Last week, one of our dearest friends from New York came to visit us here in Bologna. Besides being a well-known jewelry designer, Wendy Mink is what we call a buona forchetta—which literally translates as a “good fork,” but what it means is she loves good food, and is a joy to cook for. Actually, a better definition is someone who is insane about your cooking, and literally devours whatever you prepare for them. It’s fun for everyone at the table to be around a buona forchetta—their enthusiasm and pleasure is contagious. I imagine you know a buona forchetta or two yourselves?
Since Wendy knows Italian food, and my cooking in particular, we asked her what dish she was most craving while she was here. We considered the various options, but as soon as I mentioned spaghetti alle vongole e cozze (clams and mussels), all eyes lit up. I wanted to make my favorite variation of this dish—that is, with fresh tomatoes. So we bought about one pound of ciliegini (cherry tomatoes); a little more than two pounds of mussels; and about 2 pounds of a mix of clams: telline and veraci. Telline, small and grey-colored, are natural Adriatic Sea clams. Vongole veraci are bigger, but just as tender; they’re cultivated in controlled, unpolluted, huge seawater baths. The clams we get here are a more tender variety than we used to get in New York and are really delicious—but if you can’t find them fresh, you can certainly opt for those sold in cans, shelled and packed in their own water. To enhance the flavor of the sauce, always use the water they come in—whether they are fresh or canned, as long as it’s natural and without any additives. If you are able to get fresh clams, be sure to soak them in cold salt water for about half an hour before cooking, which will make them open just enough to expel the sand and impurities.
Cozze (mussels) are always very fresh in Bologna; hopefully you can find them fresh where you live as well. To clean the mussels, first pull out the barbetta (little beard)—the hair-like tangle that hangs out of each shell; then in a clean sink, vigorously rub all the mussels against each other and rinse in plenty of water, pressing them against the sink. Now you’re ready to steam them open in a large pan with a lid—and nothing else. They’ll open in a few minutes, at which point they should be drained—you can use that broth for the sauce or for your next risotto alla pescatora. When the mussels have cooled, it’s very easy to take them out of the shells and add them to your sauce—there’s no need to sauté them separately. One important tip: Be sure not to add any salt to the sauce, and go slowly with the salt you add to the pasta water.
It’s actually very easy to prepare this dish, while your friends chat and enjoy an antipasto and a glass of wine. True to form, Mink—as we often call Wendy—who is as elegant and sensual as her name implies, acknowledged every bite with a little moan, welcoming every mouthful like a long-lost relative. It was wonderful to cook for her again.