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From Stanley Tucci’s “Searching For Italy”: Spaghetti Alla Nerano

From Stanley Tucci’s “Searching For Italy”: Spaghetti Alla Nerano
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Stanley Tucci with today’s featured dish at the Ristorante where it was invented.

Stanley Tucci’s 6-part series for CNN is an Italophile’s dream.

For one hour a week, its viewers are immersed in the food of a single region of Italy.  For lovers of the Italian language, there’s a surprising amount of it spoken here. Subtitles are provided in English.  Last week, the series was picked up for another season. Wonderful news because the goal of the series is to cover all 20 regions of the country.

Tucci started his food odyssey in Naples before heading to Amalfi where today’s dish was invented.

Spaghetti alla Nerano is a celebrated dish named after the beach town where it was invented. It is pasta and zucchini gastronomically elevated with elements of Cacio e Pepe.  A great zesty dish, it relies on provolone to bring an otherwise bland vegetable to life. Topped with basil it even smells wonderful.  And I have to add that it’s incredibly economical. The most expensive thing on the plate is the Provolone.  But on the way to the recipe, I encountered a surprising amount of confusion for something this simple. Odd because unlike so many famous recipes, Spaghetti alla Nerano’s invention can be traced to one woman and one restaurant.

Maria Grazia invented Spaghetti alla Nerano ‘just for fun’ in 1952.

Stanley Tucci and his wife, Felicity Blunt with Chef Lello.

At her eponymous restaurant, founded by her mother in 1901, Maria’s precise recipe remains a well-guarded secret.  Having convinced the Chef, grandson of its inventor, to cook the dish on camera, Tucci quickly uncovers the addition of Butter. But that was not all.  I was so keen on the dish, I re-watched the segment several times.   Then I went to find the recipe. It never approximated what I had seen. I bypassed English language recipes and searched in Italian. Not even “La Cucina Italiana”, my go-to on Italian cooking, got it right. In fact, they expressly ruled out using ‘nut oils’ in lieu of E.V.O.   Chef Lello used Sunflower Oil.  My recipe is what I divined from Stanley’s visit to Maria Grazia. With one major exception.  Chef Lello fries his Zucchini and lets it sit overnight, using it the next day.  This I dutifully did.  I could not understand what that achieved.  So the recipe is put together all at once.  And it’s simply wonderful.

Spaghetti Alla Nerano is actually less tricky to get right than the Roman classic, Cacio e Pepe.

When the pasta is al dente, drain it, but not completely. The pasta water is as essential as the butter in making the sauce creamy. Add the fried zucchini rounds and then the pasta to the skillet and a ladleful of pasta water. Mix everything together vigorously for a minute or two. (The zucchini rounds are bound to break up, but that’s normal.) Then add the grated cheese and some more basil leaves and continue mixing until the cheese has completed melted into a creamy sauce, adding more pasta water if needed.

The Cheese is essential to the dish. Choose wisely.

A great number of recipes use Provolone di Monaco. “Monk’s Provolone” is a local cheese from the Sorrento peninsula. It’s incredibly expensive in this country.  A substitute is Caciocavallo at half the price. Another is Provolone. Provolone is made by hanging up the cheese to age. The longer the cheese is aged, the harder it becomes and the sharper its flavor.  So if budget is an issue, Provolone Piccante is a great choice.  But if all else fails, a mixture of 70 % Pecorino and 30 % Parmigiano will approximate the salty, tangy, spiciness of the genuine article. Here, at last, is the recipe, followed by some other favorite pasta dishes.




Maria Grazia Ristorante is located at Marina del Cantone, 80061, Nerano, Campania, Italy. There a serving of Spaghetti alla Nerano will set you back 18 Euros.

Spaghetti Alla Nerano

March 1, 2021
: 4-6
: 15 min
: 20 min
: 35 min
: Once you've conquered making the cream sauce, you've got it made.

A simply wonderful dish created with so few ingredients, the secret is really in the quality of those ingredients and the technique used to make the creamy sauce that covers every strand of spaghetti.


