September 2013: Italy

Quick Facts

Official Language(s): Italian
Some Other Languages Spoken: Arpitan Catalán, Corsican, Emilian, Ligurian, Lombard, Piemontese, Romani, Sardinian, Sicilian.
Ethnic Groups: Italian (includes small clusters of German-, French-, and Slovene-Italians in the north and Albanian-Italians and Greek-Italians in the south)

Food Facts:
Though you’ll find more risotto, polenta, and butter in Northern Italy, spicy tomato sauces in Central Italy, and fish, olive oil, and salty components in Southern Italy, each of Italy’s 20 regions has its own cuisine and traditional dishes which have been shaped by geography, history, and climate. Some regions are mountainous, some landlocked, and some are almost completely surrounded by the sea with weather ranging from snow to fog and high winds to mostly sun. Influences range from Arab and Greek to French and Austrian. Typically, Italian dishes only utilize 4 to 8 ingredients, but rely on the quality of each ingredient to make simple yet elegant meals with uncomplicated preparation.

Recipe: Pasta alla Norma
Pasta alla Norma is a classic Sicilian dish that was developed in the city of Catania. The origin of the dish goes back to Vincenzo Bellino, who was born in Catania and was a 19th century composer known for his opera “La Norma”. It’s said that a chef from Catania named the dish after the opera as a tribute to Vincenzo. During those times, the dish was presented as a mountain-like mound of pasta, topped with a rich tomato sauce, a dusting of ricotta salata, and a layer of sliced eggplants arranged at the bottom to represent Mount Etna with its land, snow, and flowing lava. Recipes vary widely with different types of pasta, fresh or canned tomatoes for the sauce, and the use of aromatics. The key to a successful dish is in the quality of the ingredients, including the use of small to medium eggplants, as they tend to be less bitter, and the ricotta salata, which is ricotta that has been pressed, salted, and dried, resulting in a hard textured cheese with a salty and nutty flavor.

2 pounds eggplant
extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
optional: 1 dried red chili, crumbled
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
a large bunch of fresh basil, stems finely chopped, leaves reserved
1 teaspoon good herb or white wine vinegar
2 14-ounce cans of good-quality chopped plum tomatoes, or 2 cups passata
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound dried spaghetti
6 ounces salted ricotta, pecorino, or Parmesan cheese, grated


First of all, get your nice firm eggplants and cut them into quarters lengthwise. If they’ve got seedy, fluffy centers, remove them and chuck them away. Then cut the eggplants across the length, into finger-sized pieces. Get a large nonstick pan nice and hot and add a little oil. Fry the eggplants in two batches, adding a little extra oil if you need to. Give the eggplants a toss so the oil coats every single piece and then sprinkle with some of the dried oregano—this will make them taste fantastic. Using a pair of tongs, turn the pieces of eggplant until golden on all sides. Remove to a plate and do the same with the second batch.

When the eggplants are all cooked, add the first batch back to the pan. If adding the dried red chili, do that now. Turn the heat down to medium and add a little oil, the garlic, and the basil stems. Stir so everything gets evenly cooked, then add a swig of herb vinegar and the cans of tomatoes, which you can chop or blend. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, then taste and correct the seasoning. Tear up half the basil leaves, add to the sauce, and toss around.

Get your spaghetti into a pan of salted boiling water and cook according to the package instructions. When it’s al dente, drain it in a colander, reserving a little of the cooking water, and put it back into the pan. Add the Norma sauce and a little of the reserved cooking water and toss together back on the heat. Taste, and adjust the seasoning, then divide between your plates by twizzling the pasta into a ladle for each portion. Any sauce left in the pan can be spooned over the top. Sprinkle with the remaining basil, grated cheese, and oil.

Serves 4.


Share this story!