"The tomatoes now are the best they'll be all season," says Joe Pasqualetto, chef at Brooklyn Italian jewel box Rucola, gingerly digging through a bowl of rainbow-colored miniature heirlooms. "And eggplants are at their height, too. That's why this dish, to me, is perfect for right now."
He's talking about pasta alla norma, the classic Sicilian recipe for pasta in tomato-eggplant sauce, spiked liberally with garlic and fresh basil and topped with a dusting of hard, salty cheese. Named in honor of Vincenzo Bellini's opera Norma, the pasta is a quintessential entry in the pantheon of nonna-style dishes that made it to America.
Pasqualetto's breezy version (get the recipe) starts with garlic, sliced thin and gently toasted in a liberal glug of olive oil. "You need to use more oil than you think because the eggplant will soak it all up," says Pasqualetto. "Infusing the oil with garlic first helps give everything else that sweet, mellow flavor," he says.
Once the eggplant has browned a bit, too, he adds in a mix of fresh tomatoes and canned San Marzanos ("they have great juices") and lets everything simmer together. Eventually, the eggplant and tomato melt into a sweet, garlicky puddle, and from there, just about the only thing left to do is run a swath of fresh basil through the sauce as it comes off the heat.
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Toss in some almost-cooked pasta (Pasqualetto uses casarecce, a narrow, tubular breed similar to cavatelli, though you could easily opt for spaghetti or penne instead), give the pan an artful shake or two and plate. The finishing touches? More basil and a shower of powdery Grana Padano, which Pasqualetto prefers to the more traditional ricotta salata for its nutty flavor—a tweak even grandma would approve of.
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