A version of this article is also published by the Financial Times.
Many chefs and restaurateurs in Italy operate with an asset over and above the charms of their menu, their wine list and their invariably friendly staff: the view bequeathed to them by Nature.
Whether from the snow-covered mountains of the north, overlooking the lagoon or canals in Venice or by a fountain in Rome, there is invariably something extra, something very Italian, about so many meals in this fascinating country. And so it was to prove at our two dinners in Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia.
The interior of Cucina Eat may be man-made and determinedly modern but its setting on the corner of the Piazza Galileo Galilei could not be anywhere else. Children played under the watchful eye of their grandparents, several rushing off to what was, we discovered after dinner, an excellent gelateria on the piazza’s far corner.
We walked in at just before 8.30 pm, slightly earlier than most locals choose to eat, and were immediately shown to two seats at the counter with a most intriguing aspect. Directly across from us was the chef/proprietor Davide Bonu with, between us, an uninterrupted view of his kitchen: a series of induction hobs and over his left shoulder his oven. A swing door separated Bonu from his prep kitchen, through which his staff walked almost continuously, a door that held a glass panel in the shape of a chef wearing a chef’s hat – a nice touch.
The counter was soon full, while round about were several tables, some shared. On all sides there was all sorts of kitchen equipment, coffee machines, pasta-making machines, cookery and wine books, beer magazines and lots of produce, all of which was for sale. Somewhat less authentically, a large TV screen showed, on a loop, an ever-smiling Jamie Oliver preparing a large piece of meat. Bonu must be a chef who never lacks for inspiration, as his two-course, €20 fish supper was to reveal.
First up was a dish of translucent white cod topped with an intriguing vegetable: courgettes stewed ‘in the style of tripe’. These courgettes had been slow cooked and had taken on an intensity of flavour and aroma that emanated from the fact that these were local snake courgettes and the addition of plenty of the local mint. There then followed a masterclass in how to cook pasta, with spaghetti finished in a frying pan with the pesto sauce and just a little liquid from the pan in which it had been boiled, before being placed carefully in the centre of a plate, the half a dozen slices of mackerel taken out of the oven and added alongside several blobs of crème fraiche. Our bill with two glasses of Sella & Mosca’s Torbato 2015, Cantina Gallura’s Canayli Vermentino 2015 and a Gabbas, Dule Cannonau 2011 came to an extremely reasonable €64.
Lo Scoglio is the very opposite of Cucina Eat. Its view is entirely as Nature has dictated, hence its name, ‘on the rocks’.
The restaurant is a 15-minute drive east from the city centre past an area once home to the Italian Air Force. Our table was so close to the rocks that we could almost have gone shrimping from it. As we arrived, again slightly earlier than most of the locals, we were treated to a spectacular sunset although the subsequent darkness helped to block out the less appetising view of the refinery some distance away on the other side of the water.
Lo Scoglio’s setting immediately reminded me of my favourite fish restaurant in Italy – La Pineta at Marina di Bibbona on the Tuscan coast run by chef Luciano Zazzeri. The seaside setting and simplicity of the two restaurants have a lot in common, as does their history with Lo Scoglio the slightly older of the two, having opened in 1958, and currently under the leadership of Alessandro Manconi, son of the restaurant’s founder, Giovanni. (The photo above right is taken from Lo Scoglio's website.)
All of this combined with a distinctive Sardinian approach to what we would eat and drink. We began with a round of antipasti that included local oysters, halves of passion fruit that had been hollowed out and its fruit mixed with tiny prawns, sardines with an unlikely but winning pesto combination and some very fresh fritto misto.
Then a pasta dish fregola con le arselle, the local, small, nodular pasta, similar to Israeli couscous, that is cooked in tomatoes and then added to the clams until all traces of the cooking liquid have evaporated to leave a moreish dish that reeks of the sea. From a wide range of very fresh looking fish I chose eel as my main course. It proved to be delicious despite both its rather tough skin and numerous bones.
My final impressions of this meal are twofold. The first is of being urged on our departure by Alessandro to help ourselves from the two large tables laden with hand-held Sardinian desserts that stood proudly by the kitchen.
The second was perhaps less typical of Sardinia and more reminiscent of Italy and the Mediterranean. It was of the walk along the beach to our friend’s car; of the noise of the lapping waves; and, above all, of the star-studded sky. Attributes that cannot feature on Lo Scoglio’s menu, wine list or even its website.
Cucina Eat Piazza Galileo Galilei 1, Cagliari, Sardinia; tel +39 070 0991098
Ristorante Lo Scoglio La Spiaggiola Sant'Elia, Cagliari; tel +39 070 371927