This classic Sicilian pasta is one of my favorite vegetarian pasta recipes. It's full of umami! It tosses cooked fusilli noodles with eggplant, tomatoes, fresh herbs and capers. You can use other pasta shapes, but the sauce clings to the shape of the fusilli to maximize the flavor of the dish.Jump to Recipe
Want to make this recipe perfectly the first time? I want to help with that. So, check out this Table of Contents to see which sections of this post will help you the most.
Travel is a wonderful opportunity to explore cultures, food and people that are completely new to us. Italy is one country I visit over and over, and continue to find new vistas of all kinds. I am a complete Italophile.
Italy, of course is synonomous with pasta. It's often served after the appetizer and before the entree, and is a common lunch. Each region is known for its own pasta.
The Ligurian coast lays claim to basil pesto, tossed with its trademark thin trofie pasta that's rolled in the palm of a nonna's hand. Bologna has its bolognese, and Rome its carbonara. Aglio e olio, a simple favorite of mine, hails from Campania, in southern Italy. I make a version of aglio e olio with spaghetti squash that's fabulous.
And another favorite vegetarian pasta recipe at our house is this eggplant pasta with tomatoes, a common Sicilian pasta dish known as pasta alla norma.
🤷♀️ What is pasta alla norma?
Like many pastas from southern Italy, pasta alla norma needs only a few simple ingredients. Eggplant is sautéed until tender. Fresh, fully ripe tomatoes are cooked down to create a rich and distinctive sauce that's full of umami. Garlic and fresh herbs, such as fresh basil, bring the flavors of the sauce together. And it's typically finished by grating salty ricotta salata over the top before serving.
Rigatoni is the traditional pasta noodle used in pasta alla norma, but I prefer fusilli. A generation (or more) ago, women in Sicily twisted dough around their knitting needles to form fusilli's spiral shape that hugs sauces so well. But luckily, we can buy it in a box today.
🧅 Main Ingredients + Notes
The secret to faster and easier meals often lies in the ingredients. For example, store-bought items and ingredients you make ahead and store in the refrigerator (or freezer) can turn a 60-minute recipe into a 30-minutes meal or less.
For the all of the ingredients, measurements and directions for the pasta alla norma recipe, go to the Recipe Card at the bottom of this post.
- Globe eggplant - Italian eggplant is also great, which look like small globe eggplant, but the long, skinnier Chinese eggplant is too sweet for this dish.
- Dried fusilli pasta - or other type of pasta you prefer.
- Yellow onion
- Red pepper flakes
- Tomatoes - both fresh, ripe tomatoes and canned tomatoes are fine in this recipe. If you buy canned tomatoes, be sure to use San Marzano tomatoes, either whole or diced. Fresh cherry tomatoes or grape tomatoes work great too.
- Fresh herbs - such as fresh basil, thyme or oregano
- Ricotta salata - or other salty cheese, such as Parmesan cheese or pecorino romano.
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🔪 Recommended Equipment
Having the right equipment for recipes makes prepping soooo much easier. If you want more fuss-free prepping and cooking, check out my updated list of favorite kitchen tools and equipment.
📝 Instructions Overview
Detailed instructions for making this Sicilian pasta are in the recipe card below, but here's an overview!
Prep the eggplant. Peel the eggplant and cut into cubes. Place in a colander, lightly salt, and toss. Allow to drain in the sink while you cook the pasta and start the sauce.
Cook the pasta. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta according to the package directions. Reserve ¼ cup pasta water, and drain.
Make the sauce. Sauté the onion in a large skillet in a little olive oil until softened. Add the garlic, capers, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Continue to cook another couple of minutes until very fragrant.
Stir in the chopped tomatoes and drained eggplant cubes. Simmer until the tomatoes and eggplant begin to break down into a rich tomato sauce.
If the sauce is thinner than you prefer, add a little tomato paste, or cook it longer to cook off the liquid.
For an added touch of umami, add a splash of balsamic vinegar to the sauce.
Add the pasta to the sauce. Add the drained pasta to the sauce along with 1 - 2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water (or more, if desired), and stir to coat. Stir in the fresh herbs, such as basil, oregano or thyme.
Serve. Serve with grated ricotta salata.
👩🍳 Should you peel eggplant?
The skin of eggplant is edible, but can be bitter. This is especially true for eggplant that is older and larger. I always recommend peeling eggplant for this recipe.
👩🍳 Why do you salt eggplant?
Salt helps with bitterness as well, but the biggest reason for lightly salting eggplant is to draw out some of its moisture to keep the sauce from getting too full of liquid.
💡Ideas for Possible Variations
- If you like a little crunch, add some pine nuts when you add the capers or a handful of toasted breadcrumbs just before serving.
- I like my eggplant in this pasta alla norma dish to be falling apart and part of the sauce. Here are a couple other ideas:
- Cut eggplant slices about ¼" thick and sauté in olive oil until lightly crisped. Set aside while you make the sauce, and add to the sauce just before serving.
- Roasting cubed eggplant intensifies its flavor. To make roasted eggplant, cube the eggplant, toss in a very small amount of olive oil, and arrange on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Lightly salt and pepper. Roast at 400˚F until tender. The size of the cubes determines the roasting time. Eggplant cut into 1" cubes takes approximately 15 minutes to roast. Add the sauce, and cook an additional 5 - 10 minutes to meld the flavors.
- If you have mozzarella on hand, this can be a great substitute for the ricotta salata. It's a creamier addition than pecorino cheeses, as in this eggplant parmesan with pesto dish.
Sicilian Pasta with Eggplant, Tomatoes and Capers
- 1 large globe eggplant equals about 1 cup cubed
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
- 2 cups dried fusilli pasta
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup minced yellow onion
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 ½ tablespoons capers rinsed
- ¼ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 4 ½ cups chopped tomatoes with their juices canned San Marzano tomatoes can be substituted
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar (optional)
- 4 large fresh basil leaves or fresh thyme or oregano
- 2 tablespoons ricotta salada cheese or pecorino romano or Parmesan cheese
- Slice off the top and bottom from the eggplant and peel, using a vegetable peeler. Slice into ½" cubes and place in a colander. Lightly salt with ½ teaspoon kosher salt and toss.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta to al dente according to the package directions. Reserve ¼ cup of the pasta cooking water, and drain the pasta.
- Heat up the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the onion. Cook until it becomes just tender, about 8 - 10 minutes. Add the garlic, capers, red pepper flakes, the remaining kosher salt, and black pepper. Sauté for 1 - 2 minutes until fragrant.
- Stir in the eggplant and tomatoes, and simmer for 20 minutes or until the tomatoes break down and melt into the sauce, and the eggplant begins to break down as well. Stir in the basil leaves.Taste. If you want a deeper umami flavor, add the optional balsamic vinegar and stir. Simmer for another minute.
- Add the drained, cooked pasta to the sauce, and toss to completely coat. Serve with grated ricotta salata on the side.