Clams in a Cataplana

Flex your mussels and assault your senses with cataplana, a legendary seafood dish (and cooking vessel) from Portugal.

While I was preparing my notes for the "Restaurant Legends" in the June issue of Pittsburgh magazine, my mind wandered to the old Baum Vivant restaurant in Shadyside and one memorable meal prepared by chef/owner Toni Pais. He’s a world-class chef whose pride in his Portuguese heritage is manifest in the authentic dishes he prepares.

On this occasion, Pais brought to the table what looked like a copper clam shell. He carefully opened the lid, releasing a cloud of fragrant steam redolent of the aromas of the garden and the sea. At the base of the dish was a tomato sauce made bold with onions, garlic, peppers and spicy Portuguese sausage. On top of the sauce were two or three dozen plump and succulent mussels adding their juices to the broth.

Mussels cataplana recipe.

The magic of this dish, called mussels cataplana, was the combination of distinct yet harmonious flavors. Pais is still making magic at his restaurant Café Zao in the Cultural District.

You can make the dish in any large covered skillet, but there is something dramatic about the presentation in the authentic utensil that heightens the sense of anticipation. You also can use almost any type of spicy sausage to flavor the sauce, but linguica (pronounced lin-GWEE-suh) is the authentic Portuguese cured pork sausage flavored with garlic, onion and paprika. You might as well go all the way.

Chris Fennimore is the director of programming at WQED and the producer/host for QED Cooks. Follow his blog on food and family at

Categories: Eat + Drink Features