There is a restaurant in Italy that seems never to have a free table, and it is not in one of the celebrated cities, but in Olbia, a shabby port town in northeastern Sardinia, on the ground floor of a modest hotel. It is Rita D’Enza’s Gallura. How to describe the flavor of Rita’s food? Intense, yet subtle; penetrating, yet gentle; surprising, yet comforting; sprightly, aromatic, surging from deeper sources of savor than anyone else seems to have tapped.
I adapted this mussel and bean soup from one of hers, and when I was working on seafood recipes one summer in the Hamptons on Long Island, it was the one dish that, once tasted, my friends asked me to make again and again. Even the photographer who came to shoot a story for Food & Wine magazine, and claimed he never ate at work, wiped the pot clean.
The procedure can be summed up simply: the beans are cooked separately; the mussels are steamed open; a base of olive oil, onion, garlic, and tomatoes is prepared and combined with the beans and mussel meat. The liquid for the soup comes from the bean broth and the mussel juices. Chili pepper, in minute quantity, adds spice with restraint; the distinctive fragrance is that of celery leaves and basil.
There is a lovely logic to the sequence by which the flavors of the soup are built up, each element of taste and texture layered over the other until they fuse into a delicious whole. Master the pattern, understand its sense, and you will be able to spin off from it versions with other legumes, with other seafood, with or without onion, with whole garlic cloves rather than chopped, with herbs other than celery leaves and basil.