Talking about the evening meals we had on our holiday in La Maddalena, Sardinia, probably isn’t quite in the bread, cakes, ale purview, but it connects with something that troubles me deeply. And, well, we did eat bread. There’s always bread with Italian meals.
Whenever we go to Italy, I despair somewhat getting home and looking at our eating scene here in England. Now, I’m in small-town England, but it is a fairly affluent small town, not far from London – yet even here it’s hard to eat well at a reasonable price.
I’m not suggesting that Italy doesn’t have bad food. There are plenty of terrible restaurants in Rome, plenty of junk ready meals in the supermarket, plenty of engagement with the pervasive corporate-industrial food complex. But on our trip to Sardinia we were able to stay in a small town and still find places serving real food, made with fresh, local ingredients, at a reasonable price.
The big gourmand
We had a few average meals in Sardinia, but we also had three excellent ones, two in the same place. This was Il Ghiottone, a tiny bunker of a restaurant with just 15 seats, on Via Guglielmo Oberdan, the quayside. You almost certainly have to book.
The name, I believe, means the “The big gourmand”, and it’s definitely a place for people who enjoy food – real food. The main emphasis, understandably, is on seafood. The restaurant faces the harbour, and Giorgio the co-owner with chef Paola, even offered to point out the fishing boat that supplied them, a small vessel moored about 10 metres away from where we were eating.
The first time we stuck with antipasti (starters) and secondi (main, “meat”, courses), the second time we went for the primi (pasta or stodge courses – Italians generally don’t like their meat and potatoes on the same plate). We had a brilliant mixed seafood starter, the highlight of which was probably mussels served with a small amount of pickled or macerated red onion on top. Now, normally, we both dislike mussels, but these were great. I also had paranza – deep-friend whole small-medium fish. The sort of fish that in many places (eg here) would be by-catch, thrown back into the sea dead. It was great. The tails were the best bit.
The second visit we had their pasta. They called it manccaroni, a word that’s presumably avariation on macaroni. To most Anglophones, this just refers to small tubular pasta shapes used for macaroni cheese (aka mac ’n’ cheese). I’m not going to go there with the etymology of the word (see Wikipedia if you’re interested), but historically it was used more generally for various pasta shapes. In the essential book on Italian food history Delizia, John Dickie says, “Maccheroni, spelled in a variety of ways, was the most popular medieval pasta term.” In this case the freah, pasta was in little ear shapes – orechiette. These were freshly made and served with mixed seafood. It was stupendous. I want more right now. I’m suffering as that’s not possible. The crappy phone photo doesn’t even come close to doing it justice.
We also tried our first seadas at Il Ghiottone. I’d not encountered this Sardinian dessert pastry fritter, or fried sweet pasta, before. It’s a palm-sized concoction, with a crimped edge, citrusy cheese filling and honey drizzle. It’s good. Not sure I could eat it every day, but I’d definitely eat it again. In fact, I did, a few days later at an otherwise very inferior meal in Olbia.
Looking up seadas now, many recipes use “pecorino” for the filling, but this is such a broad family of sheep milk cheeses – not just the salty parmesan equivalent you get here. I asked Giorgio about the cheese and he said “vaccina” – cow’s milk cheese, more specifically a young, unsalted curd type cheese. I had this corroborated later on an ingredients list on a packet in the surprisingly good airport shop – cagliata vaccina, cow’s milk curd cheese. I’ll have to scratch my head about sourcing that before I try making it at home.
The pleasure of these meals was completed by being given a digestivo on both occasions – firstly mirto, then what Giorgio called “acqua sarda” – literally “Sardinian water”, but used in the same sense as eau de vie, the potent French “water of life”, or the Latin aqua vitae. Serious xenomorph blood, like grappa. Yowza.
The other great meal we had was just round the corner. We’d walked past Da Ninì, Via Vittorio Emmanuele, several times and I’d been intrigued. I was particularly drawn by the brief whiff of a menu – a few scribblings on a board on the roadside, another on the frontage.
A small menu is generally a very good sign. A long, long menu can be the exact opposite – indicating no consideration, no variation and a dubious relationship with the industrialised food chain. With the implications of the latter a prioritising of cheap-as-possible over quality or seasonality.
Basically they were just serving fish, caught a few miles away, unloaded down the road, and cooked on barbeque set up on the road-side. The best seafood I’ve eaten in my life has had this sort of immediacy – mackerel we caught ourselves in Devon as kids; prawns in a Hong Kong night market that we alive moments before; the first tuna steak I ever ate in Bali; mussels straight from the rocks in New Zealand. OK, maybe not the latter. We weren’t experts and, well, see above.
We had orata (bream; Sparus aurata) and spigola (seabass; Dicentrarchus labrax).* They had a salt crust and, well, that’s it. Fresh, simple, delicious. We also had some large prawns, which I doubt were local or sustainable. They’re among my fave foods, but I try not to eat prawns too much as they’re probably the most environmentally problematic seafood. Never mind the recent reports of slavery in the trade. I wish I’d asked, but it’s done now.**
These three meals were all excellent and frankly the ethical issue of a few prawns at Ninì is arguably minor in comparison to the ethical issues related to the large scale industrial food supply chain that most British restaurants and pubs engage with. I was about to rant about this issue more here, but I don’t want to sully my holiday memories, so I’ll save it for a later post.