Mr. Berlusconi and his teenage harem were not there to greet us at the airport.
The dreaded Ryanair flight turned out to be very pleasant and our luggage was the first two bags on the carousel (note from Liz – probably because no one else paid the extra 20E to check a bag!)
Cagliari is on the southern tip of the Island. It’s the major commercial centre of Sardinia and also a large resort town. There are lots of expensive yachts in the harbour and many tourist residences ranging from condo towers to opulent private homes – but not many tourists in January!
Everyone seem to have owned Sardinia at one time or another – the Phoenicians, Romans, The Vandals, the Catalans and now Italy. The Sardinians have survived them all. It’s wonderfully friendly (especially for a resort region).
Modern Cagliari is built around a fortified old town at the top of a very high mount. Roads are narrow – more vertical than horizontal – and the briefest walk involves going through multiple tower gates. A constant reminder how unpleasant laying siege to a castle must have been. And there are lots of stairs …. seemingly always going up.
Liz has rented a lovely apartment on one of the bastions in the Old Town overlooking the lower town and the sea. Our Piazza is the neighbourhood meeting place and the playground for the school. We’re to the right of the pink building on the upper level
Here’s a pic of our piazza empty……….and then filled with schoolkids and parents. The little beige tower is the wonderful elevator – more about this later
The apartment is very large, well appointed and notable for a large fresco on the 12 foot vaulted ceiling
Our piazza comes with its own archaeological excavation – 3 years ago the City was doing repairs and found Roman (?) ruins – no estimate how long they’ll be digging say the owners!
The elevator (one of several in the City) is wonderful. Rather than climbing hundreds of stairs you take a ride to the restaurants and shops
And we use it often to visit what becomes a favourite restaurant…….next post! (and more pics of Cagliari to follow)
da Marino al St. Remy is just off a charming square not far from the base of the elevator. We liked it so much we went twice.
We’ll combine both visits in this review and, of course, start in the kitchen. Marino (with the shaved head) and Silvana (his wife the chef in the white jacket) have owned the restaurant for less than 2 years. He went to hotel school in Switzerland, worked there and in France and at the Savoy in London. He is extremely service driven, charming, and was generous with recommendations for other restaurants, printing out Google maps for us, etc. Our lunches took a whole afternoon with much laughter and reminiscences of meals in restaurants we all knew.
We like to split single dishes which lets us work through more of a menu. Marino was happy to oblige. Most of the photos are half portions. (and remember – this is two lunches!)
They got us off the top. We’re happy with tap water but he suggested we try a local Sardinian bottle water (with gas). Better than Perrier and San Pellegrino – loved it. Perhaps it was the pretty blue bottle. The local white wine was just fine too. And of course the local flatbread that we’re becoming addicted to. It’s called Pane Carasau – the shepherds used to take it with them as it lasts a very long time (except around us)
For starters we enjoyed some superb beef Carpaccio (a rare thing for us to order but we enjoyed it very much) and Prawns with Oranges and Fennel. Terrific flavour combination – we need to use oranges more often and the prawns are definitely not from Thailand – we know that because they have flavour.
An artichoke flan on a cheese mirror (as described on the menu) with bottarga on top (pressed fish roe) was delicious. Patrick, we thought of you!
Then a stunning dish – prawn tartare. Marino took us through the preparation. Hand chop the prawns with olive oil, lemons, salt and a half a strawberry for sweetness (it was the secret ingredient). Pack in a mould, let stabilize and serve. We’re going to try this at home….it was delicious.
A brief interlude – the restaurant is very pretty, although the race that built these vaults was definitely not as tall as Liz
Then two pastas: Sardinian gnocchi with artichokes and smoked ricotta; and Black/White fish ravioli with cherry tomatoes. Liz loved the gnocchi and we are always amused by bi-colour ravioli, especially ones that taste as good as these
A local item that was off menu that Liz asked for – and Marino and Silvana graciously complied. Fregula with seafood. Fregula is a local toasted pasta, similar to couscous, often served in or on broth. Great broth, great seafood and Liz loved it but Dickie thinks it’s like ball bearings in otherwise terrific food. (Liz: “woo hoo – more for me!'”)
We only have one main – a filet of John Dory on potatoes and artichokes (we do love artichokes and will later drive past acres and acres of artichokes about to be cut…..). Lovely, flavourful dish and the potatoes were like butter
Lucky we were leaving Cagliari the next day or we might have moved in!
