Here is a classic – and impressive – Italian dish to make for your next Sunday dinner. Fresh mussels are steamed in a beautiful, velvety marinara sauce, and are then served over a generous helping of Capellini pasta.


When I was growing up in Canada, every Easter holiday was spent at my grandparents house. Since it’s an Italian Catholic custom not to eat meat on Good Friday (for some, it’s every Friday), Nonna Rosa sometimes made a huge pot of mussels, steamed in a simple wine tomato sauce, and served it as a primo piatto. While the adults devoured their generous helping of mussels, I loved dipping nonna’s homemade bread into the yummy sauce. 🙂

It had been years since I had eaten nonna’s mussels and I don’t recall mom ever making them. One Sunday afternoon last fall, my family and I ate at a traditional German fish restaurant in Hamburg, and I ordered myself a large bowl mussels cooked in a runny white wine tomato sauce, aromatised with carrots, leeks, onion and garlic. When I took that first bite, it brought me back to my childhood. Only one word describes what I felt in that moment … comforting. I decided right then and there, that it was time for me to make my own version of steamed mussels … and this is how this recipe was born. 🙂


The first thing to do is buy the freshest mussels you can find. The best place to start is at the fish market or at a local reputable grocery store. In North America, mussels are typically packed loose in a mesh bag and kept over ice, but in Germany they are vacuumed packed with salt water and kept in the cooler. The disadvantage to vacuumed packed mussels is that it’s hard to tell if the mussels are alive. Once sealed, they are forced shut and are not able to freely open and close. Unfortunately, you have to rely on the expiration date, which can sometimes be hit and miss.

The day I made this recipe, I went to the grocery store that I normally shop at, and bought the last package of mussels they had. They were one day before it’s expiration date, but when I got home, I noticed that they were not alive and ended up returning them. I went to another grocery store not far from where I live, and found plenty of packages in the seafood section. Some were marked 30% off (stay away from those), a handful expired in several days, but at the very bottom in the back of the cooler, I found a package with the newest expiration date. I snagged it and went home to make my dish.

The first thing to do is sort out the mussels. Look for ones that are tightly shut (first photo). This indicates that they are still alive. If they are slightly open (middle photo), either squeeze them shut, or tap them on the shell with a spoon. If they slowly close, then they are still good for cooking. If they don’t close then it means that they are dead and need to be tossed. If you find mussels that are cracked (last photo) – even a hairline – then get rid of those, as well.

If you look closely at the photos above, you’ll notice that a couple of mussels have strings (or ‘beards’) hanging out of them. Those should also be removed. Hold it between your thumb and index finger and firmly pull it out. Do this for all the mussels that have them.

Now, here comes the part where you need to put in a little elbow grease in cleaning them (but in the end, it’ll be worth it). Each mussel needs to be vigorously scrubbed with a brush under cold running water to get rid of the sand and dirt. What I didn’t mention earlier about the mussels I had in Hamburg, is that it was unpleasant biting into the bread that I had dipped into the sauce, and feeling something grainy between my teeth. In order to avoid this, I highly recommend cleaning them thoroughly.

Next, wash them multiple times in a water bath. I know it’s probably excessive, but it really does help get rid of most of the grit. Keep going until the water is almost clear (I stopped after the tenth wash) . When I compare the left photo above where the mussels are in their original package, to the photo on the right where the mussels in the white bowl that were thoroughly cleaned, I see that it was worth all the effort it took to clean them.

Once the mussels have been cleaned, we can begin making the sauce, and boiling the water for the pasta (and I promise that from here on in, the rest of this recipe will be a lot easier). First, set a large pot of salted water on the stove, cover, and allow for it to come to a boil.

Next, add all the ingredients for the tomato sauce into a skillet, cover, and let simmer over medium-high heat. (This sauce is a slight variation of my simple marinara sauce, in which I substitute two small cans of peeled whole tomatoes for the pomodoro passata.) Cook the sauce for ten minutes and then crush the tomatoes with a fork or potato masher. Continue cooking for another five minutes.

The sauce should be considerably reduced, thick, and velvety. If not, then cook for another two or three minutes, uncovered. Taste the sauce to see if it needs more salt. When you feel that the sauce is ready, then it’s time to cook the pasta.

The pasta I chose for this dish is Barilla Capellini because it cooks within 3 minutes, which is about the same time it takes for the mussels to steam. If you can’t find this pasta in your area, then you can substitute Spaghettini or Angel Hair pasta. However, they take about five minutes to cook, so you’ll have to adjust the cooking time accordingly (ie. add the mussels to the sauce, two minutes after the pasta has already been cooking).

Now, break the pasta in half. Mom used to do this so the pasta would fit into the pot she was using. Even if the pasta strands are broken in half, it is still long enough to be twirled. Cook the pasta no longer than the cooking time suggested on the package. It should be al dente. If you happen to overcook it, then it will be soft and gummy, which is not ideal for this dish.

When the pasta is ready, drain it well and dress it with a quarter cup of olive oil. This adds a wonderful Mediterranean flavour to the overall dish, and helps the pasta from sticking if it’s ready before the sauce … which I will explain in a moment.

Capellini Pasta with Olive Oil ...

