Just about everyone who has been to the coast has seen mussels, the black bivalves that attach themselves to rocks, sea walls, the poles that support jetties, and even boats if they simply stay in port and are never cleaned. There are two major kinds of mussels in Italian waters: plain cozze's shells are up to 4 inches (10 cm) long, whereas the others are smaller, with more of a beard, and are called Cozze Pelose (hairy mussels).
Time was that raw mussels were considered a great delicacy. However, since mussels are filter feeders, they will pick any pathogens present in the waters they live in, and it is therefore best to cook them unless one is absolutely certain of the safety of the growing area -- one runs the risk of catching a number of diseases, including cholera, if one does not.
Since the flesh of dead mussels rapidly breaks down, producing toxins that can cause considerable distress, raw mussels are sold live, by the bag. When selecting them, they shouldn't smell, and the shells should be tightly shut; if you touch one that's open it should pull shut. If it doesn't the mussel's dead and you should wonder about the rest of the bag as well.
Got some good mussels? You might make this universal antipasto:
Breaded Mussels, Cozze Impanate
To serve 4:
1 pound (500 g) mussels
An egg, lightly beaten, with a pinch of salt
4 tablespoons breadcrumbs
A large bunch parsley, minced
Oil for frying
Scrub the mussels, removing any traces of beard, rinse them in cold water, and drain them. But them in an ample mettle pot (they'll scratch a non-stick coating), sprinkle the parsley over them, and cook covered over a medium flame, shaking the pot every now and again, until the mussels have opened. In the meantime heat your oil.
Remove the pot from the fire and shuck the mussels into a bowl -- if a mussel didn't open toss it rather than force it. When you are done shucking, set aside the nicer looking half-shells.
Dredge the mussels a few at a time in the egg, roll them in the breadcrumbs, and fry them until golden. Drain them, season them lightly, and return them to the half-shells you set aside. Serve at once.
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