While we loved the food and Marino's personal attentiveness, we must emphasize the contribution of the rest of the staff who have that special skill of delivering service before you knew you needed it.
Grazie Mille Marino and Silvana!
Ristorante St.Remy - via Torino n.16 Cagliari
Occasionally we spice our food adventures with a little cultural flavour. Today we visit “Underground Cagliari”
Like so many cities around the Mediterranean, Cagliari is the result of Romans building on top of Phoenicians and Medieval people building on top of Romans – the process continuing to the present day. A historical layer cake under the pavement.
In this case a church was undertaking restoration in the 90s and discovered a Roman well…..which led to the discovery of a Roman City (400AD), under the church. What we love is that they then excavate the city while structurally supporting the church above. You simply enter, go down a flight of stairs and you’re 1,600 years in the past.
One of the town wells still bears the marks of ropes being pulled over the edge and pots were found in the bottom of the well…..someone’s rope broke
There are other wells, some surprisingly deep
Most impressive is the Roman Main Street – marvellously well preserved
(Liz here – I am like a little kid around Roman ruins – I can hear wheels on the streets and smell the bread baking. As Richard said, this was beautifully preserved and very well presented – and made all the more special as we were the only people there and I could hear all my sounds)
And now a brief interlude of 4 random photos we like (before we get back to food)
We like “authentic local restaurants”. Sa Piola had great reviews and, at first glance, matched the requirements (note – it’s up a narrow alley, no signs)
The meal starts with a fundamental decision. They offer 2 regional tasting menus – one from the sea and one from the land. We would normally choose the sea but the Sardinian cuisine favours octopus and squid….not our favourites….and visions of all the flocks of sheep and corpulent cattle we have seen persuade us to choose “the land”….a choice with amusing implications.
The meal starts with good wine, really good olive oil and the local flat bread (Pane Caracau) that we’ve become addicted to – all accompanying some fine charcuterie
Then the first two of a series of dishes – the local fava beans we’ve come to love and tasty beef meatballs. We’re liking this “land” thing
Then, a bump in the road. The next two dishes require the waitress to pantomime the parts of the body involved – she points to her lower abdomen. One is tripe - never understood tripe. Flavourless, rubbery cow’s stomach lining (although the sauce was delicious) and the other ….. well, we’re not really sure but it had peas.
The snails were good though!
(In the meantime the next table went for the “sea” option – we watched a a parade of sardines, anchovies, gamberas – and one small dish of octopus salad that looked delicious – go by. The waitress never pointed at her tummy once)
All is redeemed with a cone of tempura like fried wild mushrooms, vegetables and meat balls (and even the odd prawn!!!) …..
We closed with the traditional Sicilian version of ravioli – Culurgiones stuffed with potato and mint
We had immense fun and laughed all the way back up to our apartment. We’d go again to see what we missed with “the sea”.
We rented a car – a cute little Ford Fiesta. Dickie relearned how to drive a standard. “No Richard, you have to push the clutch IN when you come to a stop”. Discovered it wasn’t the A6 the first time we tried to pass a truck. But it works.
We hate graffiti and sadly it’s an Italian curse. So it is with great regret and hypocrisy that we acknowledge a local Cagliari “artist” whom we like
Off we go to explore the countryside. Pula is a resort town to the west, notable for its Roman ruins. We love ruins.
The excavation highlights the dilemma faced by the Italians. It’s a small site, not particularly historically significant, has some lovely Mosaic floors, but it’s not Pompeii. The result – priceless, irreplaceable pieces left out in the sun, rain and salt spray when they should be covered. The town had quite a large theatre that is used for modern music and theatre
We both agree we want Pizza. Most places are closed for the season but in the town square one place is open. Wonderful thin crust pizza….but the table next to us was having really, really good looking food. Maybe should have looked at the regular menu! (Note the white spheres are onions – delish)
Next day we head up the coast to the East. Twisting coast roads hung on mountainsides, beaches in coves and inlets with resort villages and developments. Our kind of driving.
Pleasant surprise – the road generally has guardrails. Sadly there is all too frequent evidence of drivers not making the turn
We stopped at the occasional town, but they were battened down for the off season. Finally in Villasimius we found an open restaurant
And here unfolds how we travel. Dickie wants a pizza and describes it in specific detail to the waiter and gets exactly what he wanted. Liz asks the waiter what he would recommend and gets a sensational “off menu” dish of exceptional pasta with funghi. We both got what we wanted, but Liz had the better, memorable dish.
