Buongiorno, bonjour and “g’day”! (don't you like how they're all the same thing? ~ who knew Australian vernacular was so cosmopolitan???).

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It’s your old pal Kit (Christof) Fennessy here. I've been writing this blog with your help for ten years, and there's over a hundred and fifty recipes, restaurant reviews of Australia and around the world, and general gourmet articles in these pages for you to fritter away your idle hours on.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

SARDINIA PART 1 - Cagliari

Sardinia. The cradle of civilization, located at a historical path of intersecting ways. The holiday retreat of Silvio Berlussconi and Johnny Depp, Sardinia is a popular European travel destination. But in Australia the first thing most people ask is “Where is it? Near Sicily?”

Kind of. Take a look at a map of the Mediterranean. Go up and to the left. See the biggest island, right in the middle of the Sea? That’s Sardinia. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t not see it.

Slap dab in the middle of the Mediterranean, close to Africa and most of Western Europe, accessible to the Middle East, Sardinia has an archaeological history that predates the Bronze Age and has the fingerprints of every major culture from the surrounding regions all over it. Civilisations have spanned through the Nuragic people and their stone fortresses (with between 6,500 – 8,000 “nuragi” ruins around the island, depending on who you talk to), up to the Phoenicians, then the Romans (Sardinia was the wheat bowl for ancient Rome), and finally Christian cultures coming through – including a dose of Catalan culture, the Aragons, and let’s not forget the modern Italian twist.

With its location and constant invasion, with locals retreating to the tops of hills and inland, traditional Sardinian food does not feature sardines, despite the name. Sardinia is more known for its goat meat, cheeses, salamis and hard breads (and goat stealing and the occasional kidnapping). The knives of Sardinia are famous: hand made, curved, and folding down into horn handles, they are perfect for slicing salami or killing someone. But that’s all in the past now.

Modern day Sardinians are a warm and welcoming people. Politically, there seems some local tension with Italy, with slogans like “Sardinia is not Italy”, and Che Guevera popular with protesting students. Cuban sympathies abound, but ultimately the economy is based on a strong tourist trade.
Modern Sardinia has a rich seafood tradition culinarally, but in the hinterland it’s still a fantasy food; almost like seafood is a luxury novelty that they run to at the seaside, knowing it could be taken away any second.

The ancient city of Cagliari – pirate port, now seaside resort, the capital of Sardinia and our first stop.
Churches abound every block and a half, raised in adulation for the miracle of not being sacked or burnt down by passing marauders. The city is also conveniently built on a steep hill, to give the inhabitants space to retreat each time they were invaded (which, by the looks of things, was a regular occurrence).

The Via Roma, the main bayside strip, runs along a port filled with commercial ferries and sailing ships, and features huge arched covered walkways filled with cafes, Italian tourists taking coffee, and the occasional protest march.

The square halfway up the hill on the Largo Carlo Felice is pretty touristy and stacked with loud bars and gaming places for kids.

At the top of the hill there is a walled city enclosed by huge fortified gates (the Elephant Gate operated as a prison for some years) and features a cathedral, numerous antique stores in old houses, a plaza with “spectaculare” views of the city, and a 1960’s modernist concrete museum district at the north end of the hill. The museum district has a free archaelogical museum that is definitely worth the visit.

In the old city generally, abandoned buildings abound, and there is a strong local movement to “Basta degrado Castello” or “Enough the degradation in Castello” (the old bit at the top).

Sitting up in the Gold Room at “the Place” we were staying (http://www.theplacecagliari.com/en.html ), making these notes, our window looked out across a lane at a wreck of a building with no roof, and a garden growing on the ground floor.

The Place had had a recent refurb, probably pinching materials from the shell across the way, and was very nicely done. The staff were also highly agreeable. As the sun went down outside on our first night there, to the sound of kids playing and speaking to their parents, the light fading down through the shell of the house opposite, I felt lucky… and on very intimate terms with our neighbours. Acoustically it was a nightmare – you could hear the man next door do up a zip, and one night a fervent couple upstairs seemed to be using a hacksaw to demolish some loose plumbing.

The main tourists to Cagliari are Italian and German, but English is the main second language so the whole EU thing is just like Eurovision. Luka, our host, told me we were only the second lot of Australians they’d had in six months.

A short bus ride gets you to the sandy beach Poetto, trawled by African émigrés selling earrings. If you arrive at the right time of year, Flamingos also nest nearby on a holiday from Africa.

But enough of the travelogue, Kit, what does the gourmet recommend?

