There are many things I love about food. The inherent ability of some humble ingredients to showcase cultures from around the world, the unique and beautiful flavors that can surprise and connect us, and the absolute joy that makes me prepare a plate of food for someone love – just to mention to name a few. Especially during this time when our travels were grounded, I loved the gift of food to take us to a whole new place.
For the past few weeks I have religiously spent my Sunday evenings watching Stanley Tucci search for Italy. The limited food series on CNN was really a gift for my soul at that time. It was a one-hour block of time to allow yourself a little wanderlust all over Italy. Perhaps it’s the soulful way Tucci takes us through different regions of Italy, highlighting traditions and cultures behind some well-known foods from Italian cuisine, and introducing us to some lesser-known (at least to me) regional specialties. It shows what makes the culinary culture of Italy so special.
There were so many incredible dishes on the show that inspired my online search for recipes to replicate, and by the time I can make it to Italy myself, the only recipe I made right away was the Spaghetti all Nerano.
It’s the same dish Tucci learns to make from a cook on the Amalfi Coast in Lo Scoglio, and oh. my. My goodness. her. I’m already counting the days until I can visit Italy myself.
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Before I get into an in-depth TV show review, let’s talk about this dish. The only thing I loved to learn about while looking for Italy was the inherent emphasis on simple ingredients which, when treated well, will give you something magical, and like the joy and care that goes into a dish, really does Can make a difference. So often do we rush to get dinner on the plate without really experiencing the process or the care of the ingredients and I want to improve that.
After doing some research – okay, more like walking the rabbit hole online with pasta dishes – I came across a column by Emiko Davies, who has lived in Italy for over a decade and speaks specifically about this dish. “This pasta dish is an example of how small Italian towns and villages, just like towns, can have their own specialties – where dishes appeal not only to the characteristics of an area, but also to a specific time and place. While the beaches are one thing that brings people to Nerano, a tiny fishing village built into the mountains on the Amalfi Coast, so is this fried zucchini pasta.
All the locals know the story: the legendary dish was invented in 1952 by Maria Grazia, who owned a restaurant in Nerano that bears her name (and where two of her grandchildren, Lello and Andrea, work to this day). So many have tried to recreate this seemingly humble dish of pasta and local summer zucchini that it became known as “Spaghetti alla Nerano” to distinguish it from all other spaghetti with zucchini.
So let’s get to the recipe. First, my version of this dish is probably still a long way from the Italian version, even with such a short list of ingredients. But I’ve tried my best to emulate what we have here as well as possible.
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Because the dish is so simple, it’s about finding the right technique. Even on the show, Tucci talks to the chef about how it’s still not quite as good as what they get at the restaurant when he and his wife try to make the dish at home. The chef shows them how to fry the sliced zucchini in plenty of oil (literally a whole pot) until lightly crispy and then refrigerate overnight to soften them. The zucchini is then heated in a pan with cooked spaghetti, butter, and grated cheese. Given that I’m only looking for a 15 minute dinner most evenings and don’t want to wait overnight, I’ve taken some liberties, which is why I mention that my version is still a few steps away from the original.
While I welcome you to try the above-mentioned roasting method because it’s delicious, I pan-fried the zucchini slices with a little shallot – not traditional – and garlic until they took on just a touch of gold. You then take about a third of the zucchini and put them in a blender with a little pasta water and basil – also not traditional – for the sauce. Bring it all together with a stick of butter and some grated parmesan and you have a winner. Even my dad who is Mr. Picky Eater was a fan!
Though not quite the same as a trip to Italy, that plate of pasta was barely a second. And I’m even more looking forward to peeling off the layers of regional Italian cuisine to go further than just my favorite Neapolitan pizza (um, was that my favorite episode when Tucci got the chance to try the freshest buffalo mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes?). A couple of books I’ve been looking forward to since the last episode of the series aired are Tasting Rome, Food of the Italian South, and Bitter Honey.
Just a reminder that the kitchen is always more than you think. that regionalism and local doers are so much more than what we often consider monoliths; and there are so many beautiful recipes to learn from. Hope you enjoy this dish as much as I do.
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