If you are a fan of Inspector Montalbano (read our review), then you know the Sicilian detective likes to eat. One of his favorite dishes, prepared by his housekeeper, Adelina, is Pasta ‘Ncasciata, a rich baked dish whose ingredients include a meat ragu, eggplant, a besciamella sauce, caciocavallo cheese, and short dry pasta like rigatoni. After watching an episode where Salvo Montalbano (played by Luca Zingaretti), chowed down with his fellow detectives, Mimi Augello (Cesare Bocci), and Giuseppe Fazio (Peppino Mazzotta), we knew we had to make this dish.
While we have prepared – some more frequently than others – dishes from many regions of Italy including Sicily, we had never made Pasta ‘Ncasciata. But all the components are those we have used in many other dishes. Ragu, the slowly simmered tomato sauce, is a staple, our favorite recipe from one of Marcella Hazen’s cookbooks. Eggplant, in many versions, was a vegetable we grew up with, my maternal grandmother and both our mothers served it often. And Pasta Alla Norma, with tomato sauce, eggplant, and ricotta salata, remains a popular meatless dinner. Besciamella is included in a lasagna dish my husband likes to make, substituting that cream sauce for ricotta cheese. So we knew we would love to prepare and enjoy Pasta ‘Ncasciata.
Although recipes can be found online or in several cookbooks, MHz Choice, the streaming service where Inspector Montalbano can be found, has employed the services of Chef Linda Sarris, who is a bi-annual resident of Palermo, for the blog sent out to subscribers. What a find! Chef Sarris writes about the dishes and includes the recipes. Besides a recipe for Pasta ‘Ncasciata, Chef Sarris has ones for arancini, the fried rice balls Montalbano seems addicted to, and cannoli, consumed by the show’s pathologist, Marco Pasquano (played by Marcello Perracchio). The instructions are detailed and easy to follow, and the photos by Anna Trifirò mouthwatering.
Of course, any dish is only as good as its ingredients. Not being in Palermo, but in Alexandria, Virginia, we drove to an Italian store that caters to chefs, home cooks, and anyone who enjoys Italian food. We were seeking the caciocavallo cheese, which we had been unable to locate at Whole Foods. Similar to provolone, although not quite as sharp, caciocavallo is a type of stretched-curd cheese made from either sheep’s or goat’s milk. It has a hard rind and comes in a shape that resembles a bell. For the recipe, the cheese needs to be cut into small cubes.
The other main ingredients were easy to find at Whole Foods, or, in fact, any other supermarket. We made the ragu a day ahead (letting it sit overnight, we feel, makes for a richer sauce). The day we planned to serve the dish, we cut the eggplant into cubes, salted them and left them in a colander to bring out some of the moisture. (Chef Sarris doesn’t include this step in her recipe, but we find removing some of the water from the eggplant results in less oil being absorbed during frying.) We fried the eggplant, draining the pieces on paper towels. We prepared the besciamella and boiled the pasta (slightly undercooking it because it will later be baked). We tossed the cooked pasta with the ragu, adding the eggplant. The mixture was them layered in a baking dish, the cheese and besciamella added in between layers. A final drizzle of besciamella and a grating of parmigiano and the dish went into a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. We checked to make sure the dish was bubbling and the cheese melted.
We enjoyed our Pasta ‘Ncasciata with a red wine from Sicily, toasting Adelina and Montalbano. We can’t wait to make this dish again.
Top photo: the finished dish