“There are 14 ingredients,” Massimiliano Masolla declares about the stuffed mussels he serves at U’ Gnore, a fish market turned restaurant in Bari, capital of Puglia, a province on the heel of Italy’s boot. It’s a bold declaration to make: How could 14 ingredients all fit into the shell of a mussel?
To prove it, Masolla takes out a piece of paper and starts to scribble.
“Olio,” he says, counting them out. “Aglio, cipolla, patate, formaggio ..."
As we wait, waiters turn down the tables and prepare to close. Bari is a busy city, an ancient port famous for its thugs and far off Italy’s treasured path of culinary delicacies. There are the great wines of Tuscany, the pizzas of Naples, the offal of Rome, and so on, but the cuisine of Southern Italy is often underexplored. Like most port cities, the history of Bari is one of sack and pillage, the centuries dominated by so many ancient lords and rulers it’s hard to keep track: the Goths were here, the Lombards, the Normans, the Hohenstaufens, the Sforzas, and more. Outside that history, what makes Bari unique is its cultural blend. Some churches here are so old they look like Arab mosques, and many talk about how the origins of Santa Claus started here because the tomb of Saint Nicholas is resting in the famous cathedral here. The heart of the city is the old port, a labyrinth of streets and plazas that are jumbled together in such a way to protect the town from the winds blowing off the Adriatic.
Massimiliano Masolla’s restaurant U’ Gnore is outside the city center. It’s an unassuming place next to a gas station, with harsh lighting inside and a terrace facing oncoming traffic outside. For years, the place was a fish market, a place for locals to pick out fresh sardines, octopus, oysters, urchin. But despite the rich bounty of costly seafood, Masolla prizes his 14-ingredient stuffed mussels, a dish created by paupers that is famous throughout the Bari region and an exhibition of complexity and simplicity at once.
Masolla’s stuffed mussels, it should be noted, derives from another peasant dish: Tiella Barese. A baked dish akin to paella and casserole, Tiella Barese and other recipes like it are ways to use cheap ingredients — such as rice and potatoes and whatever’s left in the kitchen — and feed large families. Some cooks layer potatoes and rice and mussels in a clay dish or pan, and then add tomatoes, sauce, and cheese or chunks of meat like lamb or goat (or donkey or horse, which are eaten in the South). The final concoction gets drizzled with olive oil, goes in the oven, and is served as a one-course meal.
The stuffed mussels are really the leftovers to the leftovers. All the rice and potatoes and tomato from the Tiella Barese is then mixed and whipped up into a pastelike filling, flavored with more spices and ingredients and leftovers, and packed inside the mussel shell. Once the filling is in place, the individual mussels are fried in olive oil, crisping the filling and trapping the moisture inside the shell, to create a balanced and hearty antipasta.
“Zucchine, pan gratino, sale, pepe,” Massala goes on, counting his way to 14. The number not only represents most of the ingredients in the kitchen but the region itself: the famed tomatoes and vegetables that grow here, the olive oil, the animals the farmers raise, the cheese that’s made from their milk, the seafood the fisherman bring in each day. This universe is all wrapped in a shell, consumed in one bite.
Ristorante U' Gnore: Corso Alcide de Gasperi, 296, 70125 Bari, Italy; +39 080 502 4529