Father’s Day: Mussels with Hot Tomato Sauce

Mussels with a hot tomato sauce
Mussels with a hot tomato sauce

Father’s Day is June 15. You know me. Holidays bring back food memories. Here’s one from my Dad Gennaro (aka Jerry).

My Mom was always at the stove so my Dad didn’t cook often.  But when he did Dad made some really good dishes. This one is one of my favorites.

This is an unusual sauce. It’s not made with whole San Marzano tomatoes that I use in most of my sauces.

I make this one with tomato paste so it’s a really thick and dense sauce that you spoon on top of the mussels laid atop friselle, or hard twice-baked bread slices.

Heat up olive oil in a pot with the hot pepper. I use whole peperoncini, dried chili peppers. When the oil is hot add the tomato paste and the water you used to rinse out the cans and stir well. As it cooks the paste will darken to a red brick color and be really thick. Stir in some oregano.

While the tomato paste is cooking steam the mussels. Watch me steam mussels and clams. This is the technique that you’ll use for this dish.

Make sure you add enough wine and water to the steaming pot. You need a fair amount of the mussel broth to put this dish together.

If you’re lucky to live in an Italian neighborhood you will be able to buy friselle, twice baked bread rounds or rusks at a local bakery. I can’t get them anymore in North Beach so I baked slices of a sourdough loaf from Italian-French Bakery on Grant until they were hard and golden.

This dish may remind you of the sauce at Vincent’s Clam Bar or Umberto’s Clam House in lower Manhattan’s Little Italy. But my guess is that my Dad got this recipe from his mother and the food she cooked at her Quisisana restaurant in Newark’s Italian immigrant First Ward and later in Brooklyn through the 1950s.

The sweet thick tomato sauce surrounds the tender briny mussels just out of the sea. I hate to say it but my favorite bite is the twice-baked bread soaked with mussel broth and topped with the sauce. But I try to slurp in a mussel too. I love the kick from the peperoncini as it all goes down.

Happy Father’s Day. Wanna share your memories of food your Dad made for you?

Buon appetito!

Father's Day: Mussels with Hot Tomato Sauce
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Steamed mussels and friselle topped with a spicy tomato paste sauce.
Recipe type: Seafood
Cuisine: Italian
Serves: 4
  • 24 mussels well-scrubbed, steamed
  • Strained mussel broth from the steaming pot, about 2 cups.
  • 4 friselle or baked bread slices
  • 2 12-ounce cans tomato paste
  • water to slosh-out the paste cans
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 2 peperoncini (dried chili) or 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • ¼ onion, minced
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 2 tablespoons chopped Italian flat parsley
  1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees and place 4 pieces of sliced rustic bread on a baking sheet and bake until slightly golden and completely dry, about 15 minutes. Set aside the twice-cooked bread. (Or use friselle, Italian rusks from your bakery.)
  2. Put the olive oil, garlic, onion and peperoncini in a sauce pot over medium-high heat.
  3. When the oil sizzles add the tomato paste and the water used to rinse the cans.
  4. Stir well and when the paste starts to turn to a darker brick red color lower the heat to medium-low and cook for 10 minutes more.
  5. In the meantime steam the mussels using this recipe. http://www.gianni.tv/10-minute-mussels-clams/ or the link above in the post.
  6. Remove the steamed mussels from the pot and strain out the broth. (You should have about 2 cups of mussel broth.)
  7. Add half of the mussel broth to the sauce and mix well.
  8. Remove the top shell from the mussels.
  9. Rub the twice-baked bread with a garlic clove and drizzle each piece with extra virgin olive oil
  10. Put a piece of the twice-baked bread on the bottom of a dish or bowl.
  11. Drizzle some broth over the bread to soften it. (If more liquid is needed use water.)
  12. Spread some sauce over the bread.
  13. Arrange 6 mussels around the bread and top each with sauce.
  14. Sprinkle with each mussel and the bread with extra virgin olive oil and the parsley. Serve immediately.



Chicago’s Little Italy Ain’t There No More!

