Cozze & Vongole
Italy has thousands of mile of coastline, with innumerable habitats, and it consequently should come as no surprise that clams and mussels play an extremely important part in the diet, beginning with antipasti and carrying through to second course dishes, which vary from hearty and earthy to supremely elegant. Broadly speaking, Italian clams and mussels can be divided into two categories: Those sold live and those sold canned; in selecting the latter you merely have to taste until you find brands you like and stick with them. With live ones you have to be more careful. They're generally sold by the bag, with the bag's being made of netting or otherwise prepared so as to allow the animals to breathe, and the chances are that the shells will be partially open as they sit on the shelf or bed of crushed ice or what have you. If you shake the bag the bag gently, they should shut tight; animals that fail to react when they're jogged are either dead or dying, and you don't want either. Bend over and sniff the bag too; though shellfish do smell slightly fishy, off or sharp odors are again a bad sign; select something else.
Where you procure your shellfish is also important: Clams and mussels are filter feeders, and if their water contains pollution or harmful bacteria, so will they. Bari recently suffered a cholera outbreak as a result of the sale of uncertified mussels, and though you may not get something that serious no intestinal upset is fun. Therefore, avoid roadside stands and people selling shellfish off the back of trucks, and, if you decide to gather your own, check with the authorities to make sure the area where you plan to gather is safe before you do. Larger markets and reputable fishmongers will be a safer bet because they have much more to lose from the sale of bad fish.
Once you get home with your shellfish you will have to keep them alive until you're ready to cook them; simply put them in their mesh bag on a damp towel in your refrigerator. Assuming they were freshly caught they should stay alive for several days, though you shouldn't take this as a license to buy ahead -- shellfish are best when bought, taken home, and prepared; since the preparation does take a while plan on enjoying them the day after you buy them. Why the preparation? Because they're filter feeders and bottom dwellers, and therefore tend to be quite sandy.
How to prepare them: Fill a plastic bucket with water, adding one part non-iodized salt for every ten parts water (by weight; this works out to 1 pound salt for every 10 pints water, or 500 g per every 5 liters, and let the water sit for several hours to give the chlorine or other water-purification gasses it may contain time to bubble out (treated water straight from the tap will kill what's put into it). Scrub the clams well, or, if you're preparing mussels, scrape away their beards with a knife and scrub them. Then soak the shellfish in the salted water in the refrigerator for several hours, or overnight; during this time they will purge themselves of sand and grit.
Having said all this, what will you find in Italy? Mostly hard-shelled animals; the Mediterranean doesn't really have anything akin to the soft-shelled clams one finds in North America.
- The clams you are most likely to hear people mention are vongole veraci, which are known as carpet shell clams in the English-speaking world (all name translations are after Alan Davidson's wonderful Mediterranean Seafood, Penguin Cookery Library, 1981). True vongole veraci are about 2 inches (5 cm) across, and you will also find smaller, cheaper vongole that look similar, but are yellower -- vongole gialle, yellow carpet shell clams. To be frank, though you hear a lot about the veraci, you more often encounter regular vongole. They're eaten both raw and cooked.
- Telline, also known as Arselle, are known as wedge shells in the English-speaking world, and live in the swash zone of sandy beaches. When I was little, I'd see old men harvest them by dragging large strainers through the shallow water, but they're no longer as common as they used to be. They're generally cooked, and one often finds them with vongole in pasta sauce.
- Cannolicchi, razor clams, are shaped rather like the rectangular blade of an old-fashioned straight razor, and are highly prized.
- Datteri di Mare, date shells, are highly prized both raw and in soups; their popularity has put them on the endangered species list, and their sale is illegal.
- Cocciole or Fasolari, cockles. Consumed both raw and cooked.
- Cozze. These are mussels, of the kind you'll see clinging in shiny black carpets to any rocky surface that is bathed by the waves. Most Italian cozze are commercially raised, and the Laguna Veneta is especially well known for its cozze.
SO, NOW YOU'VE GOT SOME. WHAT TO DO WITH THEM?
Eat them, of course. The general Italian custom with live clams or mussels is to serve them unshucked, so people can fish the shells out of the dish and suck away the animal with a little of the sauce. Finger food, and very good too.
Zuppa di Vongole o Cozze in Bianco
Clams or mussels cooked in their juices, without any tomato sauce. Plain, simple, and satisfying.
Zuppa di Cozze o Vongole al Pomodoro
Clams or mussels cooked with tomato sauce. Fine finger food, and laso makes an excellent pasta sauce.
Fregula con le Arselle
The Sardinian equivalent of clam chowder!
Bigoli con Molluschi
A simple shellfish-based sauce for Bigoli, the classic thick-stranded pasta of the Veneto.
Spaghetti allo Scoglio
Reef pasta, with all sorts of seafood -- clams, mussels, shrimp and more.
Fusilli Con Porri e Vongole
A delicate clam-and leek sauce for corkscrews.
Maccheroni alla Diaz
An extraordinary shellfish sauce!
Pasta Atomica (Linguine with olive oil,
garlic, parsley, pepper, clams and prawns)
Brad O'Connor's variation on Aglio e Olio is now featured in Milanese restaurants.
Spaghetti alle Vongole
Spaghetti with clam sauce -- the quintessential summer dish, perfect either at home or while camping.
Spaghetti con le Vongole alla Viareggina
Spaghetti with a slightly tomatoey clam sauce.
Spaghetti con Conchiglie, Cozze e
Unusual spaghetti with clams, mussels, and... Saffron.
Riso con le Vongole
Rice with clams, a simple Ligurian recipe for seasoning white rice.
Risotto alle Telline
Another Ligurian dish, this time a risotto made with the tiny clams of the swash zone.
Risotto con Arselle Alla Pescatora
Arselle are tiny clams, and this is an extremely tasty risotto.
M'Pepatella di Cozze
Mussels heated in a skillet, dusted with pepper and served with lemon juice. Simplicity!
Stuffed Tomatoes W/Mussel Salad
Quick and satisfying!
Cozze al Gratin
Mussels done over the coals, or in the oven. Elegant & tasty.
A slightly more elaborate Sicilian way of doing mussels over the coals.
Cozuli a Purpetti Arrustiti 'Nte
Unusual lemon-scented Sicilian grilled mussel-balls.
Cozze alla Maniera Salentina
A tasty Puglian mussel-and-potato pie.