The single most delicious mussel I have ever had was at a trattoria on Elba Island in Southern Italy. A dish of risotto bejeweled with mussels, clams, shrimp, and scallops was set on the table and for a moment I just sat there. I was a giddy little food freak just oggling the dish in all its sexy seafood glory. The risotto di frutti di mare didn't last very long. Not many pauses in between bites I'll shamelessly admit. It wasn't until I parted that pair of black shells and dove into their iridescent interior to suck out the meaty morsel and all it's lovely juices. It was the one. Its glorious remains are pictured to the right.
The best highlight for seafood flavors would traditionally be white wine and it was a Bombino Bianco called Marese and a Prosecco that highlighted the bright and fresh seafood dishes that I shared with my mother and sister. Referred to as vino frizzante rather than Champagne Brut, Prosecco is a dry bubbly that I believe can be enjoyed with sweets and savories alike. And so we did...with our risotto di frutti di mare, melanzane, grigliata mista di mare and pane--endless pane.
Back to the mussel. I do not believe in enhancing the flavor of seafood with butter unless lobster is involved. There is a consistency of lobster meat that is well complemented by the density of butter. I would say that the only fish besides this sea creature that fits well with butter is skate. And...if you prepare skate...do it like you should with lobster...unsalted. The flavors at first mild linger strong with the essence of seabed. It's a beautiful thing. Anyhow...this mussel...it was buttery with a tartness reminiscent of sun-dried tomato. Its flavor deepened with the fruity taste of olive oil, heightened with the herbal essence of parsley, and brightened with the citrus kiss of lemon. Often risotto is served with cheese, however it is a general rule to not to add cheese when seafood is involved and thankfully this tradition was honored.
The other dishes from that night--melanzane and grigliata mista di mare. Eggplant, much like tofu, takes on the flavor of the elements you introduce to the dish. It was mainly tomato, sweet onion, and basil. The eggplant and all its rustic friends melded together with a sweetness that was unparalleled by any dessert I've ever had. This is when the Prosecco was appropriately inbibed. The best combinatation of sweet, savory, wet and dry. I'm telling you...
The grigliata mista di mare was eaten almost out of obligation. I was in the south. I had to do fish...just fish. When the dish was served it was glistening with promise. It served its purpose...fresh fish, charged with vibrant green parsley and lemon that almost took on the color and flavor of the olive oil with which the fish was grilled--altogether a beautiful marriage of the peasants and bourgeois and the elite of the sea (you decide which are which): giant squid, orate, scampi, and swordfish. I savored every bite. The fish was good. I could take each individual flavor, but really...the mussel...the mussel!
The mussel demonstrates the ability of Southern Italian cooking to take fresh and good ingredients and present them to your palette in the simplest way...thus allowing for its inherent depth of flavor to be represented. If we open up our minds (hearts?) and mouths...forget the salt and the sugar...and let the mussels do the work...the robust flavors embedded in every single entity of the sea are just waiting to explode on your taste buds...perhaps with a few Southern Italian accomplices (if you weren't paying attention: olive oil, parsley, and lemon).