Viareggio and The One True Clam

Vongole Veraci....Not

Vongole Verace
True Vongole Veraci
Imagine if a great giant corporation like Nestle or Kraft Foods began to market a product named True Clams*. Every clam producer in the world would protest, lawsuits would fly, and lawyers would get rich...oops, richer. Yet, this is the very situation in Italy. The Vongola Verace has a monopoly on the Spaghetti with Clams market, but most tourists and more than a few Italians are unaware there's any other kind of clam. This isn't the end of the world since these bivalves taste really good, but consumers can be justly prickly about honest labeling and their money.

Venerupis Philippinarum - a substitute for Vongole Verace
False Vongole Veraci
The Vongola Verace is scientifically Venerupis decussata as classified by none other than Linnaeus himself in 1758.  However, in Italy the product called Vongola Verace is also allowed to be the scientically named Venerupis Philippinarum a native of the Philipines and introduced to the Adriatic by commercial interests. This classification twist is allowed by none other than - the Italian Legislature! 

The variegated Philippine clam we are libeling is actually pretty good and can be found in America in West Coast markets. It is definitely a good substitute for Vongole Veraci, despite our label complaint.

Here we present a modest attempt at monopoly busting in the form of a really neat recipe that uses a different clam - one that's native to Versilia. This is why you want to shop at real local markets such as Viareggio whenever possible. You won't see these telline every time you visit, but that's the reason to go often.

Spaghetti with Telline

Viareggio in the spring is one of the quiet pleasures of the Tuscan coast. Peaceful and charming, it has a long pedestrian walk, bordered by the obligatory clothing stores, restaurants  and pizza stands, and a long pier that stretches out alongside the calm harbor. Many of the buildings along the main promenade, known as Viale Manin or Viale Carducci, were built in the early 1900’s in the Liberty style, which is an Art Nouveau look, gentle and nostalgic. You can stroll out past luxury yachts and 10 foot fishing dinghies that look like they might just give up and sink any minute. In town, there are parks, shopping areas, lots of restaurants, and lots of places to buy good fresh fish.

The big central market of Piazza Cavour has a number of fish stands, and is open every morning except Sunday. There are stores with specialties, such as baccala or octopus or the classic mix used in trabaccolare, and the people behind the counter know their business and clean and prepare your fish beautifully. If you’re there in the late morning or around noon and you’re looking for a great snack or a casual lunch, there is a buffet in one of the market buildings where you can select just the amount you want of over a dozen dishes and pay by the weight. Warning – it all looks so good that it can add up on you!

Tiny Arselle or Telline Clams from Viareggio
Tiny Arselle or Telline from Viareggio.
The other place to buy fresh fish is right by the pier. Fishermen and their helpers and wives have little rather casual stands along the canal, displaying their catch in big styrofoam trays. The fish are shiny fresh, the attitude is friendly and kind of jovial, it’s a lot of fun.

One of the most interesting shellfish you can buy in Viareggio is arsella or as they are called in the rest of Italy, telline, tiny clams about the size of your thumbnail. In addition to its official name, the little clam has other names that have their origins in local dialects, which are used in various regions of Italy. Among the most common are: "arsella", "calcinello", "ziga", "tunninola" and "cozzala." Whatever they’re called, they are terrific, and the easiest dinner you can make. The first time I bought these clams, the man who sold them to me told me how to cook them. He was adamant. He held on to his side of the plastic bag of clams until he was sure I had listened and understood – I had to repeat the cooking method back to him before he’d let go. And he was 100% right, I’ve never found a better recipe.

Spaghetti with Telline Clams
Spaghetti with Telline
Buy about a kilo of these little clams, and just make sure they’re not sandy by quickly rinsing them. A whole kilo is a bit greedy, but you’ll be glad. Chop up 5 or 6 cloves of garlic, and soften it in warm olive oil in a wide pan. Add in one hot dried pepper. Boil up a half pound or so of spaghetti, but drain it 2 or 3 minutes before you think it’s done – it should be pretty chewy. Now turn up the heat to medium high and add the clams to the garlic and hot oil and stir them around occasionally for about 5 minutes or so, until they’re all open. Add a bit of chopped parsley and the underdone spaghetti and cook it, moving it around, until the spaghetti is just right for eating. Ecco.

This simple recipe keeps the flavor of the clams front and center. The spaghetti picks up the juices they release to finish cooking and at the same time incorporating the clam taste. 

* Vongola Verace in Italian means true clam. Two of them would be Vongole Veraci.

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More Info
Our article Eat Fish That Didn't Sell details finishing the spaghetti with the sauce.

Same dish, different blogger from Lazio: Il Forno

Photo of Venerupis decussata by Jan Johan ter Poorten; modified by Tom Meijer.
Photo of False Vongole Veraci by Massimiliano De Martino

Written by Martha