pasta with tomatoes, basil & mussels

4 to 6    |   
Prep Time:
20 minutes    |   
Cook Time:
15 minutes

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paccheri pasta tubes

This comes courtesy of Viola Buitoni, a transplanted Italian who lives San Francisco and teaches at 18 Reasons in the Mission and at the Institute of Italian Culture in Jackson Square. She’s an excellent cook and molto simpatica. The traditional dried pasta used for this is calamarata, which look like giant calamari rings. They’re hard to find in the States but paccheri (shown in photo) do the trick. Lacking those, try rigatoni or other biggish tubes. You want to be able to stab the mussel meat and pasta with your fork so noodles don’t work. A tavola!


2 lbs mussels, (see note)
Kosher or sea salt
2 garlic cloves
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1 basket (about 6 oz) tiny cherry tomatoes, stemmed
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup white wine
1 pound calamarata, paccheri or rigatoni pasta
1 cup finely grated pecorino cheese


Put on a large pot of water to boil for the pasta. Put the mussels in a saute pan with a cup of water and a pinch of salt; cover and bring to a boil. Shake pan to encourage mussels to open. When open, remove them with a slotted spoon to a plate; save the cooking liquid. Discard any mussels that remain shut. Remove the mussel meat from the shells and set aside on plate; discard shells. Filter the mussel liquid through a fine sieve or coffee filter into a measuring cup to remove any grit. Set liquid aside.

On a cutting board, mince the garlic with some salt, cut the basil into small shreds (aka chiffonade), and cut the cherry tomatoes in half.

While the water is coming to a boil, make the sauce: pour the olive oil into a wide sauté pan or large frying pan and add the garlic and half the basil. Stir for a minute or two over medium heat to soften, being careful not to burn garlic. Pour in the wine and stir until evaporated. Turn up the heat and add the tomatoes. Cook, stirring, until the tomatoes start to break down and almost caramelize. Pour in about half of the reserved mussel liquid and several grindings of black pepper. Let sauce cook for a couple of minutes until starting to thicken, then turn off heat under pan.

When water boils, add a handful of salt and the pasta. Cook until pasta is very al dente (2 to 3 minutes before time indicated on package), then remove pasta from water with a skimmer or a slotted spoon and transfer directly to the pan with the sauce. Add the rest of the mussel liquid to the sauce pan, turn on heat under pan and cook, stirring and shaking pan to avoid sticking, until pasta is cooked through and has absorbed most of sauce. Add a ladleful of pasta cooking water if necessary to keep from drying out.

Stir the mussels, half the pecorino and the remaining basil into the pasta. Toss well and serve immediately in warmed bowls. Pass the rest of the pecorino at the table for additional sprinkling.

note: look for blue-black mussels, the smallest you can find, not PEI (Prince Edward Island) mussels which are too meaty. If you can’t find mussels, use 1/2 pound rock shrimp and cook them as you would the mussels, preserving their cooking water too.