There are a lot of things that I love about food. The inherent ability of a few humble ingredients to showcase cultures around the world, unique and beautiful flavors that can surprise and connect with each other, and the absolute joy that brings me to preparing a plate of food for someone as an act of love – to name a few. Especially during this time when our travels were anchored, I loved the gift of food to transport us somewhere entirely new.
For the past few weeks, I have religiously spent my Sunday evenings watching Stanley Tucci on In search of Italy. The limited food series on CNN has truly been a gift to my soul during this time. It took an hour to indulge a little urge to travel through Italy. Perhaps this is the moving way Tucci takes us through different regions of Italy, highlighting the traditions and cultures behind some familiar dishes of Italian cuisine while also introducing us to lesser-known regional specialties (at least for I). It shows what makes Italian food culture so special.
There were so many amazing dishes on the show that inspired my online search for recipes to replicate, and until I could make it to Italy on my own, the only recipe I immediately made was the Spaghetti all Nerano.
It’s the same dish Tucci learns to make from a chef on the Amalfi Coast in Lo Scoglio, and Oh. my. my God. you all. I’m already counting the days until I can visit Italy myself.
Before I jump into a full review of a TV show, let’s talk about this dish. The only thing I really enjoyed learning about In search of Italy was the inherent emphasis on simple ingredients that, when processed right, give you something magical, and how the joy and care of a dish can really make all the difference. So often we rush around to have dinner on the plate without really experiencing the process or the care of the ingredients, and I want to improve myself in that area.
After doing some research, alright, kinda like going down the rabbit hole pasta dishes on the Internet – 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 can have their own specialties, just like cities – where the dishes speak not only of the characteristics of a region, but also of a time and time. ‘a very specific place. While beaches are one thing that brings people to Nerano, a small fishing village built in the mountains on the Amalfi Coast, the same goes for this fried zucchini pasta.
All locals know the story: the legendary dish was invented in 1952 by Maria Grazia, who owned a restaurant in Nerano named after her (and where two of her grandchildren, Lello and Andrea, still work to this day) . So many people have tried to recreate this seemingly humble dish of local summer pasta and zucchini that it has come to be known as ‘Spaghetti alla Nerano’ to distinguish it from all other zucchini spaghetti.
So let’s get to the recipe. First of all, my version of this dish is probably still a long way from the Italian version, even with such a short ingredient list. But I did my best to imitate him as best I could with what we have here.
Because the dish is so simple, it comes down to mastering the technique. Even on the show, Tucci explains to the chef how when he and his wife try to cook the dish at home, it’s still not as good as what they have in the restaurant. The chef shows them how to slice it courgette should be fried in plenty of oil (literally an entire pan) until slightly crisp, then refrigerated overnight to soften. The zucchini are then heated in a pan with cooked spaghetti, butter and grated cheese to finish. Since most nights I’m just looking for a 15 minute dinner and don’t want to wait until the night, I took a few liberties which is why I mention that my version is still a few steps away from the original.
Although I invite you to try the frying method mentioned above because it is delicious, I sautéed the zucchini slices with shallot – not traditional – and garlic, until they just take on a shade of gold. You then take about a third of the zucchini and add them in a blender with a little pasta water and some basil – also non-traditional – for the sauce. Bring it all in with a dab of butter and grated parma and you have a winner. Even my dad who is Mr. Picky Eater was a fan!
While not quite the same as traveling to Italy, this pasta plate was a close second. And more so, I’m delighted to continue to peel layers of regional Italian cuisine to go beyond my favorite Neapolitan pizza (uh, was that my favorite episode when Tucci got to try the freshest buffalo mozzarella and them? San Marzano tomatoes?). Some books I am delighted to get started since the series has just broadcast its last episode, including Rome tasting, Southern Italian cuisine, and Bitter honey.
Just a reminder that cooking is always more than what you see; that regionality and local decision-makers are much more than what we often think of as a monolith; and there are so many great recipes to learn. I hope you enjoy this dish as much as I do.