  • 400g (14 oz) spaghetti
  • 800g (1-1/2 lbs) zucchini, sliced into thin rounds
  • 200g (7 oz) Caciocavallo, Provolone Piccante, or a blend of 70 percent Pecorino and 30 percent Reggiano Parmigiano, grated
  • 2 or 3 garlic cloves
  • Basil leaves
  • Sunflower Oil for the Zucchini
  • Olive Oil to sauté the garlic.
  • Several knobs of butter
  • salt and lots of freshly ground pepper
  • Step 1 First, thinly slice the zucchini. Taste a raw piece before frying – only use the zucchini if it’s sweet. If it has a bitter aftertaste, don’t use it as it will ruin the dish.
  • Step 2 Dry the zucchini on paper towels.
  • Step 3 Heat the oil on medium-high. Drop the zucchini into the oil and cook until light brown in color
  • Step 4   Once fried, drain and dry them with paper towels. Put some torn basil leaves atop the zucchini to give more flavor to the blandness of the vegetable.
  • Step 5 In the meantime, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add lots of salt.
  • Step 6 Drizzle a sauté pan with olive oil and cook two cloves of garlic in the pan.
  • Step 7 Cook the spaghetti until just al dente.
  • Step 8 Drain the al dente pasta and set aside two cups of the cooking water.
  • Step 9 Remove the garlic from the pan and finish cooking the spaghetti in the saute pan. Add a few knobs of butter and then the zucchini. Then add half the cheese and mix everything together vigorously for a minute or two. (The zucchini rounds are bound to break up, but that’s normal.) Then add more basil leaves, and continue mixing until the cheese has completed melted into a creamy sauce, adding more pasta water if need be.
  • Step 10 Finish with grated cheese. Top with fresh basil and serve with lots of freshly ground pepper.

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60 thoughts on “From Stanley Tucci’s “Searching For Italy”: Spaghetti Alla Nerano”

    • Dear Joanne, I just heard that yesterday! I found it astonishing to pass this off as the original recipe when it was from another restaurant. In doing my research, I had no clue that this could have been anywhere else because if you do a photo search, you’ll see the same color scheme that appears in photos of Maria Grazia’s exterior and the shots of Stanley with the chef making this dish. I find the whole thing very unsettling to be truthful.

    • Hello Walter. I did prepare it that way and fully expected some advantage to doing so. But we could neither see nor taste any difference between the zucchini that we refrigerated and that which we cooked along with the rest of the dish. I would love an explanation but I am afraid I will have to go to Maria Grazia to find out. And wouldn’t I love to! All best, Monte

      • On the show the chef said he leaves it overnight to draw out moisture. I’m assuming that will flavor the pasta when tossed together. I’m going to do it exactly as on the show this weekend and see what happens.

        • Hi Monica, I did it both ways. I quite expected that the reason to leave it overnight was to draw out moisture from the notoriously water-filled zucchini. I put it into a metal bowl and refrigerated it overnight. The next day, there was no residual water in the bowl at all. I cooked the dish and t was wonderful. The next time I cooked it, I eliminated that step and used the freshly fried zucchini. We could find no material difference in the two versions. I so appreciate your taking the time to comment. I have one favor to ask: Can you come back and tell us what your experience was? We would be most grateful. Buon Appetito!

      • I’m confused, in the episode they don’t use garlic, and cheese is only added on top, not through it cacio pepe style. What am I missing?

        • In all honesty, Stanley’s recipe didn’t come close to the original with those omissions. We researched it for days and this is how the genuine article is made.

  • Looks awesome, thanks for this! It would be super helpful if you’d describe the frying between steps one and two here. How long are they fried for? Are they dropped in the oil dry? Thanks!

    • Dear James, what an awful omission. I have gone back and changed the recipe thanks to you. I think you will find all of your answers in the revise. Thanks so much for taking the time to write.

  • Thank you for the transcription! the way they describe the deliciousness and gobbled it up during the segment convinced me it was one to try! i was about to use the La Cucina Italiano version… glad i did one more search!

