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This easy, cheesy, zucchini spaghetti recipe is creamy and decadent. But unlike other Spaghetti alla Nerano recipes, this one simplifies things, so you can make this special dish without much effort or time.
Searching for Spaghetti alla Nerano
Here’s the deal: I’m lazy. Especially when it comes to developing recipes. Nothing makes me happier than to find the perfect recipe and recommend it to other people. No work for me!
But this was one of those times when I searched and searched and finally determined that if I wanted to make this dish, I was going to have to do some work.
It’s Stanley Tucci’s fault
I was hooked on Stanley Tucci’s CNN series Searching for Italy from the very first episode, when he went to a restaurant on the Amalfi coast to revisit one of his favorite dishes, Spaghetti alla Nerano.
The episode was vague about the actual recipe, but according to Tucci’s conversation with the chef at Lo Scoglio, a few things seemed to be key:
- Thin slices of zucchini should be deep-fried in sunflower oil and then left in the refrigerator to sit overnight
- Most of this zucchini will be broken up when putting the recipe together, leaving very little of it recognizable as zucchini
- Adding butter is mandatory, an apparently important fact that Tucci jokingly accused the family of keeping from him
I immediately started googling for a recipe.
A closely-guarded secret
Of course, it wasn’t that easy, because the restaurant that invented the dish, Maria Grazia, wasn’t giving the recipe up, and neither was the family who ran the restaurant in the Searching for Italy episode. Plus, I didn’t even know if those two recipes were at all the same. So, I couldn’t find a definitive one.
Instead, I looked at dozens of recipes, and while most were some variation of zucchini cooked in oil, garlic, spaghetti, and cheese, they went off in different directions from there.
Some called for a mix of Parmesan and Romano. Some called for provolone. Some called for a mix.
A few mentioned specific kinds of zucchini, like the light-green ribbed kind.
Most had you deep-fry the zucchini in batches, then drain it on paper towels (on the show they did not drain it). Some instructed you to puree half of the zucchini. Most wanted you sauté a clove of garlic in olive oil and then remove it before cooking the zucchini.
None mentioned sunflower oil. Some used butter, but most didn’t.
I made some changes
After reading so many recipes, and watching the segment from the show a few more times, I had come to a few conclusions. One, I had no desire to deep fry the zucchini, even the show made it sound like that was the key to the dish. Deep frying is wonderful, but I was looking for a weeknight pasta recipe, not a big production.
I also didn’t want to leave the fried zucchini to rest overnight. That just seemed excessive, and needed more planning than I usually do for dinner (I tend to save my big, multi-day productions for baking).
So, whatever recipe I came up with, it wasn’t going to be exactly like what I saw on the show, because I’m not a restaurant. That’s also why I still like going to restaurants, even though I’m a really good cook: they do things routinely that I will never bother doing even once.
I decided to try making this with what I had on hand, so for my first version, I fried a crushed clove of garlic in olive oil, removed it, and shallow fried the zucchini, removed it with a slotted spoon, and let it rest for a while as I did other things.
Then I heated it back up, added some salt and pepper, some al dente pasta and pasta water, and stirred in a mix of three-quarters Romano and one-quarter Parmesan. I added some torn basil and had a taste.
It was good, but really nothing special. A bit bland. And frying the zucchini in batches was a pain.
I found the secret ingredient!
For my next try, I looked for a more appropriate cheese. Many recipes claimed that the cheese used in the original recipe would have been a local cheese called Provolone del Monaco, which of course I wouldn’t be able to find at my regular grocery store.
But according to this site, it’s a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese that’s aged for at least six months and tastes like butter. So, I bought the closest thing I could easily find: a block of aged provolone described as “very firm yet buttery in texture.”
I also simplified things by sautéing the zucchini in only as much olive oil as I would use in the recipe—no draining required. And I added zested garlic near the end to give it a little kick.
The key though, did turn out to be the cheese! I’ve never been a huge fan of provolone, but in this recipe it’s just perfect. Grate it as finely as possible to make an easy, smooth sauce.
And of course, I added some butter. I thank Stanley Tucci for doing the legwork on that one.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound light green or striped zucchini, like romanesco or cocozella, sliced very thin
- 2 cloves garlic, zested or minced
- 4 ounce block aged provolone, grated
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 8 ounces uncooked spaghetti
- Handful of basil leaves
- Kosher salt
- Ground black pepper
- Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat and add the olive oil; at the same time, heat a large pot of salted water for the pasta
- When the oil is hot, add the sliced zucchini and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and starting to brown
- Season with salt and pepper, and remove from the heat
- When the zucchini is almost done, add the spaghetti to the boiling water and cook until short of al dente, about 8 minutes, stirring frequently to keep from sticking
- When the spaghetti is about 3 minutes from being done, put the pan with the zucchini over medium heat and cook for 2 minutes to heat it back up, stirring occasionally, then add the garlic and cook for another minute, stirring frequently
- Remove the pot of pasta from the heat, bring it close to the pan of zucchini, and using tongs, add the spaghetti to the zucchini, along with about a quarter cup of pasta water and the butter
- Stir the pasta into the zucchini, adding more water if necessary to cook the pasta until al dente, then gradually stir in the cheese (saving a spoonful for garnish), adding more pasta water if the cheese isn't getting creamy
- When the cheese has melted completely, remove the pan from the heat and tear the basil over the pasta, gently stir it in, and serve, garnished with the remaining cheese
The most important part of the timing is to make sure that the pasta is done cooking after the zucchini is ready, since you'll be adding the pasta to the zucchini right from the pot. It's fine if the zucchini sits around waiting for the pasta.
If your pasta does get done before the zucchini, make sure to save at least a cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta and cover it to keep warm.
If you can only find darker green zucchini, taste a slice to see if it's bitter. If it is, put the slices into a colander and toss with a teaspoon of salt. Let sit for ten minutes, then rinse off and pat dry.