As is often the case in the realm of Italian food, tiella is a traditional dish that gets its name from the container it is prepared in. In Gaeta, tiella is a flat pizza made with bread dough that’s stuffed with vegetables and local purple olives; or with seafood like octopus, and tomatoes––and baked in a flat metal tin that gives the dish its name. In the southern Italian region of Puglia, tiella is a peasant layered dish that uses rice, potatoes and mussels: common and inexpensive ingredients that are readily available in that area. The tiella container in this case is a round aluminum baking tray (or glazed earthenware) with edges that are at least 2 inches high. This is a recipe that’s deeply inspired by the sea, yet with deep agricultural roots.
As time passed and culinary customs shifted, every family modified this ancient recipe, making it their own. Depending where you ask, you may see it referred to as taieddhra, tieddra, tjedda or tajedda, but the preparation is the same. The three-ingredient recipe sometimes includes zucchini. This makes total sense. Zucchini is used in the tiella in the summer months, which is actually the best time to prepare it for the quality of the mussels.
Note: for best results, properly cleaning the raw mussels is of paramount importance. Wash, brush and clean each mussel, carefully removing barnacles from the shells. Next remove the byssus, the mass of strong, silky filaments (byssal thread) by which certain bivalve mollusks, like mussels, attach themselves to rocks and other fixed surfaces. These hang stubbornly to the shell, but can be removed by yanking sharply toward the hinge of the mussel. If you tug towards the opening of the shell, you could kill the mussel prematurely before cooking it. Remove the byssal threads of each mussel and discard. Rinse the clean mussels in a salt-water solution, and then drain them well.
Working over a container to collect the juices––which will be used for cooking, use a knife to open the bivalve and discard the empty shells.
Ingredients for a 10-inch (preferably round) deep baking dish
1 kg black mussels
300 g Arborio rice
500 g waxy potatoes
1 white onion, thinly sliced round
2-3 heirloom tomatoes, sliced
1 garlic clove
30 g parsley, minced
50 g Canestrato Pugliese, or any fine pecorino cheese available in your area–grated
30 g breadcrumbs
2 cups water
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Remember to save the liquid from the mussels. This is a very important ingredient. Filter it with a fine mesh strainer right before pouring it in the assembled tiella.
Keep the mussels on the half-shell in the fridge while you prepare the rest.
Peel and slice the potatoes. Purists insist these be sliced at different thickness, so slice some to 1/8 inch thickness, others thinner.The thicker slices will be used for the first layer, the latter will be the tiella topper.
Season the sliced potatoes with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 200°C/390°F
Grease the bottom of your baking dish with good glugs of olive oil. Line the bottom of the dish with the sliced onion, followed by a single layer of sliced and seasoned potatoes. The next layer is sliced tomatoes. You’ll need to save some for the last layer. On top of these distribute half of the minced parsley. Rest the mussels on their half-shell––meats up––on top of the tomatoes. Cover the mussels with the raw rice.
Pour the just-filtered mussel juice all along the edge of the tiella. Cover the rice with another later of potatoes (the thin slices) and tomato. Season with salt, pepper, remaining minced parsley and a few more tablespoons of olive oil.
Dust the surface with grated cheese and breadcrumbs. Always pouring from around the edge of the dish, add enough water to cover the rice.
Before baking, cover the assembled tiella with alluminum foil and place on the stove over medium heat until the liquids start to boil.
At this point the tiella can go in the oven, still covered with the foil. Bake at 200°C for approximately 45/60 minutes. Check doneness of the potatoes on the bottom of the tiella by using a long toothpick.
Remove the foil after 20-30 minutes and keep baking until the the top layer acquires a nice crisp crust. Five minutes under the grill can also do the trick.
Tiella is best enjoyed at lukewarm temperature, to allow flavors to blend well.
Despite the presence of seafood, the best wine with tiella rice, potatoes and mussels is a bold Primitivo di Manduria, or an even bigger and inky Nero di Troia.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.