Spaghettini con le Cozze

Thin Spaghetti with Mussels

In Italy we call all shellfish frutti di mare: sea fruits. The term is both poetically descriptive and revealing of the pleasure Italians take in the fruit of their many seas. I remember my father going nearly every day to meet the fishing boats; the brightness in his eyes as he spread a mound of glossy black mussels or jumping live shrimp on the kitchen table was the same as when he brought home ripe, honeyed peaches from the farm or a basketful of berries from a walk in the woods. Shellfish is ideally suited to the temperament of the Italian cook, who thrives on fresh ingredients straightforwardly prepared. There is little you can do to shellfish to make it taste any better than it did when it came out of the sea. In this sauce very little cooking takes place, just enough to merge the flavors of the garlic, tomato, mussel juice, parsley, and hot pepper that punctuate the delectable mildness of the unmanipulated mussel meat. The mussels themselves go into the pan for that moment or two necessary to warm them. The ideal vehicle for this, as for most seafood sauces, is thin spaghetti, whose reduced surface does not obtrude yet whose firmness—when cooked al dente—is sufficient to carry the sauce.

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  • 3 pounds live mussels
  • cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 teaspoons chopped garlic
  • cups canned Italian peeled plum tomatoes, drained and cut up into large pieces
  • 4 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • ½ teaspoon chopped hot red pepper
  • Salt
  • 1 pound spaghettini


  1. Place the mussels in a basin filled with cold water. With a paring knife cut away from each mussel the tuft of fibers protruding from the shell. Rub the mussel shells vigorously one against the other, or scrub with a stiff brush, to remove all the grime. Repeat the operation 3 or 4 times, each time with a fresh change of cold water.
  2. Put the mussels in a pot, cover, and turn on the heat to medium high. As soon as the shells open, transfer the mussels with a slotted spoon to a bowl, and pour the juices from the pot into another bowl. Detach the meat from each shell, swish it lightly in the juice in the other bowl, and put it in a small clean bowl. Line a strainer with a paper towel, set it over a bowl, and pour the mussel juice through it until it has all filtered through the paper.
  3. Put the olive oil and garlic in a saucepan and turn on the heat to medium high. When the garlic becomes colored a pale gold, add the tomatoes. Stir once or twice, then add the filtered mussel juice, turning up the heat to high. When the juice has completely boiled away, add the parsley, hot pepper, and the mussels. Stir once or twice, taste and correct for salt, and turn off the heat.
  4. Drop the spaghettini into a pot of abundant boiling salted water. When barely tender but firm to the bite, drain and toss immediately with the sauce.