Stanley Tucci's Favorite Pasta Is The Best Use Of Zucchini

When Stanley Tucci describes a pasta dish as "one of the best things I've ever had in my life" (via Facebook), you just know it's going to be something very special. The dish in question is called spaghetti alla Nerano, and, essentially, it consists of spaghetti tossed with deliciously deep-fried zucchini, grated Italian cheese, and a garnish of fragrant fresh basil. It takes its name from Nerano, a small fishing village on the Amalfi Coast, where it is the local specialty.

In the first season of CNN's "Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy," the actor revisited Lo Scoglio da Tommaso, a restaurant by the sea where he first tried — and fell in love with — the dish some years before. Tucci had been so impressed by the local dish the first time around that he had since repeatedly tried to make his own version at home with his wife.

Spaghetti alla Nerano is a simple dish at heart. But like so many dishes with few components, it requires good quality ingredients to experience it at its very best. When trying the nostalgic dish at Lo Scoglio for the TV show, which was prepared by chef Tommaso De Simone, Tucci declared it "even better than I remember" (via Facebook).

Spaghetti alla Nerano requires few ingredients

Spaghetti alla Nerano, which was first created by Donna Rosa at the Maria Grazia restaurant in Nerano in 1952, is the kind of family recipe that is passed down through the generations. The ingredients list is short — pasta, zucchini, oil, cheese, basil, and seasoning — and the green vegetable plays a starring role. But it's how the summer squash is prepared that really makes it sing.

Rather than simply being pan-fried, the thin discs of zucchini should be deep-fried in sunflower oil until they turn golden. Once drained, they then sit in a bowl in the refrigerator for two hours, which helps the texture to become silkily soft. Finally, when it's time to assemble the dish, the softened round slices are heated through in a pan with a little of the pasta water plus salt and pepper, creating a luxurious sauce. Then, the spaghetti is added.

The type of cheese is important, too. While some recipes use local provolone cheese, Stanley Tucci's favorite version at Lo Scoglio features Parmigiano-Reggiano (which is not the same as Parmesan), ideally aged for two years to allow the full nutty and fruity flavor to develop. Once this has been tossed through the spaghetti and fried zucchini, along with a spoonful of butter if you desire extra richness, a final flourish of fresh, aromatic basil is added right before serving. The ingredients may be simple, but the resulting combination of flavors is anything but.

Zucchini stars in many Italian pasta dishes

While zucchini is often perceived as a side dish rather than a main, the vegetable gets a chance to shine in many Italian pasta dishes beyond spaghetti alla Nerano. There are various ways to prepare and pair the summer squash with different pasta shapes and sauces as well as with other ingredients, making it a more versatile veg than you might initially assume.

The green squash makes an excellent pasta sauce in its own right. Try blending grated and drained zucchini with grated Pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses, extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts, and basil to make a pesto sauce to accompany your choice of noodle. Or make a creamier style of sauce by blending sauteed cubes of zucchini with ricotta and Parmesan cheeses. Pieces of crispy bacon would add a salty textural contrast, or you could top it with crunchy fried zucchini chips to boost the flavor, texture, and green color further.

Zucchini goes well with other ingredients, too. For a flavorful yet speedy weeknight pasta dinner idea, toss penne or fusilli pasta with grated raw zucchini and a cooked tomato sauce enriched with garlic and herbs. Or for a cozy lunch or dinner, add chopped zucchini to a hearty mixed vegetable, your beans of choice, and pasta-filled broth to make the Southern Italian specialty pasta e vaianeia.