Every Tuesday, Italian local Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
This pasta dish is an example of how little Italian towns and villages can have their own specialties, just like cities—where dishes speak not only to the traits of an area, but also to a very specific time and place. While the beaches are one thing that bring people to Nerano, a tiny fishing village built into the mountains on the Amalfi Coast, so does this pasta with fried zucchini.
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, still work to this day). So many have tried to recreate this seemingly humble dish of pasta and local summer zucchini that it has become known as “Spaghetti alla Nerano” to distinguish it from any other spaghetti with zucchini.
Let's begin with the main ingredients: The zucchini are the Italian kind—very small, sweet, ribbed vegetables, pale green in color. The cheese should be Sorrento's own Provolone del Monaco, a large, semi-aged, five-pound melon-shaped cheese. It may be hard to find outside of the region, so Parmesan or caciocavallo (or even better, a mixture of the two cheeses, which is said to be close to Maria Grazia's original recipe) could stand in. And basil—a few, freshly torn leaves. Some use egg yolks to make a smooth, carbonara-esque sauce; some use mozzarella instead of provolone; and some add a small knob of cold butter. Nerano locals are quick to point out any unacceptable variations, but being that Maria Grazia's original is a secret recipe that no one but the family knows, you will find many slightly different preparations. Indeed, this recipe here is not the original one.
The simple ingredients become a dish very quickly—because you must multitask. While the pasta water is boiling, the zucchini are frying. Then the spaghetti is cooking. A quick purée is made out of some of the zucchini, and then it's all tossed together. The result is a fast, exceptionally tasty pasta dish, where the sauce clings to each strand of spaghetti. Don't think the frying or the touch of butter will make this dish heavy—it's not remotely, and the butter helps "mantecare"—that is, to create that clingy sauce that you need.
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup (125 milliliters) olive oil
4 to 5 small zucchini, sliced into very thin rounds
Salt and pepper
3 ounces (80 grams) grated provolone (or Parmesan)
11 ounces (320 grams) spaghetti
Knob of cold, unsalted butter
Handful of basil leaves
Photos by Emiko Davies