Gulf of the Poets Mussels & Cannellini

Cozze e Cannellini

Mussels and White Beans

Lerici and the Gulf of the Poets
The mussels of the Gulf of La Spezia are famous throughout northern Italy and here's an easy recipe to take advantage of them - or any tasty mussel. The cozze or muscoli are grown alongside the rocky breakwater that stretches across the Gulf from Porto Venere to Lerici. You may have noticed the grid patterns formed by the poles and floats on each side of the breakwater. They serve as attachments for the ropes that are home as these bivalves grow. The  are raised by the 83 members of the Cooperativa Mitilicoltori Spezzini which has a modern facility in the Santa Teresa frazione of Lerici and which purifies* and stabilizes the mussels before sale. 

Lerici Harbor and Via Amerigo Vespucci beneath the Castle.
Lerici is all about the sea and a trip to Lerici would be incomplete without seafood, either from one of the many restaurants or prepared at home. A great way to work up an appetite for this dish is a short walk through Lerici to buy the mussels. At the castle end of town, the harbor curls around, and there’s a walkway - Via Amerigo Vespucci -  out to the very end of the elevated breakwater.  From this vantage point, you can enjoy the views both across the Gulf to Porto Venere, or back to Lerici and San Terenzo.  There’s a little bar for a snack or a Prosecco, some strategically placed bilingual poem placards, and plenty of places to sit and watch the harbor.

Lerici, Mercato del Pesce and Frutti di Mare stand.
Best of all, about halfway down there's a small inconspicuous fish market.  Inside the little connected shops are the displays of five or six vendors, and outside to the right is the mussel stand, with big mesh bags of shiny black mussels from the Gulf. The cozze are weighed out on order, and the mussel lady has a big smile for every customer - and always tosses in a few extra because you happen to be the nicest customer she ever had.  We usually buy a kilo for two of us, since we both really like mussels.

Orecchiette con Cozze, Cannellini & Pomodoro

Of the dozens of ways to prepare mussels, this is one of our favorites - and one of the easiest, too.
Orecchiette with Mussels, Cannellini & Tomato

2 pounds of mussels
6 oz. orecchiette dried pasta
14 oz. can of quality cannellini, drained & rinsed
3 or 4 plum tomatoes
1 fresh onion chopped, about 2 tbsp.
olive oil

Scrub the mussels and remove the beards if necessary.  Heat a tbsp. of olive oil in a wide pan, add the mussels.  Add a few hot peppers and a slug of dry white wine and cook over brisk heat until the mussels open, about 5 minutes, depending on their size.  Strain the broth in the pan into a small bowl. Take ¾ of the mussels out of their shells and put them in the broth, keep a few good looking ones in their shells for garnish.

Cook the orecchiette until just done (they’ll cook a little more in the sauce). Peel the tomatoes and chop them coarsely.

Heat a wide pan, add 2 tbsp of oil, and put in the onion.  Cook briefly, then add the beans, add the tomatoes, some chopped parsley, and most of the broth in the bowl, reserving the mussels.  Cook for about 5 minutes, adjust the salt as necessary, add all the mussels.  Add in the orecchiette and stir a few times.


The mussels of La Spezia are widely available in northwest Italy. However, your local mussels will do very well. Look for mussels of ordinary, even smallish size for a rich taste. Avoid the very large meaty mussels that are so enjoyable in other dishes, as the taste is less concentrated. In Italy be on the look-out for a pescheria (fishmonger) that will clean the mussels for you by abrasion in a clever tumbling-basket device.

Aquaculture began in the La Spezia area in 1887 when a couple of biology professors demonstrated the suitability of the the Gulf for raising bivalves. The first activity attempted was raising oysters but after decades of convoluted commercial activity, the humbler cozze proved the winners. The Gulf certainly is suitable, for the purity of the waters are fiercely defended by residents, fishermen, and the government alike. Indeed, the cherished Bandiera Blu, a flag awarded to indicate the cleanest bathing areas, has been awarded to the beaches of nearby Lerici for 13 consecutive years. If you are disappointed that we are not devoting several more paragraphs to mussel production and history, relief can be found along with photos at the Cooperative's Italian language site: Mitilicolturi Spezzini.

For more information about exploring Lerici, read one of our most popular articles, Castle to Castle Along the Gulf of the Poets

* The mussels are not purified due to pollution, but because of their nature. All bivalves feed by filtering large amounts of seawater, and this can lead to the concentration of naturally-occurring micro-organisms and toxins in its digestive system. The Cooperative has large pools where the mussels luxuriate in water that has been treated with oxygen (ozone) and ultraviolet rays until their purity is verified with testing.

Written by Martha