How to Enjoy Two Different Bellinis in Italy

You’ve probably enjoyed a luscious Bellini or two during brunch but there’s a second Bellini-inspired dish that you have to try in Italy.
Pasta alla Norma (photo: Brent Petersen)
Bellini Cocktail

The Bellini, a delicious combination of peach nectar and Prosecco, is a staple of brunch menus all over the United States. Day drinking never felt so glamorous as a Sunday spent dining outside at a cafe with your plate piled with carbs and a pitcher of Bellinis.

Invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice, the Bellini was originally made with the puree of white peaches, Prosecco, and a little splash of raspberry or cherry juice to give the drink a blush.

It was this pink tint that gave the cocktail it’s name. When Giuseppe Cipriani, the owner and head bartender at Harry’s, saw his creation, he named it Bellini, after the famous Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini. Cipriani said the pale hue reminded him of famous pastel tones of Bellini’s work.

So, flop that out at your next Sunday brunch.

But, when the Bellini’s popularity skyrocketed, there was a problem. Peaches are only in season for a few glorious weeks each summer. If you wanted one in March, you were SOL. So, when a method for preserving peach puree as peach nectar was invented, there was much rejoicing. Bellini’s were now available year-round!

Harry’s Bar in Venice, where the Bellini was invented, has become something of a pilgrimage site for cocktail aficionados. It’s also become a major tourist trap. The bar is owned by a Luxembourg multi-national and cocktail go for about $25(!) Perhaps you’re better off hanging with some friends on a Sunday morning at your fave local brunch spot.

Sicily’s Bellini

While Giovanni Bellini is a well-regarded Renaissance painter, in Sicily, Bellini means one guy; Vincenzo Bellini.

And what truth and power of declamation … in the duet between Pollione and Norma! And what elation of thought in the first phrase of the introduction … no-one ever has created another more beautiful and heavenly.

Guiseppe Verdi, 1898

Vincenzo was a 19th century composer, born in Catania. Like Mozart, Bellini was a child prodigy, supposedly singing arias at 18 months. His most famous works Il pirata, Capuleti, and I puritani are considered classics. And, when guys like Verdi, Wagner, Chopin, and Liszt are in your fan club, you know you’ve got something going.

Bellini statue, Catania, Sicily (photo: Brent Petersen)

But, for all of Bellini’s greatness I think his greatest contribution to Italian culture is the dish Pasta alla Norma, named after his opera “Norma.” Pasta served over fried eggplant with tomato sauce topped with ricotta salata and basil. What could be better? The mellowness of the eggplant with the sweetness of tomatoes and salty sheep’s milk cheese. It must be heaven.

Pasta alla Norma is such a simple dish that it is served at almost every bistro in Catania, and all over Sicily. You’ll find every Sicilian chef has their own version of the dish. I’ve included my own spin on Pasta alla Norma at the end of this article.

For fans of the Bellini the composer, there’s a Bellini statue and museum in Catania. Or, you could listen to his masterpiece “Norma” with Maria Callas and Franco Corelli. In the 2½ hours it takes to listen to, you can make Pasta alla Norma, open a bottle of Nero d’Avola, enjoy both, plus dessert and still have time to recline and close your eyes in time for “The Temple of Irminsul.”

Pasta alla Norma recipe

There are dozens, if not hundreds of variations of pasta alla Norma. This recipe is my own and I make it all the time. It’s easy and quick. This recipe serves a lot of people, cut it in half if you like, but it’s also good the next day (just wait to add the cheese and basil).

I like Asian eggplant, the long kind. I know this is heresy to Italians, but Asian eggplant has far fewer seeds than the Italian varieties and is, therefore, less bitter. I like adding the eggplant to the tomato sauce because it melts into the sauce so nicely.

Ingredients:

1 pound penne pasta

1 ½ pounds Asian eggplant

¾ poind ricotta salata

1 28 ounce can of tomatoes (preferably fire-roasted)

1 small onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

Red pepper flakes (optional)

3 tablespoons olive oil

Several sprigs of basil

Salt and pepper to taste

·         Preheat oven to 375°

·         Peel eggplant and cut lengthwise into ¼” planks. Lightly salt the eggplant and place in roasting pan coated with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Roast for 20 minutes and check for doneness. The eggplant is cooked when fork tender.

·         While the eggplant is in the oven, cook penne in salted water until al dente.

·         Add 2 tablespoons of oil to a frying pan. Sauté onions and garlic with a pinch of salt until tender. Add tomatoes and red pepper flakes and cook for five minutes. You can leave the sauce chunky or puree mixture until fine.

·         Remove cooked eggplant from the oven and chop into 1 inch squares. Add to tomato sauce. Toss the penne with the sauce, grate cheese on top, add fresh basil and salt and pepper to taste.

Variations

1.      Substitute ricotta cheese for ricotta salata. Fold the ricotta into the tomato sauce off the heat. You may want to add more salt to make up for the missing ricotta salata.

2.      Fry the eggplant instead of roasting it. I like covering the eggplant in rice flour or potato starch before frying in olive oil. Make sure the eggplant is cooked all the way through or it will be tough. Serve the eggplant under that pasta instead of in the sauce.

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