A Pennsylvania Pastor, With a Recipe for Pasta Alla Norma

Because of his cooking reputation, Father Richard James has participated and won awards in several ‘Cooks with Collars’ events over the past three years

‘Pasta alla Norma’
‘Pasta alla Norma’ (photo: Stefano Politi Markovina / Shutterstock)

Pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament in Bally, Pennsylvania, Father Richard James spoke first about the historical significance of his parish.

“It is one of the oldest in nation, started in 1741, and the building was finished in 1743. And outside cows live across the street for pastoral, dairy farming.” And the church bulletin itself describes the origins of the church:

Our church was built in 1743, two years after the founding of the mission by Father Theodore Schneider, S.J., and was originally dedicated to St. Paul. This original structure in forms the rear the Church behind the sanctuary. The original Chapel is still intact.

For Father James, a native of Elysburg, Pennsylvania, serving as its pastor must be very special for him. He was born and raised in a devout Catholic family and says, “Both parents taught us to love others, and to trust in prayers of the Blessed Mary. They loved the Mass and the Liturgy. We knew the Rosary and it has always been a great protection for us all, and definitive in my life in many ways.”

Father James started thinking about joining the priesthood while in high school.

“Toward the end of high school,” he said, “I was fascinated by reading Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, and I always give them credit. I thought and I believed in God and the light of reason was illuminated by faith and my deeper practice of the faith.”

He attended daily Mass, and before seminary, he found a job at a business right next door to the church. As he got closer to the Lord, he entered seminary in 2004 and went to St. Charles Borromeo seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Father James spent eight years there. After another eight years as a parish priest, he was sent to Rome to study moral theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as the Angelicum.

And that experience really opened the gates to his passion for cooking.

“The food in Rome is delicious,” he said, “and it is so different in each region of Italy with different culinary traditions — in the south, a lot of seafood and in the north, butter and meats.” As a devoted foodie, it is no surprise the Father James cooks and loves all Italian food, and loves to make chicken saltimbocca. His parish has had a dinner auction, and he hosts parishioners and groups and cooks for them.

The menu? First course, pasta all’Amaticiana; second course, chicken saltimbocca.

Because of his cooking reputation, Father James participated in several Cooks with Collars events over the past three years, and his Pasta alla Norcina won him more than $6500 for his parish this past event. Every year the event has gotten bigger as a fundraiser. Last year, I made Pasta alla Norma, and this year, Pasta Norcia, with its sausage in a white sauce over pasta … I used rigatoni.”

And his primary cooking drive?

“I love to eat,” he said. “I picked up a lot of cooking tips as a seminarian. I used to live with Father Wayne Killian. He was the chaplain at Lehigh University and offered me a place to live as a seminarian. We did most of our meetings in the kitchen. I just watched him, and he learned from his mom, who was a professional cook, prepare meals. And whatever I needed to know, I looked up online.”

Did his mother cook? “She did,” he said. “She is a good Irish-German woman and learned to cook Italian food for her Italian husband. I ate a lot of her food.”

And he noted that he also cooks for his parents, everything Italian. “I hosted Thanksgiving dinner the last couple of years,” he said, “and I cooked turkey, as well as kielbasa and ham … very standard, old-world style in my region.”

Pasta alla Norma

For the pasta, Father James said, “I recommend strozzapreti or casarecce.”

Ingredients for 1 pound pasta (serves 4):

  • 2 medium eggplants
  • Salt
  • 1 can peeled San Marzano tomatoes
  • 1 bulb garlic (use as much or as little as you like)
  • Ricotta Salata cheese 
  • Fresh basil 
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


  1. Cube the eggplant into slightly larger than bite-size pieces. Heavily salt the pieces, mix them, and place them in a colander. Place something like a baking sheet under the colander to collect the liquid that is released from the eggplant. You can also place something heavy on them to press the eggplant now a bit to speed up the process.
  2. After about 30 to 40 minutes, much liquid should have been shed and the eggplant should be rinsed thoroughly. The pieces will usually shrink considerably. Lay out rinsed eggplant and let them dry on a towel while you prepare the sauce.
  3. Add the can of tomatoes to a bowl and break them up with your hands. Adding salt to the water, get a large pot of water boiling for the pasta. Meanwhile, slice the garlic to desired size and cook in a large skillet with some olive oil until the garlic is fragrant. Add to the tomatoes, and add salt and pepper to taste. Keep the salt slightly lower than normal because the cheese is very salty. Allow the sauce to reduce over a medium-low heat.
  4. In a separate pan, heat an inch of olive oil to frying temperature and add your eggplant pieces in small batches and fry them until crispy on outside and soft and warm on inside. (Time will depend on size). Removed the eggplant and allow them to drain on paper towels.
  5. Cook the pasta to al dente. After about 8 to 10 minutes, the sauce should be reduced. Check it for seasoning. Reduce heat and add fresh basil and eggplant pieces. Add some pasta water and cook everything together for one minute or until sauce thickens and reduce heat. Grate in some Ricotta Salata cheese and mix. Either add your cooked pasta and mix in skillet or serve over pasta individually.