At new La Stella Cucina Verace in the Dallas Arts District, there’s a mind-blowing pasta dish that features zucchini three ways: sautéed, puréed and crisp-fried.
It’s chef Luigi Iannuario’s interpretation of an Amalfi Coast specialty, Spaghetti alla Nerano. Fans of the television show Searching for Italy may recall host Stanley Tucci proclaiming the dish “life-changing” and one of the best things he’s ever eaten in the premiere episode. Surely Tucci would love Iannuario’s elevated version, listed on La Stella’s menu as “Cavalieri alla Nerano.” Cavalieri is the nickname for one of Iannuario’s restaurant partners, as well as a brand of spaghetti that the Italian chef likes.
To make the dish, Iannuario purées sautéed zucchini with basil, olive oil, pistachios and grated provolone mandarone — a pungent aged cheese. Then he tosses the mash in a skillet with more sautéed zucchini, boiled pasta, some pasta cooking water and additional cheese. Although made with just a few ingredients, the dish has remarkable depth; the sweetness of the zucchini, pistachios and basil harmonizes with the sharp, complex cheese. Crumbles of earthy, crisp-fried zucchini chips top each serving.
“There are different layers of texture in the dish. It’s a total zucchinification — that’s a sophistication of zucchini,” Iannuario says, inventing a new term.
Iannuario admits that his recipe differs slightly from the original, born in the town of Nerano; but he says the essential flavors and ingredients are authentic.
“They don’t mash the zucchini [in Italy], they smash it; for fine dining, I wanted a more refined presentation, so I’m puréeing it. I also added pistachios to make it denser,” he says.
The result is a sublime, silky sauce that clings to the chewy pasta and sautéed zucchini and contrasts with the crunchy topping.
The quality of ingredients is critical to success with this dish. Iannuario cautions against using large zucchini; he says small ones (5 to 7 ounces) are best. “I find them bitter when they are overgrown,” he says. Provolone mandarone’s complex flavor plays a key role, too. Aged for over a year, this salty, sharp cheese has a more intense flavor than its younger provolone relative. Finally, the right pasta is important for the proper texture. Whereas regular spaghetti is too thin, spaghetti cuadrati and spaghetti alla chitarra have the heft and chewiness to stand up to the cheesy zucchini sauce.
Iannuario says he makes the dish’s topping and sauce while preparing the pasta. You’ll need to prep and arrange all the ingredients ahead of time and multitask to pull off this feat. We prepared the fried zucchini topping before heating the pasta water, to give ourselves some breathing room.
Want to taste the dish before making it? La Stella is open until midnight Fridays and Saturdays, and until 10:30 pm weekends. The late hours, like Spaghetti alla Nerano, are a rarity in Dallas.
Cavalieri alla Nerano (pasta with Nerano-style zucchini sauce)
10 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (divided use)
2 organic garlic cloves, halved and smashed with back of a chef’s knife (remove green sprout from center first, if present)
1 1/2 pounds small to medium zucchini (each weighing 5 to 7 ounces), seeds removed, cut into 1/4-inch dice
8-10 large basil leaves (about 1/3 cup, packed), plus 4 teaspoons thinly cut ribbons/chiffonade (divided use)
2 ounces (1/2 cup) shelled pistachios
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
6 ounces provolone mandarone or provolone stagionato (sold at Eataly), grated with a rasp-style grate (divided use)
1 pound (or 500 g) spaghetti cuadrati or spaghetti alla chitarra (sold at Central Market and Eataly)
Fried Zucchini Chips, for topping (recipe follows)
In a large sautéed pan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over high heat. Add garlic and zucchini, and sauté until zucchini cubes are golden. Remove from pan and set aside.
Add basil and 3 more tablespoons olive oil to a blender and mash until smooth. Add pistachios and blend to incorporate. Add ⅔ of the zucchini, salt and pepper; process until smooth, then add half of the grated cheese and continue blending. (The mixture will be thick, but you will eventually finish blending it with some starchy pasta cooking water.)
Meanwhile, bring a 6-quart pot of water to a rolling boil. Add 1 tablespoon of sea salt (taste it, and if necessary add more; it should taste like the sea). Add pasta and cook 1 to 2 minutes less than the cooking time recommended on the package, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Halfway through cooking, the pasta water will be starchy enough to add two or more tablespoons of it to the the zucchini mixture in the blender, to make a creamy mash; process the mixture, and if the mash is still too thick, blend in more pasta cooking water, one tablespoon at a time.
Return the sautéed pan to high heat. Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of oil, reserved sautéed zucchini, puréed zucchini mixture, the chiffonade of basil and a 4-ounce ladle of pasta cooking water, stirring to combine. When the pasta is 1 to 2 minutes shy of al dente, drain it and immediately add it to the sauté pan, tossing with tongs to combine it with the sauce and to continue cooking for another minute or so. Remove from heat and add ⅔ of the remaining grated cheese, tossing to combine. Serve immediately, topping each serving with crumbled fried zucchini and the remaining grated cheese.
Fried Zucchini Chips
1/2 cup semolina, or fine semolina flour for pasta (such as Bob’s Red Mill brand, sold in bulk at Central Market)
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 quart olive oil
1 8-ounce zucchini, sliced as thin as possible (use a mandolin for paper-thin, uniform slices)
Whisk cornstarch and semolina flour or semola together in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven to 300 F. While the oil is heating, in a medium bowl, toss zucchini in wine for 1 second; strain zucchini and discard wine. Working with a handful of zucchini at a time, toss slices in flour-cornstarch mixture to thoroughly coat them; remove with a spider strainer, shaking off excess flour, and fry in the hot oil until golden (do not let brown), about 1 to 2 minutes if paper-thin, longer if thicker; the residual heat will brown up the chips as they cool.
Transfer fried zucchini chips to a baking sheet lined with a double thickness of paper towels. Repeat process with remaining zucchini slices. Do not try to fry too many at once, or slices will stick together, and the oil temperature may drop too low.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
SOURCE: Luigi Iannuario, chef-partner at La Stella Cucina Verace