Easy Italian Recipes: Baked Zucchini with Pancetta

Italian recipes

Zucchini Is Actually a Fruit

Most people think of zucchini as an Italian vegetable and why not? The zucchini we know today is a variety of summer squash developed in Italy in the late 1800’s. Named for the diminutive of “zucca,” the generic Italian word for squash (zucchini = “little squash”), it was first brought to America by Italian immigrants and first cultivated in sunny California. Plus, Italy has come up with dozens of delicious recipes for using this long, cylindrical, green squash that is a staple of backyard gardens everywhere.

Zucchini is typically treated as a vegetable in culinary preparations because its sturdy flesh and mild flavor lends itself to zestier spices, but scientifically speaking it is really a fruit. In fact, zucchini is a not-so-distant relative of a variety of melons, which are more typically recognized as fruits due to their sweet taste and crisper flesh. If harvested early enough, when the fruit is less than 10 inches in length, zucchini will retain a sweet taste.

Supermarkets sell zucchini all year round, but it is at its best during late spring and summer. For this recipe, choose small to medium-sized zucchini with a shiny, bright green skin that are firm and heavy in the hand. The optimum size is 6 to 8 inches in length and 2 inches or less in diameter (as the squash grows, its sugars become diluted with water; that’s why a mega-zucchini doesn’t taste like anything at all!).

Everything Tastes Better with Bacon!

Fresh zucchini has a light and delicate flavor that can also be a bit bland; it is a blank canvas upon which the cook can “paint” with bolder, more decisive flavors. This simple recipe from La Cucina Italiana solves the problem by resting the uncooked zucchini on a bed of sautéed onions and draping them with thin slices of pancetta or, if you prefer a smoky flavor, bacon (the two are basically interchangeable: pancetta is cured and unsmoked pork belly, while bacon has been cured and smoked).

As the dish slowly bakes in a moderate oven, the pancetta/bacon starts to sizzle and bastes the zucchini layer below while the Parmesan-infused breadcrumbs sprinkled on top crisp up to form a crunchy crust. It’s ready when the zucchini are tender, and can be enjoyed either as a main course or as an accompaniment to a more elaborate meal. Buon appetito!

Recipe for Baked Zucchini with Pancetta

italian recipes

photo: La Cucina Italiana

Ingredients (serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a side dish)

  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups finely chopped onion (about 1 large)
  • 2 slices white sandwich bread, torn into pieces
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or  Grana Padano cheese
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • 4 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut in half lengthwise
  • 4 slices flat pancetta or bacon (about 4 ounces), cut in half crosswise 


Heat oven to 375°.

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a 9- x 14-inch baking dish and spread to make a bed for the zucchini.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine bread, cheese and rosemary. Pulse until bread is broken into crumbs and mixture is combined.

Put zucchini on top of onions in baking dish, cut-side up. Put 1 piece pancetta onto each zucchini piece, then sprinkle with bread mixture and drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Bake until zucchini is tender, about 40 minutes. Serve warm.


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