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When actor Stanley Tucci visited Nerano, a small Italian village near the Amalfi Coast, while filming his popular CNN series Searching for Italy, he likely wasn't expecting to make a regional pasta an international sensation.
But that's exactly what happened when the iconic actor walked into restaurant Lo Scoglio da Tommaso years ago and ate a plate of zucchini spaghetti, known in Italy as spaghetti alla Nerano. In the first episode of the show, the Hunger Games actor just couldn't stop raving about how good the pasta was, with its creamy sauce and delicate pieces of zucchini.
While many have tried to replicate the pasta in their own homes, Chris Cutler, a travel editor at Live in Italy Magazine has perfected the cheesy dish. Cutler has a few tips for making the pasta at home.
For starters, she tells Yahoo Life, "you aren't going to find most of the cheeses in the United States."
The regional recipe uses Provolone del Monaco, a semi-hard cheese made with milk from cows in the province of Naples, that's extremely difficult to find stateside. "I like to use pecorino Romano cheese, although I'll also use Parmesan depending on what I have," Cutler says. She also mentions the type of pasta doesn't really matter for the home cook, dried or fresh, spaghetti or linguine, the dish will be tasty no matter what.
One of the most important parts of the recipe is slicing the zucchini razor thin. "I use a knife," says Cutler, "but some of my slices are thicker and some of them are thinner. [Chefs] like to make [the slices] as thin as you possibly can."
The sauce is made from a mixture of cheese and pasta water, which Cutler says is easier to mix with the pasta if you have two basic tools. "I use tongs that have teeth on them and a big spoon," she says, adding that mixing the pasta and sauce together should be like tossing a salad, getting everything well-coated before serving.
After reading multiple recipes and of course, watching Tucci make the dish on Instagram, I wanted to try out zucchini spaghetti for myself. A bonus? The meal didn't seem too challenging and didn't have a laundry list of ingredients, like many other Americanized pasta dishes do.
I gathered all of my ingredients: zucchini, pasta, cheese, oil, basil, salt and pepper, and went to work.
While Cutler says she uses a knife to cut her zucchini, I used a mandolin to get the slices as thin as possible and ensure all slices were the same size. After slicing, I put some olive oil in a deep frying pan to let it heat up — the original dish calls for the zucchini to be deep-fried, but I don't have a deep fryer in my home kitchen, so I improvised.
I pan-fried the zucchini in batches, which helped the pan to not be overcrowded and allowed the zucchini to get brown with crispy edges versus just steam. As each batch was finished, I laid it out on a paper towel-lined plate to allow any excess oil to drain off. When both batches were finished, I tossed the zucchini together with thin ribbons (a slicing technique called chiffonade by chefs) of basil.
While the zucchini was frying, I put a large pot of water on to boil, making sure to salt the water liberally to ensure the pasta had flavor before tossing it with the sauce. When the water reached a rolling boil, I added my pasta — angel hair since that's what I had on hand.
I drained the cooked angel hair and placed it in a frying pan, remembering not to dump the water out right away because I'd need it for the sauce. Once all of the pasta was in the frying pan, I added the basil and zucchini mixture and began to mix it together. In went about a cup or so of reserved pasta water and the cheese and I tossed everything together until the sauce was creamy and coated the pasta and zucchini. I dished the pasta into large bowls and topped it with more grated cheese and a few more pieces of basil before diving in.
Pasta alla Nerano wasn't a dish I was expecting much from, especially since it lacked the traditional heavy red sauce I'm used to with pasta. But, my family and I gobbled it up and there were no leftovers in sight. The sauce is light, but creamy and still very satisfying. I can't wait to make this again for friends and family, who I know will ask where I came up with the recipe. I'll say, "Stanley Tucci told me about it."
Spaghetti alla Nerano
Courtesy of Live in Italy Magazine
12 ounces zucchini
9 ounces pasta
8 ounces caciocavallo or pecorino Romano cheese
Olive oil to fry the zucchini (the original recipe uses sunflower oil)
Basil leaves, torn
Freshly ground salt and pepper
Slice the zucchini into thin coins. They should be about 1/8-inch thick. If using a mandoline, be sure to get them all the same thickness.
Heat the oil and drop some of the coins in. Cook until they are light brown in color. Remove and let drain on paper towels. Repeat until you've cooked all of the zucchini. Mix the torn basil and zucchini in a bowl.
While the zucchini are frying, heat a pot of water to boiling. Add the pasta and cook until it is just al dente. Drain, but save some of the pasta water.
Drain the skillet of most of the oil and add the pasta and zucchini. Add a ladle of pasta water and mix together.
Add the cheese, salt and pepper to the mixture and combine completely. If necessary, add more pasta water to make the sauce smoother.
Serve on a plate. Top with more grated cheese and the pasta sprinkle or more basil.
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