Sardegna is an island more than just geographically, but in ways both spiritual and financial it also seems quite isolated from the boot. Sardegna has only in the last 75 years been at all inhabited along its magnificent coastline due to the malaria’s centuries old predilection for the natural marshy shores. This created a fiercely independent people who lived inland in the mountains and for centuries fought off invasion and piracy, and whose life is remarkably similar to what it was a century ago. In the early sixties the Aga Kahn developed the Costa Esmeralda and it became the glorious playground of the chichi jet set. It still is, but only in this far northeast corner. Driving on the 4 main roads is slow at best, and on the peripheral roads even slower, but the ancient rhythms and lifestyle are almost hypnotic and addictive, so a good visit takes at least a couple of weeks. One tip, fill up on gas anytime you see a gas station, anytime….
You will arrive by plane to Cagliari, Olbia or Alghero, or by big boat to Porto Cervo. The food is as delicious as it is varied. My friends Marcella and Victor Hazan swear by a small place called Albergo Ristorante Gallura in Olbia, so I am certain it is brilliant… Victor wrote a nice piece in Town and Country April 2003 that merits a serious read for any gatronome.
Driving west to Sassari, be sure to stop at the Santissima Trinita di Saccargia, a magnificent former Camaldulian abbey built of black and white stone with a beautiful campanile and some gorgeous 13th century frescos. Sassari is the second biggest town in Sardegna and has two restaurants of exceptional deliciousness. The first is the seemingly simple Trattoria del Giamaranto… (via Alghero 69…. tel 079274598) where Sicilian born chef Sabino Cangialosi does a creative twist on classic piatti sardi like favetta, a delicious puree of cooked fava beans as well as culungiones, a potato filled ravioli whose name is based in the Catalan language of the Spanish invaders in 1295. Roasted goat with myrtle here is a perfect dish when eaten with a glass of Canonnau and a cheese selection of 5 different songs in the key of sheep concludes the taste symphony.
For perfect seafood, I love Il Cenacolo…(via Ozieri 2 …tel 079236251) where the variations on raw seafood make a perfect antipasto. Spaghetti with the local arselle clams is supernal and the aragosta (spiny lobster) cooked simply in sea water and served with tomatoes, raw onions and lemon can bring me to tears of joy.
Down to the nearly Spanish city of Alghero you will find beautiful beaches and a walled port city with a small-town feel and delicious and rare marine biology on the plate. At Andreini (via Arduino 45… tel 079982098) I started with fried anemones, seaweeds and tiny mussels all served with a salad of fregola, the Sardegnan variation on couscous. A thin pasta with pecorino and bottarga seemed suspicious, but was perfectly balanced and the bottargae was remarkably softer than the ones we use here in NYC. Mullet baked in salt and served with unbelievably crisp fried stuffed eggplant was poetry on the plate and the gelato with torrone and bitter chocolate still rings on my palate.
Out by the airport on no particular street there is a place called Sa Mandra (tel 079999150) where the truly traditional cucina sarda of typical shepherds dishes is celebrated with joy and passion. Each prix fixe meal starts with traditional salumi and sheep’s cheeses with the pane carasau (shepherds flat bread). From there the primi included malloreddus (little saffron flavored cavatelli shapes) with wild boar and a plate of herb ravioli with a sauce of ricotta and milk than was spectacular. To say that the baby pig was roasted to succulence is understatement, the definitive version of the dish is here. A little almond cake followed and the gods were dancing Sardegnan.