Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Norma is so beautiful, it has inspired a dish: pasta alla Norma. When conductor and cook Riccardo Frizza led performances of Norma at Lyric Opera of Chicago, he shared his recipe and showed how to make this famous dish.
Pasta alla Norma got its name, he explained, when “a Sicilian comedian tried this recipe and said it is so delicious that, ‘Oh, it tastes like Norma!’ Norma at the time stood for something really spectacular. So the dish took this name as a Sicilian recipe.”
“I’m a musician,” he said while chopping eggplant, “but my passion is cooking. My mother never taught me to cook, but I would always watch her when she did it. When I was a kid I never took interest in it. But when I started cooking as an adult, I remembered her preparations - and they worked! My mother was a very good chef. “
“There are a lot of Italian cuisines – they’re even sub-regional sometimes, so you can have different cuisines within 50 kilometers of each other,” he said. “In the south of Italy, we have sun and good weather, which leads to good vegetables like eggplants and tomatoes. In this recipe, we’re using eggplants, tomato, basil and garlic. Afterwards, we’ll add ricotta salata for a nice touch.”
Frizza didn’t start cooking seriously, however, until he met his wife, soprano Davinia Rodríguez at the opera festival in Las Palmas, the capital of one of the Canary Islands off the coast of Northern Africa.
“When I met her, we were young, and nobody was able to cook anything. So I decided to learn, and this grew into a passion for food. We like to go to restaurants and try new recipes. We’ve met many important chefs.”
In September 2016, they opened their own restaurant in Las Palmas. “Davinia was singing the title role in Verdi’s opera Simon Boccanegra with Plácido Domingo in Barcelona. So we called it Boccanegra Wine and Food.
“We change the menu every three or four months because we try to use fresh vegetables, fresh meat we find in the market, which is just 50 meters from our restaurant,” he said.
“I think that cooking is a form of art, as is music,” Frizza said. “There is some relation between conducting an orchestra and running a kitchen. If you’re a chef, you have a brigade working for you and you are on top of everything. Conducting, an orchestra is playing for you, you are coordinating people together, and you are the chef – you have the recipe.”
“In some ways I treat the ingredients like I treat the singers. You have to put them in the right condition to do what they do best. If you fry the eggplant too much, it won’t be good. It’s very important how much we fry it, just like tempo is crucial to the performance of an aria.”
“The more I think about it, the more cooking and conducting have in common,” he mused while garnishing his pasta alla Norma. "Of course, I do prefer conducting an orchestra.”
Pasta alla Norma
- 2 medium sized eggplants
- Several cups Kosher salt for the eggplant
- a generous amount of canola oil for deep frying
- extra virgin olive oil, ideally from Sicily
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 can San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 can San Marzano tomato purée
- a few pinches of oregano
- a bunch of fresh basil
- 2-3 dried chilies, ideally from Sicily or Calabria
- ½ kilo (or just over a 1 lb.) of dried rigatoni
- a generous palm full of fine sea salt for pasta water
- a few pinches of fine sea salt to season the sauce
- a few ounces of ricotta salata, grated
- Prepare eggplants by rinsing them in cold water and trimming off the stems. Slice several thin rounds of eggplant, which will be reserved to garnish the dish. Then slice the rest of the eggplants lengthwise in thin slices. Salt the eggplant slices. After the eggplant slices have sweat moisture for about an hour, rinse off excess moisture and salt, then pat dry.
- Prepare sauce by adding enough olive oil to a hot pan to coat the bottom. Sauté two cloves of garlic in the oil, and remove when the oil has become fragrant and the garlic has just begun to brown. Add a can of whole peeled tomatoes and a can of tomato purée, breaking up any whole peeled tomatoes as necessary. Season with a few pinches of salt and oregano, some dried chilies to taste, and a handful of fresh basil – making sure to reserve some basil leaves for garnish. Simmer for 30 minutes while frying eggplant.
- Fry eggplant in canola oil heated between 350-375 degrees Fahrenheit. Use enough oil for the slices to move around freely without touching the bottom, and work in batches to ensure slices are evenly cooked. Remove excess oil from cooked eggplant by blotting with paper towels.
- Chop fried eggplant and add to sauce. Simmer while preparing pasta.
- Prepare pasta according to the directions on the package, being sure to salt water generously, to cook until al dente.
- Finish the sauce by adding a few ladles of starchy water in which the pasta is cooking.
- Strain pasta and add to the sauce directly, stirring thoroughly to combine.
- Plate pasta and sauce.
- Garnish with reserved eggplant, basil, and grated ricotta salata to taste.
- Listen to Bellini’s Norma and enjoy!