Eating in Cagliari


Three restaurants declined as past, present and future by Nick. Atmospheric image of Sardinia's capital courtesy of Jeremy Woodhouse via Getty Images.

Cagliari shares some of the characteristics of other Italian cities around the Mediterranean as well as, most distinctively, showing off some of its own.

The port dominates the city, which means today that there is invariably at least one monster cruise ship casting its shadow on the quayside. As in so many other Italian cities, small, family-owned shops such as that shown below are easy to find, particularly close to the harbour, seemingly halting the inevitable march of the supermarkets elsewhere. And there is no shortage of welcoming cafes, bistros, bars and restaurants.

Exterior Sardinian deli

The streets of Cagliari are remarkably steep – it is a very ‘uppy-downy’ city, as we learned as we climbed through the heatwave to its fascinating archeological museum – but once one has been there for 24 hours the advantage of this becomes obvious. It means that there is the possibility of walking off the vast quantities of food that one is offered at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Our last visit was in 2016 and there have been significant changes, most noticeably in the number of abandoned shop fronts with the word Vendesi (For Sale) in their windows, the long-term consequence of COVID-19. (As one London restaurateur succinctly put it, ‘instead of two years’ profits, there were two years’ losses’.) Cagliari, like so many other cities, still suffers from the pandemic.

But, this being Italy, the restaurants do their best to satisfy both tourists and locals. During a leisurely 48 hours there we enjoyed three of the best, which can best be associated with the past, the present, and a glimpse of the future.

The past: Antica Cagliari

This small group, of which there are now four branches including a bistro, a restaurant and one called Seafront, the final one called Terrace does precisely what its name would suggest. We ate in the restaurant where we were warmly greeted by three young men, shown to our table by a fourth and were extremely well looked after by a young waitress.

The menu is classic Sardinian and predominantly fish and I had no hesitation in ordering a fritto misto to begin with and spaghetti with clams and bottarga (salted, cured mullet roe), which is a Sardinian speciality, to follow. I thought of mentioning my love of bottarga to the waitress in an attempt to garner an extra helping but this would have proved a waste of breath.

Antica Cagliari fritto misto

As my photo shows, the fritto misto was generous enough for at least two. Supporting the entire construction was a whole red mullet, then there were a couple of oysters, three fish that looked and tasted like whiting, several pieces of squid, numerous pieces of diced white fish, with the odd prawn on the top. Not enough lemon, obviously, but reinforcements arrived swiftly.

The generosity of the kitchen in serving this dish was promptly matched by my second, a bowl containing spaghetti, masses of clams and the entirety topped with several spoonfuls of grated bottarga. This, mixed with the clams and the liquid that the pasta had been cooked in, made for a most satisfying lunch.

Antica Cagliari spaghetti
bottarga and celery salad

Jancis’s first course was beautifully presented, as you can see immediately above. It was described rather prosaically as a salad of bottarga and celery. But the bright orange bottarga, whole rather than grated, must have been sliced with a ham slicer to produce long ribbons, as was the celery. The whole, sharply dressed with olive oil and black peppercorns, was original, satisfying and as exciting to eat as it was to look at. Antica Cagliari is an excellent place to start to explore the generosity that seems to exemplify the cooking of the whole island of Sardinia.

The present: Cucina.Eat

It may seem odd to use this description for a restaurant that we first ate at seven years ago, but little has changed at this delightfully timeless restaurant. There are still seats at the counter overlooking the kitchen so you can watch your meal being prepared; there is still the swing door behind with the glass panel cut into it in the shape of a chef’s head topped with a chef’s hat; there are still plenty of cookery books and equipment on the shelves; and there is the same intensity shown to the latest range of young, small, independent producers of Sardinian wine (see Jancis's notes on them, linked to at the end of this article).

From a short, daily menu we began with a beef tartare, both of us mistaking manzo (beef in Italian) for ‘mango’, and an egg on a bed of pecorino, tomatoes and a layer Sardinia’s characteristic wafer-like flatbread, carasau, a combination known locally as frattau. This, shown below, was excellent. tomatoes and pecorino

We followed this with a dish of malloreddus, a Sardinian pasta, with burrata, cured pork jowl (guanciale) and slices of aubergine; and a thick pea soup with green apples and confited cherry tomatoes. Cucina.Eat seems to have successfully stood the test of time. pea soup

We skipped their desserts because I remembered that on the corner of the square outside there had been an excellent gelateria. But we never found it because, having closed the door on Cucina, we crossed the street and promptly fell into I Fenu, which describes itself quite accurately, and somewhat modestly, as a gelateria e pasticceria.

The name derives from that of one of its owners, Fabrizio Fenu who opened here with Maurizia Bellu in 2018. It is a microcosm of Italy: high-precision engineering off to one side; a board with the most exciting flavours of ice cream straight ahead; a smiling young woman behind the counter; and in front of her a panoply of ice creams for both those who know exactly what they are looking for and those who do not. Such as myself. I chose an ice cream flavoured with pardula, a typical Sardinian cake baked at Easter using saffron and ricotta, and another flavoured with apricot (my favourite fruit). If I lived anywhere close, I would return day after day to I Fenu.

I Fenu

The future: Casa Clàt

The modern suite hotel Casa Clàt (a name derived from its two owners, a Claudio and a Caterina) has opened with several advantages. At the back is a large garden that looks even more impressive after darkness has fallen since it is overlooked by what looks like a disused factory. When we were there the temperature was in the high 30s Celsius (approaching 100 °F) during the day and still very hot at night. The bar on the left below and the diners in the outdoor restaurant to the right benefit from regular cool sprays from just under the awnings (see second picture below taken in the early evening), as well as from the skills of an excellent chef in the shape of Filippo Monaco.

Casa Clat bar and resto
Casa Clat spray

Monaco opens his menu with the following phrase: ‘It cannot be modernity without the knowledge of traditions’, a comment that concisely reflects the approach of many young chefs today. He puts this into practice via a five-course tasting menu (€75), which we enjoyed with its wine pairing for another €35. Below are the intricate amuses bouches dominated, as so much Sardinian cuisine is, by the bounty of the sea.

Casa Clat amuse bouche

We began the meal proper with a dish of steamed mussels with apples and celery; progressed via a lovely dish of spider crab and toasted lemon; hesitated slightly over a dish of linguine with basil and lemon (is there an Italian chef brave enough to drop a pasta course from a tasting menu?); and finished on a high with a dish of sea bass with an aromatic sauce. The wine highlights were both Vermentino di Galluras: Siddùra’s Spèra 2021 and Tondini’s Kargnanj 2022.

And, as far as JR was concerned, the restaurant was in the ideal location: there was just a brief walk up two flights of stairs to our extremely comfortable bedroom.

Antica Cagliari Viale Lungo Mare Poetto 238, 09126 Cagliari, Italy; tel: +39 070 649 9563

Cucina.Eat Piazza G Galilei 1, 09128 Cagliari, Italy; tel: +39 070 099 1098

I Fenu Piazza G Galilei 35, 09128 Cagliari, Italy; tel: +39 070 465 5045

Casa Clàt Viale Regina Margherita 55/57, 09124 Cagliari, Italy; tel: +39 070 152 563 71

Jancis adds At Cucina.Eat we were treated to a tasting of exciting evidence of Sardinias current wine revolution by Cucina.Eats wine man, Federico Erbì. He assured us that there were now about 40 new, small-scale producers determined to take advantage of the island's special grape varieties and terroirs. You can see my eight tasting notes – five from Cucina.Eat and three from Casa Clàt, here.