Mirto: The local liqueur is called “Mirto” and is a source of considerable pride all over Sardinia. Mirto is a sweet red wine with myrtle in it. Myrtle grows wild all over the island, a scrubby white flowered plant that is probably inedible but is so prolific they had to do something with it. The taste was distinctly odd on the front of the palate, but it leaves a very nice after-taste in your mouth

A place recommended by our host Luka (I wonder if he lives on the second floor?) and the second highest rated restaurant by ‘Trip Advisor’ in Cagliari, Per Bacco was just around the corner from where we were staying in the old town, and we went there on the first night.
It featured authentic Sardinian food. Sardinian cuisine features a special flat bread, either dry crisped or cooked in olive oil and spun into a cone and antipasto, with prosciutto crudo, cheese, green olives and a pork salami that was just amazing; you could taste the personality of the animal it was made from (she liked eating chestnuts and rolling in the mud).
I had red shrimp in a tomato sauce, while Jane had the beef salad. Acqua minerale con gasse, due botteils, instead of booze.
The chef came out in her black chef’s hat and matching black apron to talk to all the customers. Tasty, convincingly local, and backed up by the chef, a big tick! I give it six tentacles.

Antico Caffe (dal 1855)
This restaurant is famous in Cagliari. Not so much a comprehensive ristorante, as a bar that does pasta and salad. It’s ambience was like walking into a Woody Allen film, with those warm colour tones and jazz; though if he ever shot anything there, there’d only be two people in the place, instead of the hundred plus in reality.
I enjoyed a vodka martini for 8 euros (around 12 bucks), followed by the seafood risotto and a salad that involved goat’s cheese, apple, celery and lettuce with a glass of house white. They threw in bruschetta and some sardinian bread, so another tick.
Not as homely as per Bacco, but buzzy, slick and popular. I give it six and a half tentacles. Check it out at www.anticocaffe1855.it

Ristorante Semplicemente
Cagliari’s top rated restaurant on Trip Advisor, Semplicemente is located in an inner suburb of Cagliari - past the botanical gardens and the hospital; kids had grafittied house walls about the “infection on society”, so I guess it was the ritzy suburb.
The streets of Cagliari are busy late on a Saturday night as people go for dinner at around 10pm, but in this strange part of town it was quiet. The restaurant was stylish – white table clothes, beautiful signage, yukka plants out the front, an open kitchen… but empty.
I whimped out on being a gastronaut in this instance. Not because I’m intimidated by poshness, but because it was empty, and going in by myself (Jane was in bed) and having a slap up meal while people watched me sitting alone in a restaurant where I can’t speak the lingua franca, without even a book for company, WAS intimidating.
Still, if you want to impress a hot and heavy date while in Cagliari, it is definitely the place for you. See it here at:

A Tip from the Locals: San Domenico
A footnote recommendation from Luka, San Domenico features an old lady as the cook, and is similar to Per Bacco in that it serves traditional Sardinian food, and is a very small restaurant that you might not even realize is there. You’ll need to book on a weekend night (your hotel will call for you), as the locals think it very good: San Domenico on the Via E. d’Arborea.
Naturally, as an old-lady-cook restaurant, it doesn’t have a website, but you can find out more about it at:

As I walked back from the foreboding front of Ristorante Semplicemente, I returned to a pumping old town, and went past a pizza joint that had the locals queuing out on the street.
Which made me reflect. What is it that makes a great restaurant? Price? The quality of food? Sure. But popularity! Knowing you are going to the most popular place in town counts for a lot.
The pizza we ate in Cagliari was exceptional – large and overflowing the plates they were delivered on (not thin and crisp like Roman ‘Pizza a la Metro’, more crude), fantastic ingredients, usually featuring prosciutto, and ultimately cheap.
When in doubt in Italy, order the pizza (or pasta) – after all, they are experts. Still, there are only so many carbs you can eat, and I did find myself occasionally longing for a steak on the road.

And we were about to hit the road! Hiring a car and taking a driving tour of the island.

Next episode: ‘Agriturismo - Goats Ahoy!’


Chris said...

I am eating lunch!!!! (photo...)

Louise said...

Wow wow Kit you lucky thing...I had a look at the Hotel.... crazy rooms!

Kit Fennessy said...

Yes! The Gold Room we were in featured plastic plates screwed to the walls and spray painted gold! Classy - I felt like I was in Caligula...

Kit ///

Mel said...

wow I've always wanted to go to Saridnia - very jealous!

I hear lots of cool artists who are friends with nick cave hang out there...

Sheeda Boss said...

Goldfinger - everything he touches turns to excitement!