    • Dear Sara, I am so please you did. I was very surprised by La Cucina’s recipe. It used Olive Oil instead of the Sunflower oil used on the show and actually advised against using ‘nut oils’. But that overnight business on the program threw me for a loop because, as I wrote, I simply didn’t see or taste any difference whatsoever. I guess it’s time to go to Amalfi and check this out for ourselves. Thanks so much for taking the time to write. Monte

        • I think you hit the nail on the head Tena. That has to explain why he cooked the Zucchini the night before. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Buon Appetito!

        • I completely agree. I’m frying mine ahead because I am a messy cook, particularly when frying. This way I don’t have to deal with this prepping dinner

          • I should have led with THANK YOU — this is the best version of this dish I’ve learned you can’t really overfry the zucchini (other than completely burning it) which has helped my confidence because I don’t fry often.
            Still haven’t tried with the pricier cheese, but have been very happy with the pecorino/parm ratio you recommend. One of these days will get around to that!

          • No Kate, we should thank you for taking the time to write. We love this dish and we’re so pleased you do too! Buon Appetito!

  • Perhaps the advantage to frying and sitting overnight, is that in the restaurant kitchen setting, it is already “prepped and ready to go” for the final step before serving. Just a thought?

    • Dear Christine, An excellent one! Thank you so much for commenting. I think you are right on the money. Buon Appetito!

  • I don’t understand. The program where this recipe was made showed that OIL was NOT used in the preparation. Tucci even commented on this. Yet EVERY recipe I have found (and many refer to the Tucci specials) use oil and don’t explain why they don’t use butter, as the people at the restaurant Tucci visited did.

    • The Chef used Sunflower oil. The butter is used only after the zucchini is added to the pasta. If you go back to watch the recipe again, you will see him using the oil. The secret they had kept from Tucci was the addition of butter. Honestly, for such a simple recipe, can you believe how much controversy there is? Thanks for writing Cathy!

  • Hi,
    I made it twice, I read several recipes, I did cook the zucchini in sunflower oil, the night before the 1st time, I found it to be the same. I did notice you need to taste the zucchini for sweetness. Did anyone blend half of the zucchini? I added a garlic parsley compound butter cooked for 30 seconds, added a little pasta water, the mixed all together, took off the heat and added the cheese, basil , and the second one was much better, maybe the butter and garlic, and I tasted the zucchini for sweetness. Had fun playing with my food

    • Hi Linda, Thank you so much for taking the time to write. I am glad we had the same shared experience with the Zucchini overnight vs. the same day. I am intrigued by your use of garlic butter. I can practically taste it. Sounds like a wonderful idea. Always play with your food! Buon Appetito!

  • I made this dish last evening. I could not find the cheeses suggested (Live in a very small town) so I used deli Provolone (70%) and Parmesan (30%). I ended up with a cheese glob. It probably was the cheeses but you do not indicate how much pasta water to add. I saved 2 cups and just added it to get my cheese ball to make sauce. It didn’t. I love the idea of veggies and pasta and want to make this again.

    • Dear Janean, I am so sorry about the glob. I used hard provolone and parmigiano. Deli Provolone is one of the great melting cheeses but I am afraid that it melted too much and created your ‘glob”. I didn’t mention how much pasta water to add, simply because you should add it slowly once you’ve added the butter and cheese. Do try it again and see if you can find hard provolone. It will work much better! Thanks so much for taking the time to write. Monte

  • One way to be able to mage the addition of the pasta water (to any recipe but for this one especially) is to use tongs to remove the pasta from the salty and starchy “golden” pasta cooking water and imply place it in the sauté pan to finish with the zucchini, butter and cheeses. Then, just use a spoon or ladle to add the pasta water one spoon or ladle at a time until you achieve the right consistency . I never drain pasta using a colander. This method avoids making another dirty dish and, more importantly gives you complete control over the sauce consistency.

