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From Stanley Tucci’s “Searching For Italy”: Spaghetti Alla Nerano

From Stanley Tucci’s “Searching For Italy”: Spaghetti Alla Nerano
Stanley Tucci with today’s featured dish at the Ristorante where it was invented.

Stanley Tucci’s 6-part series for CNN is an Italophile’s dream.

For one hour a week, its viewers are immersed in the food of a single region of Italy.  For lovers of the Italian language, there’s a surprising amount of it spoken here. Subtitles are provided in English.  Last week, the series was picked up for another season. Wonderful news because the goal of the series is to cover all 20 regions of the country.

Tucci started his food odyssey in Naples before heading to Amalfi where today’s dish was invented.

Spaghetti alla Nerano is a celebrated dish named after the beach town where it was invented. It is pasta and zucchini gastronomically elevated with elements of Cacio e Pepe.  A great zesty dish, it relies on provolone to bring an otherwise bland vegetable to life. Topped with basil it even smells wonderful.  And I have to add that it’s incredibly economical. The most expensive thing on the plate is the Provolone.  But on the way to the recipe, I encountered a surprising amount of confusion for something this simple. Odd because unlike so many famous recipes, Spaghetti alla Nerano’s invention can be traced to one woman and one restaurant.

Maria Grazia invented Spaghetti alla Nerano ‘just for fun’ in 1952.

Stanley Tucci and his wife, Felicity Blunt with Chef Lello.

At her eponymous restaurant, founded by her mother in 1901, Maria’s precise recipe remains a well-guarded secret.  Having convinced the Chef, grandson of its inventor, to cook the dish on camera, Tucci quickly uncovers the addition of Butter. But that was not all.  I was so keen on the dish, I re-watched the segment several times.   Then I went to find the recipe. It never approximated what I had seen. I bypassed English language recipes and searched in Italian. Not even “La Cucina Italiana”, my go-to on Italian cooking, got it right. In fact, they expressly ruled out using ‘nut oils’ in lieu of E.V.O.   Chef Lello used Sunflower Oil.  My recipe is what I divined from Stanley’s visit to Maria Grazia. With one major exception.  Chef Lello fries his Zucchini and lets it sit overnight, using it the next day.  This I dutifully did.  I could not understand what that achieved.  So the recipe is put together all at once.  And it’s simply wonderful.

Spaghetti Alla Nerano is actually less tricky to get right than the Roman classic, Cacio e Pepe.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it, but not completely. The pasta water is as essential as the butter in making the sauce creamy. Add the fried zucchini rounds and then the pasta to the skillet and a ladleful of pasta water. Mix everything together vigorously for a minute or two. (The zucchini rounds are bound to break up, but that’s normal.) Then add the grated cheese and some more basil leaves and continue mixing until the cheese has completed melted into a creamy sauce, adding more pasta water if needed.

The Cheese is essential to the dish. Choose wisely.

A great number of recipes use Provolone di Monaco. “Monk’s Provolone” is a local cheese from the Sorrento peninsula. It’s incredibly expensive in this country.  A substitute is Caciocavallo at half the price. Another is Provolone. Provolone is made by hanging up the cheese to age. The longer the cheese is aged, the harder it becomes and the sharper its flavor.  So if budget is an issue, Provolone Piccante is a great choice.  But if all else fails, a mixture of 70 % Pecorino and 30 % Parmigiano will approximate the salty, tangy, spiciness of the genuine article. Here, at last, is the recipe, followed by some other favorite pasta dishes.

 

 

 

Maria Grazia Ristorante is located at Marina del Cantone, 80061, Nerano, Campania, Italy. There a serving of Spaghetti alla Nerano will set you back 18 Euros.

Spaghetti Alla Nerano

March 1, 2021
: 4-6
: 15 min
: 20 min
: 35 min
: Once you've conquered making the cream sauce, you've got it made.

A simply wonderful dish created with so few ingredients, the secret is really in the quality of those ingredients and the technique used to make the creamy sauce that covers every strand of spaghetti.

By:

Ingredients
  • 400g (14 oz) spaghetti
  • 800g (1-1/2 lbs) zucchini, sliced into thin rounds
  • 200g (7 oz) Caciocavallo, Provolone Piccante, or a blend of 70 percent Pecorino and 30 percent Reggiano Parmigiano, grated
  • 2 or 3 garlic cloves
  • Basil leaves
  • Sunflower Oil for the Zucchini
  • Olive Oil to sauté the garlic.
  • Several knobs of butter
  • salt and lots of freshly ground pepper
Directions
  • Step 1 First, thinly slice the zucchini. Taste a raw piece before frying – only use the zucchini if it’s sweet. If it has a bitter aftertaste, don’t use it as it will ruin the dish.
  • Step 2 Dry the zucchini on paper towels.
  • Step 3 Heat the oil on medium-high. Drop the zucchini into the oil and cook until light brown in color
  • Step 4   Once fried, drain and dry them with paper towels. Put some torn basil leaves atop the zucchini to give more flavor to the blandness of the vegetable.
  • Step 5 In the meantime, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add lots of salt.
  • Step 6 Drizzle a sauté pan with olive oil and cook two cloves of garlic in the pan.
  • Step 7 Cook the spaghetti until just al dente.
  • Step 8 Drain the al dente pasta and set aside two cups of the cooking water.
  • Step 9 Remove the garlic from the pan and finish cooking the spaghetti in the saute pan. Add a few knobs of butter and then the zucchini. Then add half the cheese and mix everything together vigorously for a minute or two. (The zucchini rounds are bound to break up, but that’s normal.) Then add more basil leaves, and continue mixing until the cheese has completed melted into a creamy sauce, adding more pasta water if need be.
  • Step 10 Finish with grated cheese. Top with fresh basil and serve with lots of freshly ground pepper.