On the way home a shot of one of the cable bridges we love in Europe. Why are they so rare in North America?
We love markets, so we had to go to Cagliari’s. It’s not romantic – a new industrial building. It’s clean, sterile, functional and has wonderful food!
Very attractive meat offerings including a lot of partially prepared, stuffed, flavoured meats. Of course there was horse meat…
Vegetables are similarly attractive, notably some very large oyster mushrooms
And lovely cheeses
There are differences, but our own St. Lawrence market stands up relatively well in comparison.
Most interesting is the fish market one floor down. Obviously recently built; it is sterile, functional and fabulous. We can’t think of a market that combines the scale, selection and sterility. It’s a 12 minute walk from our apartment – if we were staying for more than a week we’d blow through the obvious restaurants and then settle in to pillaging the market
First, Liz’s panoramic photos of the fish floor
The eels are still alive – how do you kill an eel?
And we loved the creative merchant who had prawns bursting from the lips of fish
Too much pizza, too much pasta – the atavistic North American soul must be fed. We stopped in at an Irish pub for really good burgers, fries and onion rings. They also had gorgeous brick vaulted ceilings
On the way home Liz posed with a large child’s toy that had been left in a parking spot
Got up early and saw the sun rise over our Piazza
Driving the length of the island – south to north – not very scenic in the first half but delightful in the second. Sheep everywhere and some interesting 4 legged traffic around a tight corner
And where there aren’t sheep, there are fields of artichokes. As we write we’re still looking for artichokes and lamb together on a menu – seems a natural!
Liz has rented us a new and comprehensively equipped house in the country – pics to follow. We’re only 2km from town so can pop in for some quick pasta at a local shop – solid food
Love the house. The town is a mix of high end (yachts and BMW Series 7) and unattractive condo towers, all clustered around the historic core with its fortifications, docks and beaches. Many restaurants are closed for the season. We love the solitariness. In summer there would be hordes but now it is quiet and interesting.
Liz booked us into a restaurant out of town that specializes in recreating the “authentic Sardinian experience”. You’ve seen this place – lots of old tools and antiques…and you need a reservation. Italian families eat on for Sunday lunch
But they have an element of authenticity, not found everywhere – 8 splayed suckling pigs roasting over a wood fire. Lunch will be fun
The restaurant is very large with lots of families and kids….but none of them are on the menu. Dickie is disappointed
We’re now going to power quickly through a very good 14 course menu (it took hours)
Good wine and water and Sardinian flat bread arrive….drink as much as you want. It’s all included
We love Italian fresh cheese. They came drizzled with honey and manipulated in ways that turned the wonderful into the wondrous…..followed by some lovely charcuterie
Then beans – we love beans. The chick peas got eaten before we took a picture. Our dilemma is “do we love the beans, or the sauces they are bathed in”?
Then one of those mystery platters. Liz’s iPhone translator says lung – the waitress points lower on her torso. We eat it. The sauce is great
The pasta course is Fregula and Ravioli – Liz’s and Dickie’s favourites, respectively
Then some fresh veggies – no one ate them, so we assume it was a Health Ministry requirement. A check with the waitress assures us that the veggies are not wasted but fed to the young pigs….somehow this seems to preserve entropy, morality and environmental concerns
The pork is sublime. Melt in your mouth meat and crackling like cellophane. Full as we are, we vacuum it down … and just when you think you’re safe they plunk down a plate of roasted wild boar.
Dessert is Italian cookies – we take a pass – and fresh, still warm from the fryer donuts with local tangerines (we don’t pass on donuts – ever). Grappa and other liqueurs are offered, bills are paid. It was fun, very interesting, good food and Dickie did not threaten a single child….not even the really loud obnoxious one at the table 4 over.
The next day we went for a pretty drive. We’re fascinated by the watch towers along the coast. We believe they date from the 1400s. Our bet is they are in line of sight of each other and were a communications/warning network (the Google God will confirm or deny that soon).
Stopped on a cliff overlooking the sea. Liz did not step back a few paces, when asked
We loved the old Roman bridge, and of course the guard cats
(On our way to Lucca today – more Sardinian updates in a few days)