Stanley Tucci’s Spaghetti con Zucchine alla Nerano
If the lusty comments from my gal pals are any indication, I’m definitely not the only one obsessed with Stanley Tucci’s CNN travel show, “Searching for Italy.”
Or with Stanley Tucci, himself, for that matter. (Hey, I’m just keeping it real.)
So, it’s probably no surprise that the food on the show has proved equally enthralling.
Ever since seeing the episode featuring Lo Scoglio’s zucchini pasta, I’ve been so intrigued with this specialty dish of this Amalfi Coast restaurant that’s a favorite of Tucci and his wife Felicity.
I like zucchini, but I can’t say it’s ever captured my fancy enough to get all excited about when it first starts appearing at farmers markets in summer. I mean, it’s no asparagus. Not by a long shot.
So, with just Parmigiano, basil, olive oil, and fried zucchini as the main components in this pasta, how good could this really be?
Turns out very.
In a most simple, satisfying, and soulful way.
“Spaghetti con Zucchine alla Nerano” is featured in Tucci’s book, “Taste: My Life Through Food” (Gallery Books, 2021).
Last year, when I saw that San Francisco’s Omnivore Books had signed copies of the book, I bought a bunch for Christmas gifts, including one for myself. If you covet a signed one, you’re in luck, as Omnivore still has some in stock.
Like the show, the book is a breezy read save for a major health scare that Tucci recounts toward the end of the book, which he was still battling while filming yet somehow disguised mightily.
Like him, the book is full of wit, snark, and charm. He’s not above name-dropping — with feigned embarrassment — the names of friends like Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Colin Firth, and George Clooney. But hey, if they were your buddies, too, you’d do the same.
Most of all, it’s a book about gusto — of living life to the fullest and enjoying every meal with fervor.
Most chapters end with a recipe. In the chapter about “Spaghetti con Zucchine alla Nerano,” Tucci writes that this pasta dish was apparently what fishermen’s wives would cook for their families when zucchini was in season. It was a frugal peasant dish made especially economical if using your own garden-grown zucchini.
This dish is very quick to make — save for one key step.
And that is, frying the zucchini. Because let me tell you, frying 8 to 10 zucchini that have been cut into a mountain of slices will take a good amount of time. About an hour, if I’m being honest. At the end, you will know what it must be like to be a short-order cook.
Tucci’s recipe didn’t specify how thin to slice the zucchini. I figured using a mandoline might leave them too thin and delicate, so I opted for my chef’s knife, slicing them by hand to 1/8-inch thickness. I noted that in the recipe below.
As you fry the zucchini slices, resist the urge to overcrowd your pot or else they will not cook evenly. Just be patient, and do them in batches, each of which will take about 2 minutes or so for them to turn deeply golden.
When you remove each batch from your oil, let them drain on paper towels, and sprinkle with a little salt while they’re still warm. When all your zucchini are fried, store them in a bowl with fresh basil and a generous pour of olive oil.
In fact, if you fry the zucchini the day before making the dish, even better. Not only will this give you a breather after that laborious step, but the zucchini’s flavor will deepen.
The next night, boil the pasta, then reserve a good amount of the cooking water. Add the drained pasta to a pot with the fried zucchini, some of the starchy cooking water, and some of the grated Parmigiano. As you stir everything on low heat, the cheese will melt and emulsify with the pasta water, creating its own velvety, almost creamy sauce that will cling to the noodles.
This is not a hit-you-over-the-head pasta dish with aggressive flavors. It is far more subtle. The pasta is rich tasting from cheese and olive oil, with the fried zucchini adding verdant sweetness and caramelized toastiness.
You could sprinkle some chili flakes overtop for a bit of heat. But I like it as is — a testament to the power of simple ingredients coming together in synchronicity.
Spaghetti con Zucchine alla Nerano
About 1/2 quart sunflower oil or vegetable oil, or, if you choose, olive oil
8 to 10 small zucchini
1 1/2 cups chopped fresh basil
Sea salt to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound spaghetti
3 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Put the sunflower oil in a large pot and bring to a low boil over medium-high heat. You want to bring it up to about 350 degrees in temperature.
Slice the zucchini into thin rounds about 1/8-inch thick and fry in batches in the oil until golden brown. Don’t overcrowd the pot. Each batch will take a couple minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the fried zucchini to a paper-towel-lined plate or tray. Repeat, frying in batches, until all the zucchini is cooked. Sprinkle with basil and the salt to taste. Transfer to a bowl and drizzle liberally with olive oil.
Cover, and refrigerate if not using right away.
When ready to serve, remove zucchini mixture from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature. Boil the pasta until al dente and strain, reserving about 2 cups of the pasta water.
Place the cooked pasta in a large pan or pot over low heat along with the zucchini mixture and combine gently. Add the pasta water, a little at a time, to create a creamy texture. You may not use all of the pasta water. Now add some of the Parmigiano to the mixture and continue to combine by stirring gently and tossing. When the mixture has a slight creaminess, remove from the stove and serve immediately.
Note: The zucchini mixture can be refrigerated for about 5 days for use at a later date. Best to bring it to room temperature before using.
Adapted from “Taste: My Life Through Food” by Stanley Tucci
More Summer Zucchini Recipe to Enjoy: Cheesy Zucchini and Olive Bread