If you grew up in an Italian family in Canada, chances are that you might have watched Pasquale Carpino, the Italian singing chef. I used to watch him all the time with my mom and my grandmother. His show aired every day on CFMT Television in Toronto. Not only was he popular for his operatic voice and simple Italian recipes, but he was also known for his quotes. One of my favourite ones is

Pasquale Carpino's Pasta Quote ...

My mom used to tell me the same thing, but there are times that I make an exception. In this case, if the pasta is ready before all the mussels have opened, then the pasta should be thoroughly drained and tossed with a good amount of olive oil. There is no harm when the pasta sits a few minutes longer, while the mussels continue to cook.

As soon as the Capellina pasta is added to the boiling water, the mussels should be added to the tomato sauce right afterwards (or two minutes later, if you are using Spaghettini or Angel Hair pasta). Cover the pan with a lid and let them steam for 3-5 minutes, or until the mussels are open.

Once the mussels have cooked, they should all be open, revealing a beautiful orange-y pink colour. Arrange the pasta on a large platter or divide evenly among the bowls, and top with the mussels and tomato sauce. Set a small bowl of Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese on the table for guests, if they wish to garnish their dish with cheese.


When I initially plated the food onto the platter, I didn’t really like the way it looked, but after I uploaded the photos onto the computer, I couldn’t believe how stunning and colourful the dish presented itself. It was simply a beautiful mess. 🙂


This is really a great dish to impress your guests with! I served this to my family, but my boys didn’t eat the mussels (of course). However, they loved the pasta and sauce! 🙂


I hope you give this dish a try. If you do, let me know how it turns out by leaving a comment at the bottom of this post. Buon appetito!!

(Printable Recipe)

Here is a classic – and impressive – Italian dish to make for your next Sunday dinner. Fresh mussels are steamed in a beautiful, velvety marinara sauce, and are then served over a generous helping of Capellini pasta.


  • 2 lb (1 kg) fresh mussels
  • 2x 14-16 oz cans (400 g each in Europe) peeled whole tomatoes
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 4 large basil leaves
  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (for the tomato sauce)
  • 1/4 lb (250 g) cappellini or angel hair pasta (eg. Barilla), broken in half
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) extra virgin olive oil (for the pasta)


1. Bring a large pot of well salted water to a boil. Begin cleaning the mussels.

2. Clean each mussel under cool running water by vigorously brushing off any unwanted dirt. Then wash them again several times in a water bath till the water is almost clear. Mussels should be tightly sealed. Throw away any mussels that open, cracked (even a hairline), or broken. If they don’t close tightly when you tap them, then don’t use it in the sauce either. If the mussels have ‘beards’, then strongly pull them away.

3. In a large skillet with tall sides, add peeled whole tomatoes along with it’s juices, garlic cloves, basil leaves, and 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Cover skillet with a lid and simmer on medium-high for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Crush the tomatoes with a fork, cover, and let simmer for another 5-10 minutes (the sauce should then be slightly reduced).

4. As the sauce continues to simmer, add the angel hair pasta to the pot of boiling water and cook according to package instructions. Don’t over cook the pasta (it should be al dente).

5. If using Capellini pasta, then immediately add the mussels to the sauce, cover, and let steam for 3 minutes, or until they are all open. If you are using Spaghettini or Angel Hair pasta, then wait two minutes before adding the mussels to the sauce.

6. Drain the pasta well and toss with quarter cup olive oil. Serve on a platter or divide evenly among bowls and top with the mussels in tomato sauce. Garnish with Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese, if desired.


Inspired by my nonna Rosa

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  1. What a great pasta dish and amazing pictures, Rosa! I love mussels but I only eat them when I go back home, in Rome, and buy fresh seafood at Fiumicino straight from the fishmongers. I’m sorry to say that I do not trust the freshness of the shipped mussels, or clams, or other seafood here in Canada. I love them cooked this way and topped on the pasta. And great tips you gave about the pasta, and the sauce 🙂 . Agree 100% 😉 .


    1. Thanks for your comment, Nicoletta!! I can understand what you mean about not trusting seafood shipped to Canada. Unfortunately, the closest fish market to me is in Hamburg but it’s a bit of a drive from where I live. When I made this dish, unfortunately, the first package wasn’t good, but the second one I bought was much better. I have never tired mussels in Italy, but I will have to try them the next time I travel to Italy. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fantastic post Rosa! The pictures are just perfect! One of the very first cookbooks I purchased was “La Cucina di Pasquale”. My mom and I would also watch him sing and cook… and drink his “coffee” 😉 I think I am long over due for a plate of pasta with mussels. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post ♥

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my, this dish looks amazing! And a great post about working with mussels. I have only cooked mussels once recently and they were so good I am ready to make them again soon. I will keep your version in mind, as I am sure the kids won’t try the mussels, at least they will have their spaghetti with tomato sauce. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Adina! My kids aren’t big fans of mussels, but they loved eating the pasta and sauce when I made this. I recently found frozen mussels without shells at Marktkauf/Edeka (the package is 325 grams), and am planning to try this recipe again with them. I hope they won’t taste rubbery. 😉 Thanks again for leaving a comment!


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