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Pasta with mussels & tomato | Pasta ca cozzuli in rossu

Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as a primo/appetizer
Course Appetizer, Pasta, Primo
Cuisine Sicilian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 35 minutes
Total Time 1 hour
Servings 6 as an appetizer


For the mussels

  • 2-2.25 lbs mussels 1 kg
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 10 parsley stems
  • 2 cloves garlic

For the sauce & dish

  • 14 oz canned or fresh small tomatoes 400g
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus more for serving
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 lb spaghetti, spaghettoni, bavette (linguine) or spaghetti quadrati (chitarra or square spaghetti) 450-500g


Prepare the mussels:

  1. Clean the mussels by removing the beards and barnacles as described in the introduction. Rinse them thoroughly under running water.
  2. Crush the garlic cloves lightly but leave them in their papery skin
  3. Set a 30cm/12” wide deep saute pan or wide pot over medium-high heat; add the olive oil, parsley stems and garlic cloves.

  4. When the parsley and garlic just begin to be surrounded by sizzling bubbles, add the mussels, with just the water left clinging to them from washing. Cover the pan.

  5. After two minutes or so, check the mussels: they should be opening. If not all the mussels are open within four or five minutes total, take out the ones that are open and add them to a bowl while waiting for the others to open. Keep the pan covered in between checking & removing the mussels.
  6. When all the mussels have opened, remove the pan from heat. Prop the pan up at an angle and pick the mussels out into a bowl. Pour the juices into a separate bowl, being careful not to let out any sand you’ve trapped in the corner of the pan (which is why you propped it up – smart right??). If you’re worried about this, you can strain the juices through a moistened paper towel. Discard the garlic and parsley stems. See notes at the end for two bonus recipes that pick up from the end of this step. 

  7. Remove the mussel meat from the shells except for two or three per serving that you’ll use for decoration. Add the shelled and whole mussels to the bowl with the juices to keep them moist. 

Prepare the tomatoes

  1. If using canned tomatoes, drain the juice away and save it for another use (I add ice, lemon and sparkling water to it and drink it – I have heard some people add vodka :) ). Then, you can crush them with your hand, chop them with a knife, run them through a food mill, or, what I usually do, leave them in the can after draining and run a stick blender down the height of the can one time (this leaves quite a bit of texture). Each will give you a slightly different effect. I do not recommend using passata (tomato puree) unless it’s homemade. The texture of most commercial passata is too liquid and it rarely has as good a taste as whole peeled tomatoes, even from the same brand.

  2. If using small fresh tomatoes, cut them in half or quarters depending on your taste and their size. If they are watery, you can pick out the seeds and water with your pinky (try not to squeeze them)

Make the sauce

  1. Put 6 quarts or liters of water in a large pot over high heat.

  2. Crush the garlic clove lightly and remove the skin. You can leave it whole or cut it in two, depending on how much garlic taste you want. I don’t recommend chopping the garlic for this dish and I recommend never slicing garlic ever because eating garlic slices is disgusting.
  3. Wipe out the skillet from the mussels with a wet paper towel. Add the oil and garlic and place the skillet over medium heat.

  4. When the garlic has just begun to change color (from its natural ivory color to the palest gold and absolutely no darker), add the tomatoes, being careful not to splash yourself. Add just a modest pinch of salt (the mussel juice you’ll add later is very salty). Give the sauce a stir and adjust the heat to a gentle bubble. Cover with a splatter screen if you have one.
  5. Keep an eye on the sauce, stirring from time to time, until the sauce has darkened and condensed, or if using cherry tomatoes, until they’ve begun to break down and lost their raw taste. 8-15 minutes, canned tomatoes taking longer than cherry tomatoes.
  6. Stir in most of the mussel juice and cook for a minute or two to blend. Turn off the heat.

Finish the dish

  1. If you like to eat on warm plates, put your serving plates in a very low oven (50C / 150F)
  2. When the water is at a full rolling boil, add a scant handful (let’s say two heaping tablespoons) of sea salt.
  3. Note the cooking time on the pasta package, subtract four minutes and set a timer.
  4. Add the pasta. DO NOT BREAK THE PASTA IN HALF. Stir the strands until they are completely submerged. Continue stirring often so the pasta does not stick to the bottom. This becomes less important the closer the pasta is to being done.

  5. Meanwhile, reheat the sauce over medium-low heat.
  6. When the timer goes off, add the mussels and any remaining liquid to the sauce and raise the heat so the sauce bubbles at a lively simmer.
  7. Taste the pasta. Don’t throw it at the wall or any other ridiculous ritual. Taste it. If you feel like it’s just on the cusp of being done, but it’s not quite ready, drain it. You can use tongs to pick the pasta out of the water and drop it right into the bubbling sauce, or drain the pasta in a colander in the sink and then add it to the pan with the sauce. Don’t worry about getting the pasta overly dry. If you use the colander, keep a mugful of the cooking water off to the side before draining.
  8. Vigorously toss the pasta with the sauce over heat for several minutes until the pasta is done to your liking. It should have a firm center when you bite into it but it should not have any crunch. It should be pleasurable to chew, neither overly resistant nor too yielding. If by the time the pasta is done the sauce seems a bit too dry, splash some pasta cooking water into the pan a spoonful or two at a time to get the sauce to the consistency you like. It should not be soupy.
  9. Remove the pan from the heat. Empty the pan into a warm serving platter, or scoop and twirl individual portions onto individual plates or bowls, with two or three whole mussels in the shell going on top of each portion.

  10. Whether over the whole serving platter or each plate, drizzle over fresh extra virgin olive oil and grind abundant black pepper.

  11. Serve immediately.

Recipe Notes

Bonus recipe: ‘nzuppa ri cozzuli (Italian cognate: zuppa di cozze) or simply mussel soup: to serve them as they are at the end of step 6, combine the mussels & their juice in a warm serving platter or individual bowls. You could optionally season the juices before or after cooking the mussels with chopped parsley, and/or chopped fresh tomato or a spoonful of tomato sauce or (good if not very Sicilian) grated lemon peel.

Bonus recipe #2: If you add abundant freshly ground pepper to the preceding dish, you have pipata ri cozzuli (impepato di cozze) – or an “in-peppering” of mussels.

As a main course, figure on 1.5 pounds / 700-800g of mussels per person, or half that for an antipasto. In either case, abundant crusty bread is a must – if it’s semolina bread with sesame seeds, so much the better.