Marilyn Still Draws a Crowd

I love the Windy City – the architecture, dozens of distinct neighborhoods with their own character, diverse and friendly people, great cultural institutions, and fantastic food.

I’m in Chicago on business. Surprise – I wanted to visit Little Italy. Guess what? It’s hard to find.

Chicago had a vibrant Little Italy on and around Taylor Street southwest of downtown where 100,000 Italian immigrants once lived but it ain’t what it used to be. As in other cities this Italian community is all but gone. It was undone in the 1950s when the University of Illinois demolished much of the old neighorhood for a new campus and University Village. Another reminder of how lucky we are to have a still vibrant Italian community in North Beach.

Italian-American friends here don’t like my perspective – Little Italy is still there they say and, more importantly, Italian culture pervades Chicagoland. Italian restaurants and markets are spread all around. It’s true – a contained Italian diaspora – but the original vibrant core ain’t no more.

There are a few bakeries, markets, old-line restaurants and Our Lady of Pompeii Church, but they aren’t the big draw – San Francisco’s Joe DiMaggio is. They installed a statue of North Beach’s favorite son as part of the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame. Joe never lived here but he’s a Little Italy magnet now.

(Sorry for the cheesy underwear picture. Seward Johnson’s giant Forever Marilyn arrived on Michigan Avenue near the river a couple of months ago and she’s as popular as ever. Most ooglers love to get under Marilyn’s skirt and take pix of her panties. You would think that there are plenty of famous Chicagoans worthy of a new statue – but it’s Marilyn who is the latest out-of-towner with big crowds.)

My Old Stomping Grounds – New York and New Jersey

New York

I got spotted like a celebrity last Sunday as I stepped out of a shop in New York City’s Little Italy. Good thing I was behaving.

“Hey, you Gianni from the Web?” she asked.  The woman was born in Naples and has lived in the neighborhood for two decades. According to a recent article in the NY Times the 2010 Census reports that there are no Italians living in Little Italy. I guess she wasn’t home when they rang her bell.

Alleva Latteria Little Italy NYC

It’s a shame though. Little Italy used to be the Italian community. Now all that is visible is a three-block stage set on Mulberry Street loaded with touristy Italian restaurants. But actually, if you look carefully, you’ll find that some of the old-time places are still there.

Alleva have been making fresh mozzarella, ricotta, and other Italian goodies for over a hundred years.

The pasticceria Ferrara Bakery & Cafe makes great pastries, gelato and espresso. If you can’t get in there, try Caffe Roma a block north on Mulberry.

Buon Italia salumeria

I love Eataly, the Bastianich/Batali emporium of Italian food. It’s crowded and pricey, though. A friend told me to check out a similar store in Chelsea Market. Buon Italia has a much smaller selection of items but their prices are much better. I was able to get some candied citron and lemon peels. (I’ll need those when I make the pastiera napoletana a sweet ricotta torta that is part of my Easter tradition.)

Maybe it’s inevitable that demographics and neighborhoods change but what happened in New York’s Little Italy makes me sad. We’re really fortunate that North Beach is such a vibrant Italian neighborhood.

New Jersey

A bunch of my Jersey and NYC friends gathered in Clifton, NJ on Saturday. When we arrived we talked about what we would eat. Susan and I (we usually do the cooking) thought we’d just make some pasta with meatballs and sausage in red gravy. But no, who wanted porchetta, who wanted roasted peppers, cipollini agrodolce, roasted asparagus, sauteed escarole. So all of that stuff plus antipasti was added to the fresh pappardelle pasta for our meal. I think we ate for about six hours.

Choosing peppers to roast @ Corrado's Family Market

Northern Jersey still has a large Italian-American population. There are lots of bakeries and markets in the North Ward of Newark and in surrounding suburbs.

Whether with family or friends we always shop at Corrado’s in Clifton. They have a great selection of everything I need, and great prices too.


I enjoyed my time in Manhattan and New Jersey, but I’m happy to be back in North Beach. Sorrow over my East Coast heritage has re-energized me to be sure you know about all of the authentic Italian gems that you can still enjoy here in our little Village.