Spaghetti coi moscioli — spaghetti with mussles Portonovo-style

Portonovo, Italy January 26, 2005 Le Marche, the central Adriatic region of Italy, is one of the country's still unspoiled and undiscovered areas, as well as the source of wonderful things to eat and drink. I just returned from spending a few days there with my good friend Angelo Recchi, investigating wines and foods and the region as a possible destination for gourmet travel and short breaks. It is a wonderful part of Italy and I'm eager to return soon. Angelo is passionate about Le Marche and enthusiastic to share and show all that it has to offer. He himself works with a tour operator creating and leading gastronomic tours and is happy to discuss custom tours for individuals or small groups or just give advice and tips to anyone who is contemplating visiting Le Marche.
Angelo's father Antonio is a trawler fisherman in Ancona. One evening we went to the family home where Angelo's mother Letitzia cooked a wonderful dinner with fish staight off the boats: an antipasti of marinaded octopus, alici con spaccasassi (fresh anchovies with samphire), fried and soused sgombro (mackerel); then a primo piatto of tagliatelle (very thin, fine egg noodles) with frutti di mare such as vongole veraci (the sweetest and best of all clams) and the exquisite cannocchie (mantis shrimp, a speciality of the Adriatic); finally a secondo of tiny coda di rospo (monkfish tails, too small to legally sell, so a bonus for the fisherman's family since the smallest fish are always the sweetest) cooked with a little tomato, peperoncino and wild fennel, the latter found most everywhere and a characteristic flavouring of Le Marche. Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, zesty, full in flavour and body, is the white wine par excellence to accompany such delicious local foods from the sea.
Le Marche is a region that presents contrasts, above all between the sea and the inland hinterland, a country of soft rolling hills that lead up to the Apennines, with isolated fortress-topped villages that look across to each other. Inland foods similarly contrast with the cucina di mare of the coast - here in the hills more robust foods such as smoked trout, coniglio in porchetta (rabbit stewed with garlic and wild fennel) and rich ragù di anatra (duck sauce to have over homemade egg noodles) are accompanied by similarly warming, richly flavoured red wines such as Rosso Cònero made from the characterful Montepulciano grape.
Meanwhile, back by the sea, moscioli - the local name for mussels (cozze in Italian) - are cultivated in the protected bay of Portonovo and harvested and served in any number of simple trattoria, tables by the beach, the sea literally lapping at your feet.
Therefore, on returning home to Devon, I thought I'd recreate the flavours of Le Marche. So I purchased a kilo or so of our delicious local Exmouth mussels from Derek our mobile fishmonger (here in Topsham Tue, Thur, Fri, Sat) and prepared a big bowl of spaghetti coi moscioli - the specialty of Portonovo. The pasta and shellfish, bathed in a slightly piccante tomato-and-mussel-broth sauce, is most perfectly partnered with an equally forthright and full flavoured Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, such as our favourite Loretello from Az Ag Fratelli Politi.

Spaghetti coi moscioli - spaghetti with mussels Portonovo-style
Serves 4

1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 red chili pepper, finely chopped
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tin chopped organic tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 kg live mussels
2 glasses dry white wine
1 lb spaghetti

Scrub and clean the mussels, discarding any that do not close when given a sharp tap. Rinse well. Take about half the chopped onion, garlic and chili and add to a pot together with the dry white wine. Bring to the boil. Throw in the mussels, cover and steam for 4-5 minutes, until all the mussels have opened. Set aside, reserving the cooking liquid. When cool, remove the mussels from their shells, reserving 8 or so to garnish.
In a saucepan, heat the oil over a medium flame and sautee the remaining onion, garlic and chili for 5 minutes, taking care not to burn. Add the tinned tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper, bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Towards the end of cooking, add a few ladels of the mussel cooking liquid to make a thinnish but flavourful sauce. Add the cooked mussels five minutes before serving and keep warm.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, add the spaghetti and cook until al dente. Mix well with the tomato and mussel sauce, and serve, garnishing each bowl with a few mussels in the shell.

Wine: Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi of course. Nothing else will do!

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