In his restaurants and food ventures such as Del Posto and Eataly, restaurateur Joe Bastianich, author of The New York Times best-seller Restaurant Man, is known for his Italian sensibility — using high-quality, local ingredients prepared as simply as possible. This is a primo example: a dish with its roots in Sicily, from whence hailed composer Vincenzo Bellini. His 1831 opera La Norma has long been believed to be the source of the time-honored name of this homey pasta dish, honoring both the opera and the typical dish of its composer's birthplace.
Noted Italian food writer Giuliano Bugialli, however, whose opinion is usually well worth hearing, feels this is nonsense, that the name simply means "pasta in the usual manner," a nod to its everyday status in Sicily. That's a far less romantic story, but whichever one you prefer, there's no denying the homey, hearty appeal of a plate of tender pasta, fried eggplant cubes, tomato sauce, and cheese.
In Sicily, the usual finish is a sprinkle of salty, dry ricotta salata, but that can be difficult to find in the States. Bastianich embellishes his version with onions for extra flavor and finishes it with a dollop of creamy ricotta. Even Bellini would have to be pleased with that.
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic to the pan and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown. Then, add the crushed tomatoes and reduce the heat to a simmer.
Continue simmering the pomodoro sauce in a saucepan over low heat. Sprinkle the eggplant with salt and place them on paper towels to allow some of the bitter liquid to drain out. Dust the eggplant with flour.
Heat ¼-inch olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic to the pan. Cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown. Add the eggplant cubes and cook, turning frequently to brown on all sides, and adding a little more oil if needed. (The eggplant should be crisp and browned on the outside and tender on the inside.) Remove from the pan and place on paper towels to allow the oil to drain.
In the same pan, cook the onion in the oil, stirring frequently, until tender. Add it to the pomodoro sauce. Season the sauce with salt and pepper, to taste.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Meanwhile, add the eggplant cubes to the pomodoro sauce and heat.
Remove the pasta from the water 2 minutes before it is done and add it to the pomodoro sauce. Add a little pasta water, if necessary, to keep the sauce liquid. Cook until the pasta is tender. Serve with a dollop of ricotta.