If you have read many of the other blogs on the Seafood Sherpa website, you will notice a common theme across all of them. If I’ve done a good job of conveying my intended message, then you already know the thread that ties them all together. It is a plea that I make, to you, the reader, to get outside of your comfort zone. It applies just as much to real life as it does to food. On my latest trip to Italy, I got outside of my comfort zone with food and in several other ways. The trip ended with an adventure that took place in three languages, with half a dozen international accomplices. Laws were broken, business relationships were forged, and I took a small risk of contracting a hellish parasite. I’ll tell you about that part in the next blog, but first the seafood.
On this trip, I visited Sardinia, the second largest island in Italy. It is actually quite large, at about the same size as New Hampshire. It is just a little bit smaller than Sicily. It is the best kept secret in the Tyrrhenian sea. I rarely run into an American who has ever heard of it. If you flew from Naples to Barcelona, you’d fly right over it. With crystal clear blue-green water, as nice as any Caribbean island; it is the most beautiful place I’ve yet found. The picturesque little villages are set against a backdrop of giant stone monoliths, that rival El Capitan or Halfdome. The steep mountains taper down to beautiful beaches with pristine sand. The beaches are all public and near these are charming little villas. The pace of life is slow, dominated by a culture of sheep farming, cheese making, and traditional charcuterie methods. Agricultural tourism is a big deal in Sardinia and as you travel into the countryside, you find many people who don’t speak English at all. Unlike Rome or Paris, where things seem a bit more Americanized, you will have to pick through some challenging conversations. This place feels like the Italy of old, where the proprietors of tiny restaurants feed you the things they’ve grown or caught in the sea. As it turns out, the seas and the soil both provide abundantly in this place.
Upon landing in Olbia, we checked into our little villa and headed to dinner. Knowing that dinner in Italy is never quick, we opted to visit a little pizzeria in Pittulongu called Poldo’s. I speak Italian well enough for a dumb American, so I was able to ask a few questions to our waiter. I found, however, that interpreting the words and interpreting the concepts are two different things. When I asked the waiter, “Quante pizze dovrei comprare? (How many pizza’s should I buy?)”, he replied, “Se avete fame, dovresti comprare sei. (If you are hungry, you should buy 6.)” Never listen to an Italian that tells you how much food to buy. There were 6 of us, 2 of them pre-teens. Each pizza was 12-14 inches. They were so delicious that we ate them all, a mistake we would make many more times on this journey. We walked away quite joyful and quite uncomfortable, maybe also due to a couple of bottles of Cannonau, the strong local red wine.
That little unassuming place in a town with just a handful of permanent residents, also had a giant lobster. Weighing in at around 11 lbs, and with a claw that was probably a full pound of meat, this monster was available for 350 Euro with a 24-hour notice. For that, you would get a 4 course meal for 8-10 people with lobster in every dish. I strongly considered it. Their seafood selection also included several species of crab, shrimp, and clams along with a nice assortment of fish. We went back to that place later in our journey and tried two Sardinian specialties, “malloreddus” (a gnochetti served in a ragu or Bolognese type sauce) and “culurgiones” (big cheesy ravioli that are shaped more like a pot sticker and served with many different sauces). The friendly staff helped me through my fumbling Italian and we enjoyed both of our meals tremendously.
At a little oceanside restaurant called Lo Squalo, we tried a deep-fried moray eel. The dish was a breadcrumb coated fried fish in an attractive arrangement, which I found to be very tasty, if a little boney. I’ve never seen this on any menu in the US, so I’m glad I tried it.
At another beachfront restaurant, I had a gorgeous pile of seafood from the grill, including more of those delicious king prawns, which I believe are called "gambero imperiale" in Italy, and a risotto with clams, mussels, shrimp and a beautiful, but intimidating little ingredient called bottarga. Bottarga was traditionally made by salt curing the roe of bluefin tuna, but is now more commonly made with mullet roe. I’m told the mullet variety is not as good as the tuna variety, but my conscience won’t let me support killing any more bluefin tuna. If we don’t give those guys a break, we could eat the last of them in my lifetime. Anyway, I’ll put my soapbox away now and sorry for the sidebar. This dish was well composed and attractive, with great flavors. This one was a little heavy on the bottarga, which tastes a bit like a version of uni with a slightly milder flavor. The other people with me loved it. I like the general flavor, but couldn’t get around to liking the warm, soft bottarga pieces. I gave it three honest tries.
As rustic as Sardinia feels, we were able to find some really beautiful refined dishes. Later in the trip, we ate dinner at a restaurant near Arbatax called La Bitta where we had two very refined dishes. One was a squid ink pasta with mixed shellfish and small bites of scorpionfish mixed in. It was topped with a dollop of burrata cheese and a few tomatoes. It was pretty and delicious and paired very well with our local white wine called Karmis. The other dish was a risotto cooked using a rich broth of crab stock with some sea beans mixed in for good measure. The dishes were truly special and not terribly expensive. The beachside setting was also quite romantic.
