Welcome to Parla’s Pastas, a column by the Rome-based, New York Times best-selling cookbook author Katie Parla, whose latest title is Food of the Italian Islands. Get ready for a carb-driven journey through the trattorias of Rome, the rural reaches of Campania, the kitchens of Sicily (her ancestral homeland), and beyond. Fire up a pot of water, and andiamo!
Parking is always a challenge in Italy, but a special kind of anxiety comes with trying to dock a boat in Le Forna, a village on the island of Ponza—as I learned on the windiest day of the year on a mission to taste La Marina’s legendary spaghetti con le cozze, a garlicky, tomato-licked pasta dish teeming with mussels.
In charmingly Italian fashion, anyone with a credit card can rent a boat to Ponza—no questions asked, no instructions provided. But then came the challenge of anchoring the dinghy amid the wind and whitecaps. Leaving the boat heaving in the surf, I prayed that it wouldn’t come untethered and smash into its neighbors as I blithely twirled my spaghetti.
Ashore, I kicked off my shoes, taking a cue from La Marina’s chef and co-owner, Aniello Romano, who famously cooks barefoot. Now, I love spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) as much as the next seafood fanatic, but Romano’s spaghetti con le cozze gives that dish a run for its money (at about half the price if you’re reproducing the dish at home). The shaded patio overlooking a cobalt blue bay further sweetened the deal.
My dining companion and former La Marina cook Raffaelina talked us into the kitchen. I watched as Aniello sizzled a crushed clove of garlic in olive oil, followed by a pair of cherry tomatoes that burst and disintegrated. Then, in went the mussels and a splash of white wine. The high flame licked the sides of the aluminum pan as Aniello shook, shook, shook, coaxing the mussels open, their juices mingling with the simmering wine. That was the sauce for the spaghetti, which all but disappeared under the heap of mussels and a flurry of fresh parsley.
Back at the table, I plucked the mussels from their shells (when I make spaghetti con le cozze for guests, I do this ahead of time) then dug right in, ensuring each forkful captured a plump, juicy mussel. The sauce, which had a pleasantly sweet tang from the tomatoes, clung to the pasta, which I twirled and twirled until only empty shells remained. The nautical nightmare was worth it, I thought, as I slipped on my shoes and headed back out to sea.
I later learned that the secret to the island’s signature pasta was Ponza’s sweet, ultra-fresh mussels: Ponza’s fishermen auction off their more valuable catch on the mainland, but the humble bivalves—whose lack of prestige belies their sublime flavor—stay on the island. Cheap and bountiful, they’re the bedrock of budget-conscious Ponzesi cuisine.
Could spaghetti con le cozze be Italy’s biggest seafood pasta bargain? I can’t say for sure, but it has certainly become a weeknight staple in my house. Unless you’re willing to try your luck on the high seas, you’ll have to take my word for it: The Ponzesi perfected pasta with mussels, and this recipe is the proof.
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