20 thoughts on “From Stanley Tucci’s “Searching For Italy”: Spaghetti Alla Nerano”

    • Dear Joanne, I just heard that yesterday! I found it astonishing to pass this off as the original recipe when it was from another restaurant. In doing my research, I had no clue that this could have been anywhere else because if you do a photo search, you’ll see the same color scheme that appears in photos of Maria Grazia’s exterior and the shots of Stanley with the chef making this dish. I find the whole thing very unsettling to be truthful.

    • Hello Walter. I did prepare it that way and fully expected some advantage to doing so. But we could neither see nor taste any difference between the zucchini that we refrigerated and that which we cooked along with the rest of the dish. I would love an explanation but I am afraid I will have to go to Maria Grazia to find out. And wouldn’t I love to! All best, Monte

      • On the show the chef said he leaves it overnight to draw out moisture. I’m assuming that will flavor the pasta when tossed together. I’m going to do it exactly as on the show this weekend and see what happens.

        • Hi Monica, I did it both ways. I quite expected that the reason to leave it overnight was to draw out moisture from the notoriously water-filled zucchini. I put it into a metal bowl and refrigerated it overnight. The next day, there was no residual water in the bowl at all. I cooked the dish and t was wonderful. The next time I cooked it, I eliminated that step and used the freshly fried zucchini. We could find no material difference in the two versions. I so appreciate your taking the time to comment. I have one favor to ask: Can you come back and tell us what your experience was? We would be most grateful. Buon Appetito!

  • Looks awesome, thanks for this! It would be super helpful if you’d describe the frying between steps one and two here. How long are they fried for? Are they dropped in the oil dry? Thanks!

    • Dear James, what an awful omission. I have gone back and changed the recipe thanks to you. I think you will find all of your answers in the revise. Thanks so much for taking the time to write.

  • Thank you for the transcription! the way they describe the deliciousness and gobbled it up during the segment convinced me it was one to try! i was about to use the La Cucina Italiano version… glad i did one more search!

    • Dear Sara, I am so please you did. I was very surprised by La Cucina’s recipe. It used Olive Oil instead of the Sunflower oil used on the show and actually advised against using ‘nut oils’. But that overnight business on the program threw me for a loop because, as I wrote, I simply didn’t see or taste any difference whatsoever. I guess it’s time to go to Amalfi and check this out for ourselves. Thanks so much for taking the time to write. Monte

  • Perhaps the advantage to frying and sitting overnight, is that in the restaurant kitchen setting, it is already “prepped and ready to go” for the final step before serving. Just a thought?

    • Dear Christine, An excellent one! Thank you so much for commenting. I think you are right on the money. Buon Appetito!

  • I don’t understand. The program where this recipe was made showed that OIL was NOT used in the preparation. Tucci even commented on this. Yet EVERY recipe I have found (and many refer to the Tucci specials) use oil and don’t explain why they don’t use butter, as the people at the restaurant Tucci visited did.

    • The Chef used Sunflower oil. The butter is used only after the zucchini is added to the pasta. If you go back to watch the recipe again, you will see him using the oil. The secret they had kept from Tucci was the addition of butter. Honestly, for such a simple recipe, can you believe how much controversy there is? Thanks for writing Cathy!

  • Hi,
    I made it twice, I read several recipes, I did cook the zucchini in sunflower oil, the night before the 1st time, I found it to be the same. I did notice you need to taste the zucchini for sweetness. Did anyone blend half of the zucchini? I added a garlic parsley compound butter cooked for 30 seconds, added a little pasta water, the mixed all together, took off the heat and added the cheese, basil , and the second one was much better, maybe the butter and garlic, and I tasted the zucchini for sweetness. Had fun playing with my food

    • Hi Linda, Thank you so much for taking the time to write. I am glad we had the same shared experience with the Zucchini overnight vs. the same day. I am intrigued by your use of garlic butter. I can practically taste it. Sounds like a wonderful idea. Always play with your food! Buon Appetito!

  • I made this dish last evening. I could not find the cheeses suggested (Live in a very small town) so I used deli Provolone (70%) and Parmesan (30%). I ended up with a cheese glob. It probably was the cheeses but you do not indicate how much pasta water to add. I saved 2 cups and just added it to get my cheese ball to make sauce. It didn’t. I love the idea of veggies and pasta and want to make this again.

    • Dear Janean, I am so sorry about the glob. I used hard provolone and parmigiano. Deli Provolone is one of the great melting cheeses but I am afraid that it melted too much and created your ‘glob”. I didn’t mention how much pasta water to add, simply because you should add it slowly once you’ve added the butter and cheese. Do try it again and see if you can find hard provolone. It will work much better! Thanks so much for taking the time to write. Monte

  • One way to be able to mage the addition of the pasta water (to any recipe but for this one especially) is to use tongs to remove the pasta from the salty and starchy “golden” pasta cooking water and imply place it in the sauté pan to finish with the zucchini, butter and cheeses. Then, just use a spoon or ladle to add the pasta water one spoon or ladle at a time until you achieve the right consistency . I never drain pasta using a colander. This method avoids making another dirty dish and, more importantly gives you complete control over the sauce consistency.

    • Dear William, I cannot thank you enough for adding this great piece of advice to this recipe. You are bang on using the tongs and it’s a brilliant suggestion. The pasta water should be added by the spoonful as that it the only way to achieve the consistency you want–which I think is a personal preference. Now I am going to try to master Pelligrino Artusi’s recipe for Bolognese which is so radically different from the way I have made Bolognese for years. Stay tuned!

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