From Sicily, with Love
How a simple pasta dish set one writer on a life-changing journey
IGREW UP AT THE KNEES of some of the South’s great biscuit makers, but a Sicilian taught me how to cook. My senior year at Auburn University, serendipity (and a mothering Turkish woman) introduced me to Flavia Mammana, a visiting mathematics scholar from Catania who was working on her doctorate. After a quick introduction over coffee, we decided to live together and signed a lease on a house. Even though I was the native and she the foreigner, Flavia took it upon herself to take care of me. So, as any Sicilian would, she fed me. Constantly. She made pastas, cakes, breads, meatballs, and vegetables lovingly tended over the rental-house stove. We ate like kings and threw the most coveted dinner parties on campus. I thought she knew everything; she certainly knew more than I did. (We won’t talk about that time sophomore year I thought a can of tuna and a box of Franzia White Zin would make a good sauté.) And she taught me what she knew. I learned that pasta water should taste like the sea; that depending on the time of year, sometimes tomato sauce needs the smallest pinch of sugar; and that anchovy paste is maybe the best secret weapon of any kitchen. But it was her pasta alla Norma, topped with a snowfall of grated ricotta salata she smuggled into the U.S. from Italy, that spoke to my increasingly pudgy little heart.
The dish is simple: pasta—often penne, sometimes spaghetti—with tomato sauce; silken nuggets of fried eggplant; aromatic basil; and salted ricotta. But, as with all great dishes, the result is so much more than the sum of its parts. Norma is the kiss of Sicilian summer. It’s a composition that sings of seasonality, when tomatoes and eggplant are at their peak and balconies are overrun with potted basil.
This pasta is the dish of Catania, hometown of Vincenzo Bellini, and is said to take its name from the heroine of one of his most famous operas. The story goes that after seeing Norma performed, friends of the composer were so awestruck they went around describing everything they deemed outstanding as “una vera Norma” (“a real Norma”). And for this simple-yet-sultry eggplant showpiece, the moniker stuck. If there’s a restaurant that doesn’t serve it in the eastern Sicilian city, where the gurgling volcano Mount Etna meets the deep azure waters of the Ionian Sea, I haven’t found it.
After college, I went to visit Flavia on her home turf. One Saturday family lunch, with a very boisterous crew around the table, her mother, Roberta Rizzo, served what I now consider the O.G. pasta alla Norma. At that table, anchored with bottles of Etna Rosso wine (a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes), I couldn’t verbally communicate with anyone other than Flavia. The highly talkative family didn’t speak much English, and I hadn’t learned more than a few phrases of Italian yet. But I could smile—and eat. When Roberta would offer me more food, my act as gracious guest was to smile and say, “Perché no?” (“Why not?”). Remnants from every serving dish found their way to my plate—as well as more than a few pours of wine. As the foreign tongue danced around my head, I focused on the food. Surrounded by the cacophony, I found I could taste more clearly. And when I ate her pasta alla Norma, each bite yielded untold complexity, as the fried eggplant luxuriated in the most perfect tomato shellac I’d ever imagined, and the tendrils of grated ricotta salata gave a creamy saltiness to each bite. If I knew I would die tomorrow, I would make a beeline to Catania to sit at Roberta’s table. (I’ve since learned that Flavia’s culinary prowess in college was really smoke and mirrors. Her kitchen triumphs were the result of long, detailed phone conversations, with her mother pulling puppet strings from afar. Turns out, Flavia didn’t even know how to boil pasta before her time in Auburn.)
To call pasta alla Norma my obsession would be an understatement. If it’s on a menu, I order it. Through the years, with many, many return trips to this sun-drenched island off the tip of Italy’s boot, I’ve eaten it baked as a casserole, prepared with wide planks of eggplant, in a timbale, deconstructed with modernist flair, and even as
arancini. But Flavia’s mom’s version remains my favorite.
Last year, I sold my home in the U.S. to become a semipermanent vagabond, fully circumnavigating the globe and then some. But with all of my wanderings, the place that beckons me over and over is Sicily. My heart has taken up residence there. On a recent visit, I spent an afternoon underfoot in the kitchen of Roberta, my favorite octogenarian nonna. After many years of not much more than smiles and plate refills, I—having learned Italian—was finally able to converse with her, to get detailed notes firsthand on how she creates such magic out of eggplant and tomatoes. It took 20 years, but I finally made the dish for myself. As I continue this wandering life, I find that food, as much as relationships, provides the most comforting continuity. And if there is any dish that immediately anchors me to a place and a feeling of inclusion, it’s pasta alla Norma.