From Si­cily, with Love

How a sim­ple pasta dish set one writer on a life-chang­ing jour­ney

Food & Wine - - THE ODE - by Jennifer V. Cole

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.

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