When we first came to New Haven in December 2014 to explore the city, before committing to moving here, I was lured into ROÍA Restaurant and Café. There we had a few great cocktails—concoctions called Ibisco and Le Martea, both of which are currently still featured on their menu—along with some of their great French-Italian food. To call it fusion would be insulting; ROÍA seamlessly wove the two together without the usual pretentious and frustrating concept of fusion food. Actually, its name comes from the Roya River that runs between France and Italy’s last 30-some miles before emptying into the sea; something, you could surmise, connotes the river being the dividing thing that brings the two together, or the common thing that separates them. The cuisines of these two countries may not seem too different, especially when you consider that what we think of as classic Italian food was greatly influenced by French chefs at the time, but they can be quite combative (and not just due to egos).
A creamy fettuccini with chantrelle mushrooms and thyme had the quality of being brisk and light while still being buttery and rich—a balance that, one could argue, only the French can bring to food—all the while feeling rustic, quickly being thrown together in the kitchen for the sole purpose of feeding you, not impressing or dazzling you, though it inevitably would—the Italian perspective. But what struck me was this fabulous dish of mussels cooking in a sauce of their house-made pancetta, saffron, sliced fennel and a tomato sauce tossed with house-made spaghetti. It was everything.
It nestled in the inner recesses of my brain, working its way into the nooks and crannies, and stayed there. That is, until one day when I was out running some quick morning errands and realized I didn’t have any lunch back home. Knowing that their menu had since changed, I was met with a brief fear that my craving may never be fed again. A quick stop at Ferraro’s Market on Grand Avenue for some mussels fixed that.
The pancetta is salty and porky, which works extremely well with the fennel (here being the pungently anise-heavy seed, rather than the crisp bulb), and the saffron’s aromatic and almost sea-like essence tie the mussels into it all. It can have a bit of a rusty, almost medicinal tinge to it, but once you get past that on its characteristic olfactory tour you’re hit with a similar heady waft to a warm breeze coming across the harbor. By way of Spain, Sherry lends a rounder and grapier flavor than wine, and, as I said in the Shrimp & Chorizo Stew recipe, the pairing of seafood and sherry is one that cannot be argued with (and is only improved with a porky element—here being pancetta, and chorizo for the stew).
The liqueur that the mussels give off while they steam in the sauce give not only add a little extra salty brine, but also dilute the sauces consistency from a thick tomato sauce to a warming broth—just as well, it makes bread-sopping almost required. A few glasses of wine, the apropos crusty bread, and a setting sun, and you’ll be transported—be it France or Italy, and frankly, I’m not sure that it matters which.
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