Viareggio during the Spring is a true love affair. The shops along the promenade have sold all the Winter coats and heavy shirts and now show off with lighter pastel color Summer clothes. Pasticcerie, bakeries and coffee shops finally keep their doors open, a clear sign that the weather is getting warmer. The grey color of the Winter slowly fades away, revealing the clearest blue skies and long sunny days. It is the perfect time of the year for us, to finally own the beach, kick off the shoes and take long walks along the shore, barefoot in the sand, testing the temperature of the water. No umbrellas, no beach chairs or sunbathers. Just the voice of the sea and the screaming of the seagulls. I enjoy these moments of solitude knowing that soon hordes of tourists will take over the entire coast. I love Spring more than any other Season and not just for its visual beauty, there’s also an emotional aspect; the awakening and rejuvenation of my entire body. I am known as the Queen of Chaos for my hyperactivity. Like an octopus, I am tentacular. I start a million projects all at once and luckily… I finish them all. Spring has the power of increasing this quality, or defect, of mine. The market is just a stone’s throw from the beach and normally, after a long walk near the water, my appetite wakes up. Born in February I am a natural born Pisces but I am not particularly in love with fish. I prefer crustaceans and mollusks. While approaching the market, my memory goes to when Fedora, the lady of the shells, had her fish shack right on the corner entrance. A big old lady with white curly hair and a never ending series of bright colorful plastic aprons. One for each day of the week. She was the specialist, the only one who sold any type of bivalve in the area: oysters, big warty venus clams (known by us by sea truffles), the shiniest and largest date mussels, cockles, smooth venus clams with their bright red shells and foot, scallops, multicolored tellins, the biggest and plumpest blue mussels, and then clams, razor clams, sea snails. Just name it, if it was a mollusk or even a distant relative of a mollusk, she had it. Peeking inside the shack you could see a number of blue basins full of marine water and bivalves. Fedora was the main attraction at the market. Growing up my father would take us to Liguria every Sunday.
There we would go to his favorite restaurant in Portovenere, Locanda di San Pietro, and always order the same dishes each time. Every Sunday we enjoyed Zuppa con i datteri (Date mussel Soup) and Spaghetti allo scoglio, a traditional sea food pasta that takes us South, to Sicily, where it originated from. I close my eyes and like magic, the dish materializes for the joy of my senses. I can smell the fragrance of that soup again, within seconds its flavor bursts in my mouth with all its components: the acidity of the white wine, the aromatic note of parsley, subtle hints of garlic and that unmistakable marine flavor combined with a sweetness that belongs to date mussels only. I wish I could savor it one more time. In those days date mussels were an affordable, still expensive, delicacy. When people, including us, were buying them, sadly, the environmental aspect was not considered. Ignorance was bliss, indeed. Most people did not know that harvesting date mussels is the most impacting practice on marine habitats as it involves the use of explosives and/or sledgehammers. By breaking the carbonate rocks these bivalves live in, the rocky reef gets destroyed and its loss can be irreversible. Not to mention that it takes this bivalve, which normally lives more than 50 years, 18 to 40 years to reach 2 inches in length. The truth was finally revealed. In 1998 date mussels became forbidden fruits protected by the Italian law. From that moment on, our Sunday meals changed for good and those incredibly flavorful pasta and soup joined the history. What are date mussels? Harvested in Italian waters since the Roman times, date mussels are normally known in Italy by the name datteri di mare, sea dates. (Lithophaga Lithophaga) The reason has to do with their shape and shiny brown color, very similar to a date, the fruit of the palm tree. They once represented the main flavor in sea food recipes as their flavor is quite unique. Without them, spaghetti allo scoglio is not the same dish. And I know what I am talking about as I experienced it first hand. Unlike what you think, the origin of the name Spaghetti allo scoglio is not connected to its ingredients, but to an old Sicilian recipe of fishermen. The sauce, if we can call it as such, consisted on steaming small sea rocks, where mussels, barnacles and other small marine creatures were attached. Once the rocks had been removed, both mollusks and their liquid were the base for the pasta to be cooked in. Time has gone by and Fedora is just one of the fondest memories I have together with the date mussels, which no doubt, I won’t be able to taste anymore. The memory of the flavors of these dishes will last forever though. For the record, Spaghetti allo scoglio is often listed on the menu as Spaghetti ai frutti di Mare ( Spaghetti with Sea Fruits) where also shrimp, lobster, calamari show up. Amazing recipe for sure but not the original one from the cliff. Rocks aside!
Below I am sharing a very special recipe for the Spaghetti allo Scoglio. Maybe more labor intensive than others but worth it. And I am sure, once you have tasted it, you will email me back.
SPAGHETTI ALLO SCOGLIO
For 4 people
2 lbs large blue mussels, scrubbed, debearded and rinsed with cold water
2 lbs warty venus clams, scrubbed
1 lb clams, scrubbed
1 1/2 cups of dry white wine
4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
Red chile pepper flakes to taste
1 tsp freshly zested lemon peel
5 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 lb thick spaghetti di Gragnano (I love Pasta di Martino)
Freshly minced flat Italian parsley
sea salt, optional
First thing first, place both clams in two different bowls with lightly salted cold water to purge them of grit and sand for about 20 minutes to 1 hour. Rinse them off and scrub well. Rinse again. Discard clams with cracked shells.
Place blue mussels in one skillet and clams and warty venus clams in a different one. Pour ½ cup of wine to each skillet, cover with a lid and steam until they open. Remove some blue mussels and clams from their shells and keep some in the shell for garnish. Filter both liquids through a fine sieve and blend them in one pourable container.
Bring ½ quart of water to a boil
In a very large skillet, place minced garlic, chile pepper flakes and extra virgin olive oil and combine well. Start cooking that blend on a very low heat and when garlic starts sizzling, add ½ cup wine and let it evaporate. Garlic should not change color or the flavor of the sauce will be strong and bitter.
Pour in about 1/2 cup of clam/mussel juice and immediately add your raw spaghetti. Using tongs, slowly move the spaghetti until they get pliable. Add more clam/mussel juice when needed. Your goal is to cook the spaghetti using just the mollusk’s juice and very little hot water. It is like making risotto, but with pasta instead.
Keep mixing the spaghetti and add a little juice at a time. Add lemon zest. Test for doneness.
When pasta is al dente, stir in all the mollusks, with and without shells. Mix well. Normally salt is not needed because the juice is very flavorful. Your call.
Keep mixing adding a touch of juice or hot water until nice and creamy. Dust with parsley and combine. Serve hot