What I’m going to show today is one of the most iconic recipes of Sorrento Coast/Capri island.
If I say “pasta with zucchini” it might sound easy and simple (and for sure there are older “recipes” than this one, considering the simplicity of the ingredients), but in this case it’s not really like that 🙂 a good “pasta alla Nerano” must be creamy, and to obtain that texture there is to take care to some details (creamy but not like glue, that’s the crucial thing and the difference between a well executed recipe and a not well executed recipe).
As for many other famous/well known Italian recipes there is a story behind, and in this case it’s very interesting and somehow it keeps fueling legends about the original recipe and its alleged secrets, but as we say in Italy it’s probably “a Pulcinella’s secret” 🙂
This recipe seems to be connected to the figure of Francesco Caravita Prince of Sirignano (known as Pupetto), a noble man of Naples area who was one of the most notorious men to incarnate a specific way to live the “dolce vita“, and the king of the nightlife in Capri in those years. Just to briefly describe him, he came from a very rich family and he proudly spent his life travelling and having fun, squandering all his fortune 🙂 and to finish in the best way, on his grave he wanted this to be written: “He never did anything important, but he never hurt anyone. He had fun” 🙂
After this introduction about the author (or co-author as we’ll see soon) of this recipe, let’s see how this recipe was born: it was the year 1952, and during one of his usual trips in Sorrento he landed to Nerano (a small hamlet of Massa Lubrense), that at the time was still just a small village of fishermen by the sea, few miles away from Capri island. He went there with Fred Chandon and wife, he was one of the most famous producers of Champagne wine. When they went to the small and only Trattoria in the village the French man asked to Pupetto to give him something different than the usual spaghetti with tomatoes, so Pupetto di Sirignano suggested to Maria Grazia (the owner of that small restaurant, which nowadays still exists and still proudly serves this recipe) to prepare spaghetti with fried zucchini and a sauce made with oil, butter and sugna (lard). The woman followed his instructions and added also some cheese, what she had remaining in the kitchen (the modern restaurants didn’t exist, and there were not yet all the modern fashions, moreover in the ’50s that area was not so tourists oriented as today). The 2 men loved this recipe because of its creaminess and it became soon the favorite of the noble man, that’s how an iconic recipe was born and then immediately served in the restaurant (probably with some little improvements compared to the very first try) 🙂 And this is what the noble man reported in his biography “Memoirs of a useless man“:
I asked Maria Grazia to prepare a sauce for the spaghetti using zucchini fried in half extra virgin olive oil, a quarter of butter and a quarter of “sugna” (lard). She followed my suggestion and she made the recipe adding two types of cheese: the Parmigiano and the provolone to put more in evidence the Neapolitan origin of the recipe. For many years this recipe was a big success and Maria Grazia made a living from this recipe, which for my friends became “Spaghetti alla Sirignano”, and for her clients “Spaghetti alla Maria Grazia”.
So the only secret seems to be about the quantities, but I found a recipe that was allegedly given by Pupetto di Sirignano:
Ingredients (6 people): 600 g spaghetti, 1 kg zucchini, half liter olive oil to fry the zucchini, 60 g butter, 120 g Parmigiano Reggiano, 120 g caciocavallo cheese, salt, basil.
Procedure: cut the zucchini in cubes and fry in olive oil, until golden. Place them then in a bowl and season with salt, Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh basil. Add then 2 spoons of the frying oil and let it marinate for one hour. Cook the spaghetti “al dente” and then finish to cook them in a large pan with a ladle of their boiling water, the butter, the zucchini and the caciocavallo cheese. Finish with other fresh basil and serve it hot.
(But to tell all the truth, in a famous book of Neapolitan cuisine written earlier by Jeanne Carola Francesconi there is already a similar recipe, with a very similar method…)
So the ingredients were as simple as the process to make it, and only later have been developed new techniques to reach that creaminess and more specific ingredients started to be used by the chefs.
