could find was to use a half and half blend of grated Pecorino Romano and feta cheese, the former for its savory punch, the latter for its salty, juicy texture.