One of the greatest events of this trip was a drive into the countryside to explore a lake. We spent several hours sightseeing and yelling “Ciao!” to random sheep and then doing voice overs for the sheepdogs, which worked up quite a hunger. We searched all over for a place to eat, before noticing a tiny sign that read “ristorante” on a road that was barely a road. We pulled into the parking lot to find no other cars and a beautiful young Italian woman who spoke not a word of English. She was dressed in a somewhat traditional garb and greeted us warmly. We were seated at a large table and she immediately started bringing out antipasti. There was no menu, just food. She brought out a total of 6 dishes, three at a time, and we joyfully ate until we were pleasantly full. Then we dutifully finished the rest, which was quite a bit more than we planned to eat.
We were proud of our accomplishment, at which point she showed up with a main course, much to our dismay. We soon realized that this was “primi piatti” and there was still “secondi piatti”, and then a dessert. This is where my Italian failed me. Being stuffed to near death, I wasn’t thinking very clearly. I tried to tell her we couldn’t eat any more, but in the process of asking her if there was more food coming out, she thought that I meant that I wanted more of the first dish. Frankly, I just think the Italian language lacks the words to say “stop feeding me”, but whatever the case, I couldn’t express to her that we needed to tap out. Fortunately, another couple had arrived and they understood the situation and straightened it all out for us. This 2-hour meal was wonderful with the highlight being a cold dish of octopus and potatoes. They do octopus here just as well as in Spain and I would have gladly eaten more of it, even after I was stuffed with everything else. It was so tender and clean tasting, and the potatoes were so flavorful, that I don’t think I’ll ever encounter another dish like it. Like many great Italian dishes, it was incredibly simple. I bet it only had 5 or 6 ingredients, but all of them were perfectly cooked and perfectly matched.
During this meal that was delicious and terrifying and amazing and hilarious, we were endlessly harassed by this big German guy who was married to the cook. He was an opera singer, a mime, an impressionist, and a clown. It was (mostly) a fun addition to our experience. He gave us a stunning rendition of
“That’s Amore”, a powerful impression of Pavarotti, a passable Elvis, and several terrible impressions of Texan’s and Southerners. He said that his heroes were Trump, Putin, and Kim Jong Un because he has great hair. At least he was consistent. Our big German friend kept us laughing for much of our meal and then left us alone. At one point, I asked the woman serving our food, if the man belonged to her to which she aggressively replied that he did not! At the end of our meal, saddened by our failure to reach the finish line, but very pleased with our delicious lunch, we headed home, knowing that we would have to try again another day.
That day turned out to be the very next day. We found a similar sign and sat down for a wonderful 4-hour meal of about 20 dishes. This meal was as much a feast of culture as a feast of food. We tried some adventurous terrestrial options like sheep heart and beef tripe, which were new to all of us. While we ate, we observed a Sunday tradition that many Italians partake in. We saw beautiful families spanning what looked like 3 or even 4 generations, enjoying what I would call a “bonus Thanksgiving”. It was quite an experience and we all walked away painfully full, but very happy that we were able to get such an authentic Italian experience.
For seafood, the highlight of this trip was undoubtedly Gusto’s in Arbatax. There, I ordered a chef’s choice seafood assortment that was composed of tasting portions of 7 items. Each of them was special in its own way. There was a dish of tomatoes and tuna, a common Italian pairing, marinated in vinegar with herbs and onions. It was simple and pretty and I couldn’t get enough. Next to that was a serving of traditional ricotta cheese, topped with sliced bottarga. This was much better for me than the reconstituted bottarga preparation in the risotto above. The briny sea flavor combined with the rich cheese was breathtaking. Then there was a seafood salad composed of octopus, shrimp, cuttlefish, and clams, served cold. In this dish, each type of seafood was a star, all by itself. I picked out each individual component and savored them in turn. Moving around the plate, I tried a thin slice of swordfish, pickled. Perfectly simple, with just vinegar, fish, and salt, it was outstanding. The highlight of the plate for me, was a warm octopus with walnuts and radicchio. I love to add nuts to fish, and this one was delicious and super tender. The dish also had some balls of minced branzino with bread crumbs and then a really tasty little pastry pocket containing cuttlefish and a very bright tomato sauce. We also tried a risotto with some of the biggest, fattest mussels I’ve ever eaten. I can’t imagine a meatier or tastier mussel than these here. The risotto also contained, octopus, cuttlefish, clams, shrimp, and another dose of bottarga. This one was blended and used to flavor the broth, which I found to be quite enjoyable. The Sardinians are very fond of Bottarga, and with this meal, I established that so am I.
Now, about that crime that was committed in the name of food adventure…
In the next blog, I’ll tell you all about my black-market food deal that allowed me to channel my inner Andrew Zimmern. It was a deal several months in the making, for a taste of a food that I was legitimately afraid of, which I might add, turned out to be absolutely delicious. I’ll warn you though, it is not for the faint of heart and there are some graphic images.