For example in many modern recipes you will find the use of “Provolone del Monaco” (probably the best choice in terms of quality), which is a very good quality cheese produced on the local Monti Lattari and it has the PDO/DOP certification, but it was unlikely used in the year 1952 for this improvised recipe because at that time this nowadays famous cheese was produced only by few people and it was almost extincted after few centuries of history, indeed it has been (luckily) re-discovered only in the ’80s and only from that time it became popular again. Moreover it would raise the price of this simple dish too much for a Trattoria. But, if you find it you can use it (but a younger one), it will be great. Very very probably a simple provolone or a caciocavallo was used in the original recipe.
In other recipes you will find other “tricks” to reach its famous creaminess: someone add eggs (not a good option in my opinion and far from the original recipe), someone use maize starch (as for the egg, it’s very far from the original recipe and it’s a “trick” I never like to use), someone else use different blends of cheese, and someone else reduce part of the zucchini to a cream by using a blender (not a bad idea, you make it really creamy and of a darker color, but in the 1952 in that small village of fishermen I don’t think people were doing this kind of “sophisticated” steps: but I think it’s the best alternative solution). They are all alternative options, some good some not.
Important detail: before starting the recipe control that the zucchini you have are not bitter, otherwise you are not going to have a great dish.
Oil: traditionally extra virgin olive oil to fry, but only if you are 100% sure of its quality and you are sure that its smoke point is well over 180 °C (the lower the quality, the lower the smoke point, indicatively). Otherwise an olive oil or peanuts oil will be fine.
Let’s see how I did it (I used the same ingredients with almost the same amounts, I just slightly reduced the cheese and I didn’t use the lard, which almost no one use for this recipe and I think it doesn’t fit, moreover there are enough fats and the lard would be just too much):
INGREDIENTS (4 people):
- 400 g spaghetti
- 700 g zucchini (avoid the ones which are too big)
- 40 g butter (but also just with extra virgin olive oil is fine)
- 80 g Caciocavallo cheese, freshly grated (I didn’t find it, so I used Provolone cheese: they are both stretched-curd cheese)
- 60 g Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated
- fresh basil, 7-8 leaves
- freshly ground black pepper
- olive oil or peanuts oil, to fry
- First of all the zucchini: wash them and then cut them into thin round slices, about 2 mm thick.
- Take a frying pan and heat the oil. When the oil is hot enough start to fry the zucchini, about 4-5 minutes should be enough. Take care not to burn them (they must have a golden color and not dark brown) and take care not to reach the smoke point of the oil. If you would like you can fry the zucchini a little bit longer, until they get a more orange/brownish color.
- Place the fried zucchini on kitchen paper and dry away the exceeding oil. Then take a bowl and mix the zucchini with some salt, 2/3 of the grated Parmigiano Reggiano (so about 40 grams), 3-4 basil leaves broken with hands and 2-3 spoons of extra virgin olive oil (originally I read it was used the extra virgin olive oil used to fry the zucchini, but I don’t like that idea). Mix well all together and let it rest for at least half an hour, better one hour.
- After that time you can start to boil the spaghetti in salted water. When they are cooked “al dente” (count a couple of minutes less than what’s written on their package) put them in a large pan where you have already put one big ladle of their boiling water (rich in starch) and keep cooking them at medium/high heat. Add the butter cut in pieces, all the zucchini, a drizzle of fresh extra virgin olive oil and all the grated Caciocavallo (or Provolone) cheese, and keep stirring: the cheese has to make a cream and has not to make lumps. If needed add some more boiling water.
- Add also the remaining Parmigiano Reggiano, and stir again well. Add 2-3 more basil leaves. Keep controlling the creaminess, and if needed add some more boiling water. The perfect result it’s all about mixing well, adding a right amount of cheese (which can vary from the cheese you use and from its aging time) and adding the right amount of boiling water (containing the starch released from the pasta), so you have to keep watching carefully everything with your eyes.
- When it’s ready serve it immediately, add some freshly grated black pepper if you would like, and enjoy! 🙂 it’s not sure that this is exactly what they prepared that day of 65 years ago (well, for sure not), but probably it’s not too far 🙂
PS: you could add some garlic if you would like (1 clove is enough). You could make it golden in a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil in the large pan, then remove it just before adding the spaghetti for the last step.
Another alternative: an interesting alternative could be with fresh mint leaves rather than basil.
Products used in this recipe:
Pasta: spaghetti di Gragnano from Pastificio Gentile
Cheese: Provolone dolce