What do you get when you cross a clever cook, some leftover zucchini, and a prince?
Spaghetti alla Nerano—at least, so the story goes. According to legend, the dish was born in 1952 when Francesco “Pupetto” Caravita, the Prince of Sirignano, turned up at Ristorante Maria Grazia, a favorite restaurant of his located in the charming Amalfi Coast fishing village of Nerano. He told the owner, his friend Rosa Mellino, that he had brought a guest whom he wanted to impress, so the pair sized up the ingredients on hand, got cooking, and emerged from the kitchen with a never-before-seen pasta dish—spaghetti tangled with basil, black pepper, and delicate, golden coins of fried zucchini, all napped with a creamy, lightly cheesy sauce.
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The dish is enchantingly simple. It’s rich but eats light, and the zucchini’s sweetness is concentrated and heightened by the frying. Nowadays, versions of the dish abound in restaurants across Nerano, and tourists flock to its shores just to get a taste of the town’s eponymous piatto.
“The whole world talks about spaghetti alla Nerano,” Rosa Andreone, Mellino’s granddaughter, told me through her translator Kylie Caraco.
Andreone, who, along with several other members of her family, is now part owner of Ristorante Maria Grazia, closely guards her grandmother’s original recipe (though she says most everything is done “all’occhio,” or “by eye,” anyway). However, she was happy to give me some advice in creating my own version of the dish.
Testing the Waters
From its verdant hue to its basil-tinged aroma, spaghetti alla Nerano is a celebration of summertime, a dinner for eating al fresco, if not beachside. But for cooks, its appeal at this time of the year is also practical: When gardens and farmers’ markets are teeming with zucchini, Nerano is a way to put pounds of the squash to work. At Maria Grazia, Andreone told me, chefs slice small zucchini (they’re denser and contain fewer seeds) into thin rounds and deep-fry them until they’re golden brown. The zucchini is cooked and refrigerated for a few hours before it will be mixed with the pasta so that the crisp golden coins will soften and mingle with the spaghetti.
I began my testing by following Andreone’s lead, and while I loved the complex, nutty sweetness of the fried zucchini, the restaurant method posed a challenge for home cooks. To fry the dainty, delicate coins, I needed to cook them in very small batches—a tedious process when you’re working with pounds of squash.
I theorized I could get close to the concentrated flavors I enjoyed in the fried zucchini by finding a method that would drive off comparable amounts of the vegetable’s water, so I tested out sundry techniques, weighing the zucchini before and after cooking to get a sense of how much water was lost. A hybrid method of microwaving and sautéing did the trick. First, I combined the coins with some salt and 1/4 cup of water in a bowl (adding liquid might seem counterintuitive, but the steam actually helps the zucchini cook and lose its moisture faster), and then I covered it and placed it in the microwave. I found that after 10 minutes, the zucchini coins were softened and had already lost about 20 percent of their water weight—plus, they had collapsed so much that I could fit them all into a single 12-inch skillet for browning.
I drained the coins in a colander and slid them into a skillet slicked with oil. I stirred once every few minutes until light golden browning developed on about half the slices (since flavor concentration was also coming from moisture loss, it wasn’t essential to brown every piece). The shrunken, bronzed zucchini was sweet and tender, and when I weighed the cooked slices, they’d lost just over 50 percent of their original weight, a substantial difference in such a short time.
Hyperconcentrated Zucchini, Simplified
Deep frying, the traditional way of cooking the zucchini coins in this dish, is highly effective at driving off zucchini’s ample water content, hyperconcentrating the squash’s flavor. However, this method requires frying the zucchini in batches, a cumbersome process for home cooks. We found that we could achieve comparable robust sweet-nuttiness and spotty browning in our zucchini by microwaving and then sautéing the coins. We even weighed samples of deep‑fried zucchini and hybrid-method zucchini and found that they lost 70 percent and 50 percent of their weight, respectively—a difference that was just fine given the simplified method.
The zucchini squared away, I turned to the cheeses. Andreone uses three: Parmigiano-Reggiano and two local products, Provolone del Monaco and caciocavallo. All three are aged cheeses made from cow’s milk, and mixing them creates a blend of nutty, sweet, and buttery flavors. Provolone del Monaco and caciocavallo are tough to come by in the United States, but I found that a block of mild provolone purchased at my local market (and shredded at home) made an apt substitute. The cheese melted beautifully, and when combined with Parmesan in a 2:1 ratio, it imparted a milky, mellow sweetness that complemented the Parmesan’s nutty depth.
I cooked a pot of spaghetti to al dente and drained it, reserving some of the starchy liquid. With that, it was time to bring all the components of the Nerano together and, in the process, create the rich, creamy sauce that binds it all. According to Andreone, the quality of the final dish hinges almost entirely upon this process—so in her restaurant, only she and other members of the family are permitted to perform this final step, tossing the zucchini coins, pasta and its cooking water, and grated cheeses off the heat until the mixture reaches an even, velvety consistency. “That’s the secret,” she shared with me.
The Emulsifying Power of Mantecare
The final step in spaghetti alla Nerano (and an abundance of risotto and pasta dishes) is mantecare: the tossing together of pasta with fat, often in the form of butter, oil, or cheese, and its starchy cooking water. This process forms a luxurious, creamy sauce by creating an oil-in-water emulsion: water with tiny droplets of fat suspended throughout. Water and fat molecules don’t naturally cling to one another, but in this case, the constant stirring of the pasta forcibly combines them, breaking up the oil into droplets that (at least temporarily) can’t separate from the water. The butter and cheese help, too, encouraging the sauce to emulsify because they’re already made up of emulsified droplets. –Alyssa Vaughn
As I tossed the pasta off the heat, I found myself wishing that I could pass the pot over to Andreone. The spaghetti was tasty, but it looked dry. Without Andreone’s special touch, I’d need to give my sauce a little help: A knob of butter, though untraditional, finally created the luxe creaminess that is the dish’s calling card.
Along with the butter, I added a cup of the starchy pasta water, the cooked zucchini, a couple tablespoons of chopped fresh basil, and a healthy dose of black pepper to the spaghetti. When the butter was melted and the spaghetti strands were slicked with fat, I took the pot off the heat and then added the provolone and Parmesan, stirring and tossing until they were melted and a creamy, lightly thickened sauce coated the pasta.
I twirled the pasta on a fork and spun the nest into a bowl. I marveled at how beautiful it was, and I knew that I’d gotten it right. Deep yellow with just a hint of green, it was, as Andreone had described, “almost the color of a really good extra‑virgin olive oil.” The sauce was silky and full of sweetness from the tender zucchini, which was tamed by the fresh basil, pepper, and savory undertones from the cheese. As I took my first bite, I swear I heard the waves lapping on the beach in Nerano.