My Roman friend, Giancarlo, shared this Neapolitan-Style Mussels recipe (Cozze alla Marinara) with me during our Italian-American potluck. I met Giancarlo by accident. I had wanted to go back to Rome after Venice, but had not made any plans. My friend in Venice had rented a room from Giancarlo and highly recommended I do the same. His apartment is in the Testaccio area of Rome, previously known for housing Rome's slaughterhouses. Now, nightclubs and bars have replaced the slaughterhouses. This residential neighborhood, with very few tourists, has many culinary delights.
Maybe because I was one of the only tourists in the neighborhood, he looked after me. My first morning there, he took me around the neighborhood personally, included me in all his social plans, and directed me to the local spots for some of the best food in Rome (I'll be filling you in on those spots soon.) A few years ago, there was NO WAY I would have strayed from my carefully laid travel plans. I made to-do lists and was sticking to them. Not even a handsome gondoliere or happened-upon food festival could deter me. The list had to be checked. This trip, I was much more laid back, embracing unexpected adventures. Because of it I have new friends and great memories in Rome. Martin Buber said one of the great things about travel is, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” A month at Giancarlo's in Testaccio was one of these secret destinations for me.
As one travels south in Italy, the food gets a little spicier. The red peppers (peperoncini) and freshly ground black pepper give the dish some spice. Pepperoncini, called “Viagra of the poor” are as prevalent in the food markets as scooters (vespas) are on the streets. Also as you move south, the people of Italy change. I witnessed more verbal battles, and occasionally physical ones, in Rome, Naples and Palermo. I also got yelled at much more. But, I was also welcomed and embraced more in these cities. The food, naturally, should match the people, and the spiciness of this dish does just that.
The juices from the mussels and the tomatoes make a succulent sauce. Don’t forget to place the crostini at the bottom of your bowl before adding the mussels. The toasted bread will have soaked up the juice and all the flavors by the time you get to the bottom.
This recipe was adapted from the dish Giancarlo made for our dinner in Rome. I hope you try it and enjoy it. Let me know how it comes out.
Neapolitan-Style Mussels alla Giancarlo
(Cozze alla Marinara)
(Serves 4 people)
For the crostini:
About 20 slices of bread, from one baguette
4 to 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, sliced in half
For the mussels:
4 pounds mussels
1 cup wine
1/3 cup lemon juice, from 3 to 4 lemons
About 1/4 cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 small onion, finely diced
1 stalk celery, finely diced
3 to 4 teaspoons red pepper flakes
32 ounces peeled, diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 bunch, flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 lemons, sliced in wedges (optional)
Preheat an oven to 375ºF
To make the crostini, brush both sides of each of the slices of bread with olive oil. Bake for 8-10 minutes until lightly browned. Rub each side of the crostini with the sliced garlic. Set aside.
To prepare the mussels, clean the mussels under running water, discarding any with broken shells. Trim the “beard” (the stringy portion) from the side. In a sauté pan big enough to hold all the mussels in one layer, add the mussels, wine and lemon juice. Cover and steam over medium heat until almost all the mussels have opened, about 10 minutes. (Discard any that haven’t opened.) Strain the liquid and set it and the mussels aside, separately.
In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil and add the onions and celery and cook until they are transluscent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for another minute. Add the tomatoes and 1 1/2 cups of the mussel cooking liquid oregano and 1/3 of the chopped parsley. Turn the heat to high. Keep the heat high until it starts to boil, then turn the heat down to medium and cook another 10 minutes, reducing a bit. The sauce should be quite dense. If it’s too dense, add more of the mussel cooking liquid. Add the mussels and reheat. Taste and add more salt if needed, plenty of freshly ground pepper, and the remaining parsley.
To serve, place a crostini at the bottom of each of 4 individual bowls. Spoon the mussels into the four bowls, distributing them evenly. Pour the sauce over the mussels. Add three crostini to each bowl and lemon wedges if desired. Enjoy!