Imagine a warm plate with a mound of pasta, flowing sauce trapped in them, crispy thin strips of eggplants and shaved Parmesan cheese with a hint of basil – the perfect Pasta alla Norma to satiate any pasta lover's cravings. Mario, my Italian cooking teacher, had many years ago instilled in me this desire for Pasta Norma when he glorified the dish with its legendary origin during one of his cooking lessons. That was in Bologna, in the north of Italy. Now I am in the south, in Catania, the city of Vincenzo Bellini the famous opera composer, where the Pasta alla Norma was born. The story goes like this - once when Bellini was on his way to a performance of his opera Norma, he felt very hungry and went to a restaurant for a meal. The restaurateur was embarrassed as he did not have anything ready to offer Bellini. So he quickly whipped up some tomato sauce with fried eggplants. He cooked pasta al dente, mixed them in the tomato-eggplant sauce and garnished the dish with a few thin, crispy eggplant pieces, some basil leaves and shaved Parmesan cheese on top. The restaurateur then apologetically brought his hurriedly prepared dish to Bellini and his entourage. Bellini put the prepared pasta in his mouth and, highly satisfied, cried out in pleasure…. "but this is Norma" (he meant it was better than his composed opera Norma). That’s when this pasta dish, now a symbol of Catania, got named after Vincenzo Bellini's famous opera. As I walked through the bustling Catania city centre in search of the perfect Pasta alla Norma, I couldn't help but admire its striking Baroque architecture and the rather austere aura it created. Most buildings and roads here are built with black lava and white limestones, which is unique to Catania. The city is at the foot of Mount Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe, and lies on the shores of the Ionian Sea. According to its recorded history, Catania has been buried under lava seventeen times. The confluence of fire, water and earth shaped the history and existence of this charming Sicilian city. The most severe volcanic eruption in 1669 covered the entire city with lava, and a massive earthquake in 1693 turned it into rubble. The Catanaeans rebuilt the entire old part of the city with wide uneven open squares - a precaution against earthquakes - and broad straight streets in the anticipation that when a volcanic eruption next occurs, people can move easily and flee to a safer place. The excavations of the city centre and its surroundings has revealed its rich history. Archeologists have confirmed the arrivals of the Greek in Catania during the 8th century. Katana, as it was then called, is after the name of the Greek colony Katavn. Under the city's layers are also remains of the Roman city that preceded it and the Greek city before that. The old part of the town was rebuilt in Baroque style and incorporates some Roman columns taken from the ruins of Roman amphitheaters. And the amazing part of the construction was the building material they used - lava! Catania is largely a grey city, and they call it "A black dirty little city of Italy". Irrespective of this reputation, this unique greyness and striking Baroque architecture got this old city centre a place in UNESCO 's list of world heritage sites. We come to a narrow picturesque alley with rows of restaurants, but even at 6:30 in the evening, restaurant servers are casually starting to set up the chairs and tables while chatting with their coworkers. Musicians are also leisurely puffing out smoke from their cigarettes while waiting for customers to arrive, but it is clear they are not yet ready to serve. In the midst of these restaurants, I notice a shop and an old school Singer sewing machine visible through its glass doors. Instantly I remember my mother's glowing face and am taken back to the 50s, when one day a man came to our house in Rajshahi with a surprise gift from my father - a Singer sewing machine. Momentarily I forget about my empty stomach and indulge in my nostalgia. I scan the surroundings and overhear a small group engrossed in deep conversation near the shop. But my inquisitive nature does not deter me from interrupting this animated conversation; I have burning questions that must be asked! I start with "isn't it kind of odd, a tailor shop here in the middle of the restaurants?". In typical warm, welcoming Italian style, I hear the history of the shop from the owner's son, Vinzo. In half Italian and half English, he explains that his grandfather first opened a tailoring shop in 1926, which his father took over later and still works at. Vinzo only does alterations but expresses great satisfaction with his job. He quickly gets engaged in conversation and reveals the history of this restaurant alley, which has evolved in the last 15 years into today's restaurant Arcadia. When he learns more about us and our native country, his face lights up. He eagerly tells us how much he loves dal puri (a typical Bangladeshi/ Indian street food of deep fried puff pastry filled with cooked spiced lentil), and even starts giving us directions to the market where an Indian man sells them. I quickly interrupt to explain my true goal of the day – the hunt for the perfect Pasta alla Norma. Instantly his friendly face clouds over and he furrows his eyebrows sympathetically, and I brace myself for the bad news - “I'm so sorry, but restaurants here do not serve pasta before 8pm.”
Waiting for over an hour to get my beloved pasta! I am crushed with disappointment, but in the meantime, I might as well share this delicious recipe for the readers who want to try the legendary Pasta alla Norma at home. Happy eating!
Pasta Alla Norma
1 lb uncooked pasta 1 lb ripe tomatoes for sauce 4 medium size eggplants A bunch of basil 4 cloves of thick chopped garlic Extra virgin olive oil Salt and pepper Chili flakes Ricotta salata (sheep’s milk cheese popular in Sicily) Shaved Parmesan cheese
Process Rinse the eggplants, remove the stems, cut only a strip of skin by making a vertical cut from the tip (round slices of eggplant look decorative, the skin must remain, except this strip). At this point, if you wish, add more eggplant cut into slices or cubes. (I prefer to sprinkle salt on the eggplant slices and stack them, pressed down in a colander, for 30 minutes or so). Then rinse off the salt and squeeze the eggplant slices in a clean towel until dry. Fry in olive oil and place them on paper towels to remove some oil from the fried eggplants.
Heat extra virgin oil, fry chopped garlic, cut the tomatoes into pieces and add to the mixture a few basil leaves, crushed red chili flakes and cook until the whole thing becomes limp. Season with salt and pepper, remove from heat and put in a blender to make puree, pour through a sieve. Cook this smooth sauce until it looks like a nice thick sauce. Now put it aside.
Cook the pasta just enough to retain a somewhat firm texture, mix it with the tomato sauce, add fried eggplants and sprinkle some grated ricotta salata. Garnish with some basil leaves and shaved Parmesan cheese.