I went searching for a good pasta con le sarde and discovered that there are only a handful of Sicilian restaurants in Manhattan. Most of them are only marginally Sicilian, and more pan–Southern Italian. I mentioned this lack in a recent post, and a reader wrote to ask if I had ever been to Gastronomia Norma. No. I had never even heard of it. He thought it was very good and said I should check it out. Well, it turned out to be a few blocks from my mother’s apartment, so I got to the lovely little place quickly, and I’d like to tell you about it.
On first take the restaurant looks like a slightly fancy pizza joint, but as I settled in and gazed around I noticed gorgeous pottery hanging on the wall, dark green and tan, a color scheme I recalled from buying similar pieces near Menfi, in the southwest of Sicily. I learned that the owner had brought the big plates from his hometown of Trapani. There are also wide-mouthed yellow ceramic pots, tall, dark green glass vases, and baskets. The espresso machine and the meat slicer are gorgeous and shiny. A lot of thought went into the ambiance and also, more important, into finding authentic ingredients, as I knew from my first bite of caponata. The man behind the food and the pretty décor is Salvatore Fraterrigo, a native Sicilian but one quite familiar with the New York restaurant world, having worked at Il Buco and at I Trulli, two excellent Italian places. He’s a lively and attentive host, even when the place gets crowded, and it does.
Gastronomia Norma is not a full-on restaurant. It offers no secondi. Pasta and pizza, both baked in the wood-burning oven, are the main things here. But there is also a selection of piccoli piatti, all classic Sicilian, including three types of arancine, Sicilian rice balls. The rice in the squid ink arancine is black as black can be, and the thing is filled with chopped shrimp and tomato. It had my name written all over it. My friend tried the eggplant-filled one, which was also delicious. And you can get taglieri, excellent salumi and cheese platters, all fashioned from high-quality ingredients. I really liked the carpaccio di polipo, octopus cut prosciutto-thin and garnished with orange, fennel, and olives. The caponata was exactly right, with soft collapsed eggplant, whole green olives, and plenty of agro-dolce flavor. It came with grilled bruschetta brushed with olive oil. And speaking of olives, I loved the olive bowl, marinated in cinnamon and fennel, a combination that encapsulates what is special about Sicilian flavors.
I hoped to find an eggplant and ricotta salata pizza, and there it was, the Norma. The eggplant was cooked dark and caramelized, making it especially appealing. The crust on all the pizzas has that yeasty, pully, bubbled up, lightly charred flavor and texture that I always look for but rarely find. For me a pizza place without an anchovy pizza is a sorry, sad place. No problem at Gastronomia Norma. It’s got two. The one with roasted cherry tomatoes and pecorino was my favorite, its anchovies first-rate Sicilian-packed. The pizza with mortadella and ricotta was also a knockout, and I loved the pizza with Italian tuna, black olives, and mozzarella, too.
You can enjoy the house-made porchetta in cabbuci, sandwiches made with Sicilian wood-fired rolls, or on pizzas or as a piccoli piatti. I had a cabbucio, of soft and fatty porchetta, provolone, and arugula, with a glass of rosato as my dinner one night, after visiting my mother down the block. And they make my all time favorite cabbucio, the cunsato, with tomatoes, anchovies, primo sale (very young pecorino), and olives, all soaked in good olive oil. I first tasted a cunsato in San Vito lo Capo, in northwestern Sicily, at a beach-side stand, and I went crazy for it. Good anchovies, of course, were a main draw, but the entire package was perfect. And here it is at Gastronomia Norma.
And Norma had what I wanted most of all, an excellent pasta con le sarde, made as a timballo and baked in the pizza oven. I was hesitant when the dark-crusted, impenetrable-looking dome came to my table. It had been fashioned in a mold and turned out onto the plate. How could it be anything but solid and dry? But when I broke it open, luscious spaghetti with all the expected aromas of fennel, sardine, and saffron came pouring out. Raisins and pine nuts were properly present. And it had lots of sardines, some of them almost puréed, some in big pieces. I was very happy with it.
The baked anelletti, with beef ragù and peas, came in a wide baking dish, its bottom lined with tender eggplant slices, its top crisp with breadcrumbs. It was also spot on. I had that with a glass of the house frappato, a light and really fresh-tasting wine made from a Sicilian grape. On another night I ordered a bottle of Cerasuola, a wine I first tasted in Sicily, a mix of frappato and Nero d’avola, fruity but deeply flavored, with, thankfully, no oak anywhere to be found.
I’ve yet to try the homemade sausage, or the saffron and ragù arancine, or the porchetta pizza, or the panelle, a fried chickpea pancake that’s Sicilian specialty. And there are many more Sicilian wines I’m aching to drink.
I will be back.
Gastronomia Norma is at 438 Third Avenue, between 30th and 31st Streets, in Manhattan. (212) 889-0600.
Baked anelletti, in the back, their arancine con nero di seppia in the pretty white bowl, and glasses of frappato.