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Love at first sight. That’s the only way I can describe my first taste of pasta with eggplant in tomato sauce. It was a night out with my kids at Carrabba’s Italian Grill (the original one in Houston, TX) about 30 years ago (yikes, I’m old), but I can remember it like it was yesterday. It is originally a Sicilian dish named Pasta alla Norma, after the opera character Norma from Vicenze Bellini, a famous Sicilian composer. Some restaurants refer to it as “pasta con le melanzane” (pasta with eggplant).
So, get ready to fall in love with Pasta alla Norma, a meatless dish that’s sure to please even the biggest eggplant haters and meat lovers. With tender pasta, roasted eggplant, and a flavorful tomato sauce, this dish is a hearty and satisfying meal that’s perfect for a weeknight dinner or a special occasion.
The traditional Sicilian recipe calls for frying the eggplant. Ours calls for roasting it in the oven, making the dish lower in calories but not in taste.
This eggplant in tomato sauce recipe includes few and simple ingredients: eggplant, tomato sauce, pasta, a sprinkle of cheese and fresh herbs. Each ingredient is allowed to shine, and the quality of these ingredients will ultimately contribute to the wow factor of your dish.
- Eggplant: if you can find Italian or Sicilian eggplants, they are the best. They are slightly smaller and sweeter and have a more tender skin than common American globe eggplants. Japanese eggplants work well as they have a tender skin and fewer seeds. Otherwise chose smaller, denser globe eggplants. This will ensure fewer seeds and will result in a meatier bite.
- Tomatoes: I love how flexible this recipe is when it comes to the type of canned tomatoes you can use. I’ve made it with diced, crushed, and whole peeled tomatoes, but my favorite way is to start with whole peeled tomatoes and puree them briefly with an immersion blender, or crush them by hand (yes, it’s a bit messy, but very therapeutic if you have a grudge against someone). If you can find them and it fits your budget, San Marzano tomatoes are the gold standard for their low acidity and sweeter taste. But any other kind will do.
- Pasta: If you want to take your Pasta alla Norma to the next level, fresh pasta is definitely the way to go. But let’s be real, we don’t all have the time or energy to make fresh pasta from scratch. That’s where dried pasta comes in, and no one will judge you for using it in this recipe. As a Mediterranean Diet follower, I always try to go for whole wheat pasta for the extra nutrients it provides. Delallo brand whole wheat pasta is one of my favorites. As for shape, I love using penne rigate in this dish, but any other tubular pasta, spaghetti, or linguine would also be delicious. So go ahead and choose your pasta of choice.
- Onion and garlic: the base of most Mediterranean dishes and nature’s antibacterial, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory ingredient.
- Extra virgin olive oil: any good EVOO will do here, but since it’s going to be used in high heat, don’t use your most pungent oil. Its flavor will get lost and it may have a lower smoke point. My personal favorite: Partanna Sicilian extra virgin olive oil.
- Ricotta salata: not to be confused with fresh ricotta. This is a hard cheese and typically made with sheep’s milk. It is however hard to find in the US, so read our substitution tips below.
- Fresh basil: this will add an aromatic touch as well as a color contrast. It’s important that it’s fresh though, so if you don’t have any, see substitutions below.
- Oregano: used to add a layer of flavor to the tomato sauce, it’s fine to use dried oregano. If using fresh, add it along with the tomatoes.
- Red pepper flakes: they are really optional. I like my tomato sauce to have an extra kick. But you can leave them out if you don’t want any heat.
How to make pasta with eggplant in tomato sauce
The dish has three components that get cooked separately, then are brought together at the end when ready to serve.
First, you need to work on the eggplant. I recommend that you sweat it first, as indicated in the instructions below, but it’s not the end of the world if you skip that step.
Next, wipe the liquid with a paper towel and brush the eggplant with olive oil on both sides.
Roast it in the oven until it’s soft and caramelized. I generally don’t bother to flip the eggplant during the cooking process, as I am always for simplifying recipes… That’s up to you.
Once the eggplant is ready, let it cool down a bit and cut it into bite size pieces. Again, that’s an optional step, but I find it more pleasant to eat that way.
Meanwhile, you’ll be working on the tomato sauce. It’s essentially a very basic marinara sauce with onion, garlic and oregano, and as an option, red pepper flakes for a bit of heat.
While your tomato sauce is in the works, bring your water to a boil for the pasta. Cook the pasta and drain it.
Finally, get ready to assemble!
There is no right and wrong way to serve this eggplant and tomato pasta. Some people like to toss everything together: pasta, tomato sauce and eggplant. Others toss the pasta with the tomato sauce and top it with eggplant. I usually comply to my husband’s request to keep the pasta “naked”, toss the eggplant into the tomato sauce and serve it on top of the pasta.
The only common recommendation is to finish individual plates with grated cheese and fresh herbs.
Tips and substitutions
- If you’re lucky enough to have jars of homemade marinara sauce in your pantry, congratulations! You’re in for a real treat. Go ahead and use your homemade sauce for this eggplant and tomato pasta – it’s sure to be delicious. Just remember to add some extra fresh garlic to give it some extra oomph. No need to worry about adding onion, since your sauce probably already has some.
- You can use fresh ripe tomatoes in season. Just cook the sauce longer (about 30 minutes) to bring out their sweetness.
- If you cannot find Ricotta Salata, Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano are good choices.
- Fresh parsley is a good substitute for basil. In fact, that’s what you will find in these pictures…
Advance prep and storage
The tomato sauce and the eggplant can be prepared in advance. They will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days. Just reheat the sauce when ready to serve. Once warm, add the eggplant pieces and warm a few more minutes.
If you have any leftovers, which I doubt, they will keep 3 to 5 days in an airtight container as well. Keep the pasta separate from the sauce, if possible. Otherwise it may get soggy.
Travel to the hills of Sicily and try this Pasta alla Norma tonight! I guarantee it will become a house favorite.
More favorite recipes
Eggplant in Tomato Sauce (Pasta alla Norma)
- 2 eggplants medium size
- 1/2 cup onion chopped (about half a medium onion)
- 1/4 cup garlic minced
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (divided)
- 28 oz canned tomatoes whole, crushed or diced
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
- 1/2 cup Ricotta salata or Pecorino cheese
- 1/4 cup fresh basil or parsley
- kosher salt
- 8 oz whole wheat pasta
- Slice the eggplants about 1/3" thick. Place the slices on a rack over a baking sheet. Sprinkle both sides with salt. Let the eggplant sweat for 30 minutes, then wipe off the liquid with paper towels.
- Preheat oven to 425°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Brush the eggplant with 2 tbsp olive oil on both sides and lay them on the sheets.
- Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until soft and caramelized. You may flip the eggplant halfway if you want, but it's not absolutely necessary.
- While the eggplant is baking, heat the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil in a sauté pan or Dutch oven on medium high heat. Add onion and cook until it barely starts to brown.
- Add garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes and cook another minute.
- If using whole tomatoes, crush them by hand or with an immersion blender.
- Add tomatoes to the pan, stir and cook, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Once the eggplant is ready, transfer it to a cutting board and cut into bite size pieces. Add them to the sauce and keep warm.
- Cook pasta according to package directions for al dente. Drain.
- Serve the eggplant sauce over the pasta. Top with grated cheese and basil or parsley.