January 29, 2011. That is the day I fell in love with Sardinian food. And I was nowhere near the Italian island that is as physically close to Tunisia as it is to Rome. I was in San Francisco.
I had been hearing about the small family owned La Ciccia for sometime. Perhaps it was the location, in the far reaches of San Francisco’s Noe Valley, which kept me from going sooner. John’s birthday seemed a good excuse to try something new and make the trek across town.
Lorella Degan, the wife half of the husband-wife team behind the restaurant, ushered us into the small converted house space with the intimacy and warmth of a host who had known us for years, even though we just met. Through the tiny window behind an equally tiny bar, Massimiliano Conti, the husband, was feverishly working the stove.
There was no need to dally over food selection, the menu is among the smallest out there when it comes to Italian restaurants. Five appetizers, four pastas, four mains, two pizzas, a couple of sides, plus one or two specials are all you ever have to choose from. Flipping the large single sheet menu over it became clear why a small selection of food requires such a physically huge menu- on the back in type so small it almost requires a magnifying glass are over 180 wines from all across Italy.
That night was my fist experience with Sardinian classics like spaghetti bottarga- pasta tossed with olive oil, breadcrumbs, and dried mullet roe, the “caviar of Sardinia”. Fregula, a Sardinian version of couscous, comes in a potent sauce of tomato, sea urchin and tuna heart. Malloreddus, a semolina based gnocchetti, arrives bathed in a seductively rich pork ragu and aged Pecorino.
Since that first night I can’t seem to get enough. On a holiday at the Four Seasons Maldives last summer, John and I were giddy with excitement when the menu at the Italian restaurant, Blu, offered fregula and a salad with bottarga- specialties of the Sardinia born chef. We order Sardinian wines when we find them at generic Italian restaurants and wine bars. And I scour Italian markets, bringing home the dried pastas and aged Pecorino that are hallmarks of this special island.
As the saying goes, all roads lead to Rome. But for my personal quest for authentic, regional Italian, these days I’m partial to boats- the kind that cruise right past Rome on their way to the beautiful beaches and fascinating cuisine of Sardinia.
Coming up Wednesday, cooking fregula at home.
Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell