Spaghetti with Seafood (Frutti di Mare)

If we had to choose a favorite spot from our Italy trip, we might have to say Monterosso. Despite the stiff competition from two cities full of centuries-old ruins steeped in historical meaning, we were immediately charmed by the picturesque, colorful town curving along the gorgeous coastline. We sat for hours, just watching the tumultuous water move, seated on benches scattered along the beach as we ate oily focaccia-turkey sandwiches from our favorite Wonderland Bakery in the morning, and then again in the evening from atop the “castle” perched on the very edge of the cliff, accompanied by a spritz or two.

To get to Monterosso, we took a harried taxi ride from our apartment in Rome to the train station, our driver fitting into seemingly impossible spaces and driving, in my opinion, as recklessly as the driver of the Knight Bus. Due to some ill-timed road work, we got to the train station with only ten minutes to spare. We looked, wild-eyed, at all the signs and flashing departure times, finally finding the information we needed. As our train left Rome behind, we started talking to the older mother and daughter duo sitting next to us, sometimes finding it hard to decide on which words to use but overall having a lovely conversation. The daughter even gave us some of her “fritatta”—in this case, a floury roll stuffed with egg and greens—for lunch, which her mom had made.

After a quick switch to another train, this one a bit cruder and clearly meant for short journeys, we got our first glimpse of the Ligurian Sea. Bright blue, free, and wind-tossed, it was a welcome sight for city-worn eyes. Between the cities of the “five lands” (that’s what cinque terre means), trains run directly through the mountains. This was the path our train took. The tunnels were peppered with small openings in the rocky wall, which flashed past so quickly they left only impressions of bright light in time with our heartbeats. Finally, we got off at the Monterosso station, and walked out the doors onto the sidewalk just above the wide beach.

Crying gulls wheeled, people bustled past, a light wind ruffled our hair, and clouds floated serenely above the whole scene. Waves hissed up the beach and were then sucked back down across tiny, tumbling pebbles—whenever I hear the ocean, I’m struck by how akin it sounds to a great, slumbering creature. We hoisted our luggage and walked along the coastal path until we spotted a black and white Cocker Spaniel, our host’s dog and (self-proclaimed) defining feature. He and his dog led us a short way away, into a tall, narrow street, the buildings appearing almost to lean in toward each other, peering down at their latest visitors. We climbed up a short flight of stairs to our first floor apartment, finding a couple of small, clean, comfortable rooms.

We wasted little time changing into swimsuits and walking the five minutes back to the beach. It was cloudy, the sky turning blue and purple and tinging the water grey. We set our things down on a small rock outcropping and felt the water with our toes. Jonji leapt in and I soon followed—it was cool but not cold enough to make your lungs seize up, like it does in Santa Cruz. We grinned at each other, exhilarated by the refreshing water after a day of travel. We treaded water for a few minutes before rushing out, still smiling, waves playfully trying to pull us back.

Monterosso itself is tiny, boasting several similar restaurants scattered throughout a few main streets. We scoped out all of the dinner menus and got overwhelmed by both the options and the sheer volume of people already seated at every restaurant. It didn’t help that we were incredibly hungry.

“Do you want to go here?”
“I don’t know, what do you want?”
“Eh, let’s just check the next one.”

We finally chose a spot at the end of a small side street. The restaurant had set up a canvas-covered outdoor seating area dotted with tiny tables. A waiter sat us at one of them and we quickly ordered some of their house white wine which was, as always in Italy, delicious. We decided on a shared bowl of minestrone soup (I was feeling a bit frantic at the general lack of vegetables) and a couple of pasta dishes. I got Frutti di Mare which translates to “fruit of the sea”—I was brought a steaming bowl full of spaghetti tossed in a light, oregano-tinged tomato sauce, clams, mussels, and (annoyingly-leggy) shrimp. Each bite of springy shellfish accompanied by slightly sweet, comforting strands of spaghetti was pure heaven in that moment. Yellow night lighting winked off of our full wineglasses; a tom cat wound through the tables, looking for scraps (you know I tried hard to pet him); chatting filled the air with a contented buzz. It was a lovely evening by the sea.

I ordered Frutti di Mare again the next night, sporting sore feet from our extended cinque terre hike and the memory of another, longer sun-drenched swim in the seething ocean. The dish was just as tasty the second time, and I’ve been thinking about the dish ever since. It seemed like fate when I read a similar recipe in Alison Roman’s new book, Nothing Fancy (which is amazing—go read it) upon our return. The result is very close to the Italian original, but with a touch of flair from both myself and Alison.

As I swirled the spaghetti and speared a clam with my fork at home, I thought again of a cool night by the Ligurian Sea.

It goes without saying, but please use the best quality seafood you can find (this goes for any seafood recipe). Not only is the flavor better, but it means you’ll avoid unwanted chemical treatments and, I’d argue most importantly, support environmentally-friendly fishing practices. I’d also suggest getting a good white wine for this recipe—since you’ll only need 1/2 cup for the dish, I recommend drinking a glass or two (or the rest of the bottle) while you cook and/or while you eat.

In my opinion, shellfish dishes don’t make the best leftovers. Therefore, try to make this when you know you’ll have enough people to finish (at least most) of the meal, or else make less than the recipe calls for.

Spaghetti with Seafood (Frutti di Mare)
serves 6

12 oz spaghetti (or similar pasta)
1/3 cup olive oil, plus more as needed
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 bulb fennel, thinly sliced
salt and pepper
1 tbsp fennel seeds, crushed
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp fresh oregano or marjoram, finely chopped
1 lb (about 1.5 baskets) yellow and/or red cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup dry white wine
3/4 lb mussels, scrubbed and soaked
3/4 lb clams, scrubbed and soaked
1/2 lb medium shrimp, peeled or unpeeled (optional)
1/3 cup toasted pistachios, finely chopped

Set a large pot of salted water on the stove to boil. When it’s ready, add the pasta (make sure to break it up so the strands don’t stick to each other) and cook according to the package instructions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Rinse the pasta under cold water.

Heat a large dutch oven over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. When the oil is shimmering, add the garlic and fennel, along with 1/2 tsp of salt and a few cracks of pepper. Cook until lightly browned, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Add the crushed fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, and oregano and stir. Turn the heat down to medium. Add the tomatoes and another 1/2 tsp of salt and a bit more pepper. Cook until the tomatoes have broken down into a jammy consistency, about 10 minutes.

Add the wine and cook for another few minutes, then add the clams and mussels. Turn the heat down to medium-low. Put a lid on top and steam for about 3–4 minutes, or until the shellfish start to open. Add the shrimp (if using), sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss to coat in the sauce. Cover and cook until the shrimp are opaque and all the clams and mussels have opened, another 3–5 minutes.

Mix the drained spaghetti into the shellfish-filled pot. Add a little pasta water if you’d like things to be a little more saucy. Season with salt, pepper, and more red pepper flakes, to taste. Cook until everything’s warm and nicely combined, another couple of minutes.

If you’re hosting a dinner party, transfer the whole thing to a lovely, large serving bowl. If not, leave it where it is in the pot. Regardless, top with some of the chopped pistachios and a squeeze of lemon. Serve with the rest of the chopped pistachios on the side, so people can add more if they wish.

Enjoy!

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