For centuries, Sicily has been known for the incredible variety of fruits and vegetables it produces. However, there is one vegetable that is ubiquitous throughout the island and is used extensively in the island's local gastronomy. That vegetable is the eggplant.
The eggplant was first introduced to Sicily during the Arab occupation from 827 to 1061 A.D. It was named melanzana by the Italians of that time, due to the fact that it was roughly the size and shape of an apple and had a unfounded reputation for being poisonous and causing insanity, as mele is the Italian word apple and inzana is the word for insane.
While travelling through Sicily years ago when my two children were barely in their teens, I experienced one of the best eggplant dishes I had ever tasted up until that time. My Sicilian cousin took us all on an excursion to the city of Catania to what he considered to be one of the best restaurants in town.
When we exited the car, it looked as though we were in what may have been Italy's version of the South Bronx. This was not the nicest neighborhood I had ever been in! As I clutched my children close to me, my cousin strolled across the street toward the local horse butcher.
Catania is one of the few places in Sicily where horsemeat is still considered a delicacy. I will admit that I may have been a bit turned off, but my 12-year-old son, who sampled this delicacy the previous night from a street vendor and relished it, was very excited. Luckily, my cousin walked into the adjacent building, which by the way, had no door, no storefront window, no sign, no name, and no horse.
Fifteen minutes later we were ushered into a one-room building with a small residential kitchen, wine barrels built into the wall, and a 10-course meal prepared by the mother and grandmother, served by the daughters, and run by the father, who's responsibilities were to drink wine and check on our wellbeing.
Our food and service were first-class. I walked into the kitchen and made friends with the grandmother, who attempted to arrange a marriage between me and one of her beautiful twin granddaughters. A picture of them still adorns my restaurant wall many years later.
The dish I enjoyed most was the Pasta alla Norma, which in my restaurant goes by the name of pasta Siciliana. It is one of the two signature pasta dishes of Sicily. It is a simple preparation, so it is of the utmost importance that you use nothing but the finest and freshest ingredients.
Pasta with Tomato, Eggplant and Ricotta Salata (Pasta alla Norma)
2 medium eggplants, cut into thin strips, or slices
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Course grained salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 (28-oz.) can whole peeled imported San Marzano tomatoes, entire can including the puree and crush by hand
A bunch (dozen leaves) fresh basil leaves, torn by hand
1 lb. bucatini or ziti, if preferred
Ricotta salata cheese
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Put eggplant into a bowl and drizzle with half the oil. Toss to combine and season with salt and pepper. Transfer eggplant to baking sheet and bake, turning occasionally, until soft, about 15 or 20 minutes. Set aside. Alternatively, sauté the eggplant in vegetable oil on medium heat until soft.
Heat remaining oil in a pan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook just until it turns color slightly, about one minute. Do not brown! Add tomatoes and half the basil, season with salt, and cook until heated through, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until just al dente, according to the directions on the box. Drain pasta and transfer to tomato sauce. Stir in reserved eggplant and toss to combine. Stir in remaining basil and season with salt. To serve, transfer pasta to a platter and grate with ricotta salata.
Chef Gaetano Cannata, owner of Ortygia Restaurant in Village of the Arts, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.