By JASPER J. MIRABILE JR.
She’s my pizza pie with lotsa mozzarella
I wanta be
’cause Cucuzza is so crazy over me
Cucuzza grows in Italy
They love it on the farm
It’s something like zucchini
Flavoured with Italian charm
I call my girl Cucuzza
’cause she’s sweet as she can be
She loves to hear me say
“Cucuzza please babotcha me
Ahhh … Louis Prima sang it and this chef is cooking it.
It’s “Cucuzza Season” and let the eating begin. You may think I’m a little crazy every year when cucuzza is harvested, but I dream of “mi cucuzza.”
Now, you’re probably asking yourself, what is cucuzza?
The Cordaro family from Louisiana describes it best:
“Cucuzza (def.) ku-koo-za or “goo-gootz (abbreviated speech of Campania, Calabria, Sicily, and all regions of southern Italy.) Description/Taste: Long and firm, this Italian squash has a light green skin and pure white flesh. An Italian import, it can grow three feet in length. The stem remains attached to continue nourishing the squash up to one month after picking. The cucuzza squash offers a slightly sweet mild flavor and a fairly firm, inviting texture.”
Cucuzza holds a special place in this chef’s heart because my mother always likes to tell the story that when she was in labor with me at St. Joseph Hospital, my father was at his mother’s house eating Pasta Cucuzza with his friends. I always like to tell my mama that “Cucuzza runs in my blood!!”
Now, since were talking about friends and cuzucca, let me tell you about Mary Amino Sullivan. My family has known her family for many years and the whole family are very good customers at my restaurant, Jasper’s. Each year we look forward to Mary delivering fresh cucuzza every Saturday in August to Jasper’s. She grows the squash herself down at her family’s business, Amino Brothers. Now, I’m not talking just a few squash, I’m talking hundreds and hundreds.
My friend Sara Reed claims cucuzza is a very misunderstood vegetable. People want to treat it like zucchini she claims. You do not eat the seeds or the skin. Sarah likes to cook it with heirloom tomatoes and fresh local corn. Sarah is involved with SlowFood Kansas City, so you know she would have to have everything local.
Another friend and fabulous cook, Judy Francini in Tuscany, Italy, tells me Italians treasure the cucuzza leaves, called “tenerumi“ and prepare dishes with just the leaves. I can only imagine the taste of the leaves since the squash is such a favorite of mine. This will be my next culinary food adventure to research and more than likely enjoy.
Did I mention my Sicilian amico, Gino Corte, who lives in Kansas City, North? Every summer he walks into my office at the restaurant, with the “first cucuzza” of the season from either his garden, or he goes to my Grandmother Rosa Cropis’ old house, where my mama grew up in Northeast Kansas City and gets a cucuzza from the new owners garden — just for me.
Talk about longtime family friends. I am so very lucky to have friends that think of me first during this wonderful ‘Season of Cucuzza.’
I remember as a child sitting on my grandmother’s counter in the kitchen, watching her peal the cucuzza. It took hours and hours, but I remember most of all how she took every last seed out of the squash, and believe me, there are many, many, seeds.
Nana would then peel fresh garlic and chop tomatoes, slowly simmer that with the cucuzza and a lot of fresh backyard basil. The aroma in her house is a memory I will never forget.
Ahhh … Cucuzza … “It’s heaven on earth, baby!” My dad, a true gourmand, loved his cucuzza and would always tell us: “This was living.” Even though it’s a Sicilian peasant dish, it was like dining in the best restaurant in Italy.
Now, as I told you, I love this squash and there are many recipes including Cucuzza Olive Oil Cake and also a special Cucuzza Jelly that is quite easy to make. I still think my favorite is Pasta with Cucuzza.
So, “mi cucuzza amici,” I share with you a Cucuzza Red Gravy recipe that my Nana would prepare for our famiglia when I was just a child. I do hope you enjoy it as much as I do this season.
And remember, if you’re lucky enough to have a few friends who grow cucuzza, treasure their friendship, because they never forget you every year when ‘Cucuzza Season’ comes around.
Grazie mi ‘Cucuzza Amici’!
Nana Mirabile’s Cucuzza Red Gravy
2 pounds cucuzza
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup minced yellow onion
6 minced garlic cloves
2 28-ounce cans San Marzano Italian tomatoes
15 fresh basil leaves
2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
Sea salt to taste
Peel the cucuzza, seed and cut into 1-inch pieces. In a large saute pan, add olive oil and set pan over medium heat. Cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Add onion and saute until the squash is translucent. Add garlic — do not brown. Add tomatoes, basil, sugar and red pepper to squash. Add salt to taste and cook 20 to 25 minutes. Serve over your favorite pasta and top with grated Romano cheese. For a little something extra, sauté some ground beef and add to the sauce.
Mangiare bene, mi cucuzza amici!
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He hosts many famous chefs on his weekly radio show Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM and sells a line of dressings and sauces.