Cocozelle Zucchini Summer Squash – Beloved and Delicious
This exquisite summer squash is celebrated by home gardeners and chefs alike for several reasons – its texture is pleasing whether used raw or cooked, the flavor has nut-like notes with a lingering sweet taste, and it stands out from all other summer squash varieties with it’s striped and ribbed skin. It’s as dependable as they come and very productive, yet won’t drown you in fruits mid-summer.
Cocozelle, also known as Cocozelle di Napoli and Costata Romanesco, is an heirloom Italian squash, easily recognized with its distinctive outer skin lined with alternating lengthwise dark and light green stripes with a pale green to white speckled overlay. Rather than being smooth like traditional zucchini, it has prominent ribs running from stem to blossom end.
It also produces loads of bright orange blossoms which can be harvested individually or while still attached to the squash and offer a delicate flavor and texture as fresh dishes all their own.
The term zucchini is derived from the Italian “zucca” for pumpkin, squash, or gourd. Zucchini as a term is applied to cylindrical fruit, while cocozelle is a group of squash and is known for its unique exterior with varying hues of green and deeply grooved ribs.
The bushy plants look much like other zucchini until the abundant blossoms begin producing fruit and their distinctive stripes start appearing. They do better with some space and don’t like crowding, as it stunts production and increases the risk of moisture-born fungus issues. Their large leaves wave on long sturdy stalks in the slightest breeze and plants can grow to 2’ tall.
The Italians continue their centuries-long love affair with these tender yet abundant summer fruits, resulting in a catalog of recipes whose scope and skill displays a culture familiar with zucchini’s infamous profusion.
Italian recipes celebrate zucchini in their recipes, putting its texture and flavor front and center.
Native to North America, summer squash is among the oldest known cultivated crops - archeological evidence dates the domestication to around 7,000 to 10,000 years ago in central Mexico.
Ethnobotanists theorize the native range of domesticated summer squash – Cucurbita pepo – stretched from Central America, through Mexico, along the Eastern Seaboard north to Quebec. The first cultivated squash were likely gourds, grown for their outer shells as storage and carrying vessels. Seeds, as a calorie-dense, storable food were possibly the next phase of selection, eventually followed by a focus on the flesh of mature fruits, much like the pumpkin and winter squash we know today.
The final phase was probably a careful and focused breeding and selection process for a squash whose immature fruits were fine-textured, mild and edible. This was most likely the origination of the calabacita, the Mexican name meaning “little squash” for zucchini-like immature squash that we know and love today.
Ancestors of the modern day zucchini and cocozelle strains likely accompanied Columbus when he returned from his Caribbean voyages.
There are six distinct horticultural groups of summer squash - cocozelle, crookneck, scallop, straightneck, vegetable marrow, and zucchini. Most of these groups have existed for hundreds of years.
Notwithstanding the Italian name, it was French horticulturists who published the first descriptions of cocozelle. Antoine Nicolas Duchesne specialized in strawberries and gourds, having studied at the Royal Garden in Paris and illustrated a mature cocozelle fruit in 1770.
Italian horticultural professor Domenico Tamaro described two striped cocozelles in his book Orticoltura, published in Milan in 1892.
The French seed house Vilmorin published an illustration and description in 1883, while American seedsman Fearing Burr published his description in 1863.
To say the Italians invented zucchini is partly true, as Italian gardeners diligently spent successive lifetimes selecting for the smooth, dark-green-skinned fruits we know today as zucchini, as well as the striped, fluted fruits known as cocozelle.
Americans became “re-united” with this old staple food during and after World War II when they found themselves eating and enjoying this American vegetable in countries that border the Mediterranean – especially Italy.
Cocozelle is prized for its exceptional flavor and texture and is equally delicious in both raw and cooked recipes. There are a plethora of both Italian and Mexican recipes that equally showcase the versatility and agility of this beloved vegetable.
Slice freshly harvested cocozelle into ribbons or rounds for salads, crudo plates, or as a pasta alternative. Grate it and add to soups, coleslaws, quick breads or fritters. Slices have a pleasing scalloped shape around its edges and can be sautéed, steamed, roasted, grilled or battered and fried. Mature squashes are the ideal size for halving, hollowing, stuffing and baking. The eye-catching deep orange blossoms are also edible and are classically stuffed then baked or deep fried.
The sweet flavor pairs well with eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, chili peppers, lemon juice, basil, thyme, oregano, olives, roasted poultry, pancetta, prosciutto, egg preparations and cheeses such as pecorino Romano, ricotta and feta.
All varieties of Cucurbita pepo are pollinated by bees, so planting pollinator attracting flowers among summer squash helps ensure a good harvest.
Sow 5 seeds per hill, 4' apart. Thin to best 2-3 plants. Squash seeds dislike cold soil. It's better to wait until the soil is warm to the touch first thing in the morning to plant the seeds.
Well irrigated, fertile soil is essential for the best production and flavor. Mulching heavily around your plants will also help with weed suppression and moisture retention.
Water around the plants, avoiding overhead watering, as wet leaves will attract diseases like mildew and beads of water act as a magnifying glass in sun, burning the leaves. Keep weeded to prevent weeds from stealing nutrients from the squash.
Grow in good, fertile soil with full sun and you'll have few problems. One common problem is powdery mildew on the leaves that shows up in mid-summer as grey patches on the leaves and stems, looking just like a dull white or light grey powder. It's the result from excess moisture, usually by watering overhead where leaves and stems stay wet.
A drip system is best, water early in the cool morning, and only wet the soil around the plants. Leave space between plants to improve air circulation. Remove badly affected leaves by cutting close to the plant, making sure to throw them in the garbage and not the compost which continues the problem.
Harvest summer squash early in the morning for firmer flesh, but don’t tear the fruit from the vine, as it will cause the fruit to lose moisture quickly and invite disease into the plant.
Instead, cut the fruit with a sharp knife or garden shears.
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This squash is the best for making zucchini loaf as it is not sopping wet. Delicious.
Excellent tasty squash
This is the best squash we have ever grown. The taste is absolutely incredible, very delicious. We always grill it.