Zucchini – a familiar, easy-to-grow, almost tasteless green summer squash – has never been a gastronomic superstar. It’s usually a stir-fry side dish or a player in a group of other vegetarian creations, such as ratatouille. Its delicate flower, when available, can be used as a shell and deep fried to hold cheese or perhaps baby shrimp with herbs in a savory pie. However, when actor Stanley Tucci visited Nirano, a small romantic village on the Sorrento Peninsula, at the start of the Amalfi Coast, in the first episode of his popular CNN series “Searching for Italy,” he bred a regional zucchini dish that’s culinary fame and attracted a steady stream. From the Americans to a local institution called Lo Scoglio da Tommaso. When I arrived at Lo Scoglio, in May, I had hardly twisted the first fork of the dish in question, Spaghetti Ala Nirano– Spaghetti with zucchini, cheese and basil – when it caught the attention of Ani Ozgon and her husband Arto, who also watched Tucci’s show. They said they were the owners of Bareburger restaurants in New Jersey, and they were celebrating Annie’s fiftieth birthday. Later, on the stairs to my room, I received a friendly, American-sounding welcome from another visitor. I was terrified, “Tucci?” And the Kansenese man laughed and said, “Yes.” At another lunch in Lo Scoglio, I heard a request for a communal table in the form of “All Tucci had.”
Lo Scoglio, a hotel and restaurant, is a local landmark, with a commanding terrace built into the bay. While I was there, his tables were usually full of Italians, often dressed in very fashionable clothes; They made me feel rather in my baseball cap, dangling polo shirt, and dad’s jeans. Private yachts, together with more modest cruise ships carrying day travelers visiting places on the Amalfi Coast, were arriving for lunch or dinner in the cove, while a battalion of tender boats attempted to take the tourists to the various restaurants. (One restaurant owner grumbled to me about the bonus he paid boat operators to get clients.)
Years before Tucci set up his show, he had visited Lo Scoglio da Tommaso. In the first episode, he explains that he’s become a fan of local spaghetti with zucchini, which he and his wife Felicity Blunt have tried to replicate over and over at home. They’ve had enough success to keep taking it weekly, but still wonder why they can’t quite properly take it. Tucci and his wife asked for a private class from Chef Tommaso de Simone, of Lo Scoglio, and immediately saw their first mistake: They had been frying thin slices of zucchini when they were meant to be fried.
During my stay, I wandered from Lo Scoglio to the beach, two soccer fields away, and discovered that there were very individual copies of Spaghetti Ala Nirano to enjoy it. The dish embodies Italian cooking traditions here and elsewhere: take the simple riches of what grows near you and make it as delicious as possible without too much fuss. Their proper preparation requires more attention to freshness and kitchen ingenuity than to fine ingredients. Located two hundred yards on the beach from Lo Scoglio, famed restaurant Maria Grazia prides itself on having invented the dish in the 1950s, framing old newspaper stories hanging on the walls to bolster its claim. Nearby, at the small bistro Bar Yeye, the owner, Gianluca Caputo, who also runs a charter boat service, secretly let me in while repainting his father’s small fishing boat: in most restaurants, instead of ordering an expensive “primo” course of the dish , which costs about twenty dollars, you can order half a portion and leave more room for something else.We also discussed frankly – I didn’t dare bring up the topic with anyone else – the best version of the dish.
‘There is no secret’ to Spaghetti Ala Niranoa manager at Lo Scoglio told me, her smile and confident tone indicative of it I was One and that I was challenged to find it. Tucci, in his broadcast, indicated that he was shocked when he saw the addition of a piece of butter to the dish, in clear violation of the rules of cooking in the Mediterranean, which contradicts what he was previously told. (In the dish version of Lo Scoglio, posted online by CNN and attributed to Chef Tommaso, butter is not officially included in the recipe but is mentioned in a side comment as a way to add a bit of “extra decadence” to spaghetti.) I looked into the kitchen to look at Spaghetti coating at Maria Grazia, staff there use what they call the ‘four hands method’. This technique sounded like an advertisement for an erotic massage therapy, but it turned out to be a simple teamwork. Only family members are allowed to make pasta: one person tosses spaghetti and zucchini while another sprinkles in the cheese mixture, then waiters distribute the finished product onto individual plates. Speed is essential to keep the dish tubes hot when it lands on the table. Nirano also boasts one Michelin-starred Italian restaurant, Taverna del Capitano, whose chef Alfonso Caputo runs the International Circle of Experimental Chefs. But it is not above a simple service Spaghetti Ala Niranoand showed me what kind of slotted utensil he used to stir up the final assembly of the ingredients.
As I sampled more of the plate, I came up with my own pet theory. Going from the western end to the eastern end of the bay, the zucchini-to-basil ratio in the dish decreased (at least to my taste and fuzzy math). The western end, where Lo Scoglio was located, was a zucchini heavy area, with restaurants often serving a version that might do better in winter; At the east end, with Maria Grazia as the focal point, the dish was somewhat lighter, basil-award which somehow seemed more summer-favorite. One chef told me messing with the balance of ingredients wasn’t the ultimate secret, though he approved of my efforts to investigate. It was suspected that some chefs were burning the zucchini, slightly, to bring out more flavor from the bland veggies. He also cautioned against something as simple as the need to reduce the amount of salt that is usually added when boiling spaghetti; He said that the cheese used in the dish is very salty, and you do not want to overdo it. Another citizen told me that the secret to the success of the dish was not in cooking it but in knowing how to charge for it. I was told that the materials for a family-sized portion cost about three dollars. One local joke was that the restaurant’s price per meal seemed to be determined by a simple formula: $1 multiplied by the length, in metres, of the kind of boat the wealthy tourists got on.
Spaghetti Ala Nirano
Adapted from Lo Scoglio da Tommaso and other Nerano restaurants.
6 medium grains, cut into quarter-inch slices
sunflower oil for frying
14 oz. macaroni
1 clove minced garlic (optional)
2 to 4 oz. Shredded cheese (such as aged Parmigiano Reggiano, Provolone del Monaco, or Casiocavallo)
1 bunch fresh basil leaves
pinch of butter (optional)
Ground black pepper to taste
1. Take thin slices of zucchini and fry in sunflower oil until golden (or until slightly burnt).
2. Place the fried zucchini on a paper towel to absorb the oil. Leave it in a bowl for a few hours to rest (or put it in the fridge overnight). Before use, wipe them again with a paper towel to remove excess moisture.
3. Boil the spaghetti in lightly salted water until done. Save a cup of the cooking water after the spaghetti has dried.
4. Reheat the zucchini in a skillet with optional minced garlic.
5. Put half of the zucchini into a clean saucepan or bowl, then add a few tablespoons. of cheese and a few tablespoons. of pasta cooking water. Stir the mixture until the cheese begins to melt. Add the spaghetti, the rest of the zucchini, and the cheese, and continue to stir until the cheese and spaghetti water form a delicious emulsion. If the mixture seems too thick, add more cooking broth. If it is too thin, add more cheese.
6. Add fresh basil, butter and black pepper to taste.
7. Serve with a sprig of basil on top—with a basil flower, if you have it—in a shallow bowl. ♦