    • Dear William, I cannot thank you enough for adding this great piece of advice to this recipe. You are bang on using the tongs and it’s a brilliant suggestion. The pasta water should be added by the spoonful as that it the only way to achieve the consistency you want–which I think is a personal preference. Now I am going to try to master Pelligrino Artusi’s recipe for Bolognese which is so radically different from the way I have made Bolognese for years. Stay tuned!

  • My husband and I ate at Lo Scoglio restaurant 13 years ago during our honeymoon and had this dish. I tried for 12 years to replicate the dish and always failed. Last night was our wedding anniversary and tried the recipe posted at CNN: https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/stanley-tucci-searching-for-italy-recipes/index.html It was spot on! I use my tong to add the pasta water. I did not rest the zucchini overnight…only about an hour. I used 1/2 parmigiano reggiano and asiago.

    • Dear Thessa, Thank you so much for writing. I note that the recipe is identical to the one that I published. I think the confusion over the overnight wait for the zucchini was simply that the chef wanted it mis-en-place so that he could complete the dish a la minuit. At any rate, I loved it too and if there’s any nicer way to celebrate a wedding anniversary that with a food memory, I can’t think of one. Buon Appetito!

  • Do you think leaving the zucchini in the fridge overnight uncovered would dry it out more and concentrate the flavor? Thanks.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to write. After much thought, one of our readers suggested that the Chef likely fries his Zucchini to have it prepped so that he can quickly put the dish together. I found no difference in the moisture content of the Zucchini I fried the night before and that which I did on the spot. If you make the dish, please come back and tell us your results. Buon Appetito!

  • Made this today, and wow was it was great! I used the sunflower oil, and the blend of cheeses 70/30. I am a fan for life!

    • Dear Eliza, How thoughtful of you to write. Congratulations on making such a successful dish. Buon Appetito!

  • I have been dying to make this zucchini pasta since I watched this episode so thank you for sharing this recipe. I could only find smoked provolone so I used about half of the provolone and half parm reggiano. While probably not authentic, the hint of smokiness was complimentary to the dish I thought. My boyfriend and I will be on the Amalfi Coast in a few weeks so will have to report back how my version fares against the authentic dish. Thanks again!

    • Lindsay, how nice of you to take the time to write. I too could not find this very local cheese but hard Provolone subbed for it nicely. I like the idea of using a smoked cheese and adding that layer of flavor to this wonderful dish. Thanks for the suggestion. And we can’t wait to hear back from you when you taste the original recipe in that magical part of the world. Buon Viaggio in Italia!

  • I saw Stanley Tucci touring Italy on TV and a chef made this recipe. The chef cooked the zucchini and then refrigerate it until the next day. Does that make a difference in the recipe.

    • Hi Venezia, Thanks for taking the time to write. There’s been a lot of discussion around just this point. The first time I made the dish, I did fry the zucchini one night and waited to make the dish the next day. I could see no appreciable difference overnight. In the interest of time, the second go-round I fried them and used them immediately. No change of taste at all. One reader seems to have answered the question. In order to get the dish on the table fast when the restaurant guests ordered it. We think that’s why he cooked them in advance–to have them ready to go in less time than it would take to fry them on the spot. Buon Appetito!

  • Hello Monte, last week I marked a few recipes in my “top 100 pasta sauces- authentic regional recipes from Italy”by Diane Seed to make this week and one was a zucchini recipe.
    Then I heard Stanley Tucci on Fresh Air program and was moved to make the Narano recipe which I did- and it was indeed delicious!
    Today I went back to my 1987 cook book to compare recipes and low and behold, the recipe is called Spaghetti Maria Grazia! The differences are- no specific type of oil is called for to deep fry, 4 ounces of butter is noted and 2 cups of grated cheese- half pecorino, half Parmesan. Maria’s dish has been famous for many years apparently! Enjoy!

