In our family, zucchini are controversial, there are those who consider them utterly redundant and downright dull, others love their nutty, delicate flavor. But with this dish, everyone agrees it’s simply delicious. The particularly creamy texture comes from just a few ingredients. Zucchini, pasta and cheese play perfectly with each other as the stars of the show.
Pasta alla Nerano comes from the Campania region of Italy. The picturesque village of Nerano is located on the Sorrento Peninsula. Supposedly, this dish was created in the 1950s by Maria Grazia, a local cook. She used the fresh ingredients that were available to her right on her doorstep – specifically the famous zucchini from the region. From there, this exceptionally delicious (but not very well-known) pasta made its way to other parts of the world via the US.
You only need a few ingredients, but pay attention to the following: Buy small, delicate zucchini if possible. Older, larger zucchini are harder and have more seeds, both of which we don’t want here. We mixed a yellow zucchino with green zucchini because it makes the dish visually more exciting.
Traditionally, provolone cheese is used – but in our area, it is rarely found in the stores. We used young pecorino instead (which is not too intense), mixed with Parmigiano Reggiano. This worked wonderfully. You can also use either pecorino or just parmigiano. Only advice: since the cheese is particularly important in this dish, please do not use cheap grated “fake” Parmesan, rather invest a little more. You will be rewarded by brilliant taste.
Let’s get down to the preparation. Start by preparing the zucchini. Wash them thoroughly and cut them into thin slices as evenly as possible, about 2 – 3 mm thick.
You can also work with long, thin strips cut lengthwise. However, this is more difficult to do evenly with a knife, so choose this option only if you can work with a mandoline or machine.
Heat the olive oil until it raises small bubbles on a wooden cooking tool. Now fry the zucchini slices in small portions until they are golden brown. You’ll need some patience when doing this – it takes longer than you think to get the right colourisation.
Don’t be afraid to deep fry. The slices won’t be oily if you take them out of the oil with a slotted spoon or strainer, as you drain them immediately while they’re still quite hot. We place them on a layer of paper and dab them with another paper from the top.
The finished fried slices have lost a lot of water, you’ll be amazed at how much the volume shrinks. Now let the zucchini cool briefly before moving on.
Now it’s time to put on the water for the spaghetti. For spaghetti, take a fairly large pot (4 to 5 liters) and salt the water generously for this recipe, i.e. 2 tsp of salt per liter of water (rule of thumb: pasta water should be as salty as the sea).
Then, almost crush two cloves of garlic with the flat side of a broad knife. This will separate the skin and you will have the additional advantage that the garlic will fully release its flavor without any garlic pieces ending up in your food.
The garlic flavor will be very subtle and delicate this way. Heat some oil in a wide pan (you can use some of the frying oil here) to medium temperature and let the two garlic cloves gently infuse in it.
Now add the zucchini slices and the plucked basil leaves and fry everything in the pan with some pepper. We also add a pinch of cinnamon which enhances the aroma of the zucchini. It is an interesting effect that cinnamon does not taste sweet in this constellation but only aromatic. You won’t need much heat for this, it’s just a matter of making sure all the ingredients are warm and well combined until they meet the pasta.
When the water in the pot is boiling, add the spaghetti. Here’s a little tip to keep the spaghetti from sticking: hold the bundle in the center of the pot with one hand, then twist it with the other.
When you let go, the individual spaghetti will fan out evenly on their own. The spaghetti will slide into the pot all at the same time, needing little assistance with a fork to submerge all at once. Perfect!
Now take the garlic cloves out of the pan.
As soon as the pasta is “al dente” – and by that we mean just done, but without a hard core – remove it from the pot with tongs and add it to the zucchini in the pan, dripping wet. Do not drain the pasta! The cooking liquid is crucial for the texture of your dish.
Add the grated cheese and mix everything together well. Keep stirring until the cheese has melted and a creamy sauce has formed. If that’s not enough sauce, you can add a few more spoonfuls of cooking liquid from the pot until you get the perfect texture, juicy but not soupy.
Serve the pasta alla Nerano hot on deep plates. This is best done with tongs to pick the perfect mixture for each plate out of the pan. Garnish with fresh mint and basil leaves and some more freshly grated cheese.
And may the taste be with you.
Ingredients (for 4 people):
500 g spaghetti
1 kg fresh zucchini (yes, twice as much as spaghetti)
2 cloves of garlic
50 g grated Parmigiano Reggiano
100 g grated young Pecorino
100 ml olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of ground cinnamon
fresh basil and mint leaves