Fusilli alla Norma | A Star Pasta Dish From Sicily

Pasta alla Norma

If you’ve been to Sicily, you must have noticed pasta alla Norma popping up on many menus. From Michelin star restaurants to family gatherings, the eggplant pasta tends to grace the dinner table at least once during your stay in Italy. Through the years, food enthusiasts have debated over the best recipe for this classic pasta dish. Some cooks stick to the traditional fried eggplant version, while others have gotten creative and opted for roasted/sautéed veggies. Despite the differences in opinions, everyone agrees on keeping three core ingredients; eggplant, ricotta, and basil. Before diving into the recipe, let’s learn the history of this popular Sicilian dish.

Origins of Norma Sauce

What’s the Back-story of Pasta alla Norma? People who don’t speak Italian might assume that ‘norma’ refers to the hero ingredient—eggplant. You’d be surprised to know that ‘Norma’ isn’t the name of any vegetable. It is the name of a woman. A fictional character, to be precise! 

As the story goes, the history of pasta alla Norma has been traced to Catania. A coastal city located on the eastern side of Sicily. In the early 1800s’ the town was infamous for its opera because of the talented Vincenzo Bellini. The world-famous Italian opera composer has produced several successful plays. Norma is a nod to one of his favorite masterpieces. The vegetarian dish shares its name with the female lead in the play.  

How did an Opera Lead to Eggplant Pasta?

After watching his play, Bellini’s friends began comparing everything great with their friend’s play. The epithet became popular around town as everyone attributed Norma with impressive places, food, art exhibitions, etc.

One day, playwright Nino Martogolio christened a pasta dish after Norma. It’s said that he exclaimed, “Chista è ‘na vera Norma!” (“This is a true Norma!”) as soon as he had his first bite of the eggplant pasta.

Eventually, the compliment became the real name of this delicious eggplant dish as it captured the essence of its unique flavors and taste.

How to Make Fusilli alla Norma?

Rolled out fusilli.

In this recipe, I like to use a typical handmade pasta often found in southern Italy. It is called fusilli and in some dialects, it is known as fileja. This is not the short “corkscrew” pasta shapes or the long curly pasta shapes we identify as fusilli  Basically, these fusilli are made by rolling a piece of dough around a metal or wooden rod to get a thin long twisted shape.

Fusilli alla Norma

You can see the video below to see how it is typically done.  This is also a fun family thing to do because the more hands the more fusilli you can make and the sooner you can enjoy the fruits of your labor. Of course, you can skip making the pasta by hand and buy your favorite type of fusilli, and then all you’ll need to do is make a delectable Norma sauce. 

I stick to a Norma sauce with fried eggplant, tomato sauce, fresh oregano, fresh basil, and ricotta salata. If these ingredients are at their best there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. 

Pasta alla Norma

(serves 4 people)