  • First time I made it, not life changing and not worth the work. Kept going back to it cause of our Stanley, foodie extraordinaire. Zucchini a little thicker ( not chips) & sunflower oil, night before cooking & fridge rest. Used pasta from Italy not North American stuff. Most important step a strong provolone. Pasta water had more starch & Caciocavallo provolone was the ticket. Even twirled in the soup ladle with the meat fork. My husband and I thought this was amazing, so creamy. Worth the work. Cheers Bueno appetito🍾🥂

  • Thank you for publishing this recipe. Over here in England we have only just been able to see the Stanley Tucci series on Italy recently on BBC. My question is about the garlic. You mention adding the garlic, but no mention of how you prep it. Is it sliced thinly, crushed or is it whole? Thanks again

    • Hello Mark, Apologies for any confusion with the recipe. The garlic cloves are used only to perfume the oil. You can use them whole or smash them but there’s no need to slice or grate them because they are removed before you toss the pasta. Enjoy this wonderful dish. BTW, I don’t know whether you saw the comment on the Zucchini being cooked and left to use the next day. In a restaurant setting, the mise-en-place is done the day before so that the room temperature Zucchini can be added to the pasta. This cuts down the wait time before serving. You can use yours immediately. No need to wait overnight. Bon Appetit!

    • Hello Vallie, It sounds like it would be but the dish is full of flavor. Just try it as is and see what you think. You would not believe how many readers this post has had. Buon Appetito! Monte

  • As I recall in the episode, they refer to the vegetable as “Italian Zucchini” and I thought it appeared to be more yellow than the green zucchini we see in our markets. Is there a difference in the type of zucchini used for this recipe? When I searched for “Italian zucchini” the results mainly referred to something called cucuzzi or cucuzza – a gourd rather than a squash. It would seem to make quite a difference in the flavor of the end result?

    • Greetings Florida. The Italian word ‘zucchini’ translated into English is ‘little squash’. In Italy, there is a variety of zucchini that is smaller, a bit rounder with a chubbier appearance, and has a lighter green color that is randomly speckled with a cream color and is milder and sweeter in flavor. That’s likely what was being referred to here. I am at a disadvantage having never tried the recipe at its source. But I can tell you it is a truly wonderful pasta sauce using good old American zucchini. Buon Appetito!

  • My husband and I had the real deal two weeks ago. We hadn’t seen the Stanley Tucci episode – so we didn’t have any expectations. It was truly amazing. I’ve been searching and comparing recipes. One comment that the waiter shared was that the chef blends some of the fried zucchini into a sauce ( as opposed to just tossing it all in). Im going to try both ways.

    As a side note – another life changing pasta we had was in Tuscany – Pici Pasta with Duck Ragù sauce. Pici is a thick hand rolled spaghetti. And Duck was ground Muscovy. Heaven.

    • Hi Kelly! Thanks so much for writing. I really appreciate your information. Just out of interest, which restaurant did you visit? The odd thing is that the restaurant featured on the Tucci episode was not where Spaghetti alla Nerano was first invented. And the confusion over the overnight ‘rest’ for the zucchini was never explained. Take care and if you can find time to tell us how your ‘experiment’ turns out, I would really appreciate it. Buon Appetito!

  • Just wanted to clarify: in steps 9 and 10, did you mean start with mixing in half the cheese then add the rest of the cheese? Or does only half the cheese go into the sauce and the rest is for sprinkling on top?

    • Dear Ari, Thanks for taking the time to write. That’s a great question. I would add half the cheese and then how creamy the sauce is. Add more cheese until it is as creamy as you like and leave just enough to top the dish. I am currently working on a revised recipe that is far more creamy. In the one I am working on, the ratio of cheese in the sauce as compared to cheese on top is fully 5 to 1. I think that’s a good idea here too.

  • I too am a huge fan of the show and have watched and re-watched that specific episode more times than I care to count. THANK YOU for creating this detailed version, it will save me digging through notes to find it next time! Buon Appetito

    • Thanks so much Julie. There have been endless debates surrounding this incredibly popular recipe. But the biggest one was that the Chef on the program
      ‘overnighted’ the zucchini. Finally, one of our readers made the point that in a restaurant setting the chef would want to have his ingredients ready to go when the order came in. I hope we’re right. I did it both ways and could not find any meaningful difference. Buon Appetito indeed! Monte

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