When D. H. Lawrence visited Sardinia in 1921, he remarked, "There is nothing to see.…" On my own first visit to the island, in 1995, driving along its beautiful, largely empty coastline, I understood what he meant—but on that trip and again when I went back to Sardinia last year, I found plenty to see and a world of food to discover.
What anyone traveling around Sardinia sees most of all are the thousands of prehistoric, towerlike stone structures called nuraghi that dot the island. Little is known about their origin except that they well predate the Phoenicians, who arrived in the ninth century b.c. The warlike Carthaginians came three centuries later, and the Sards did not take kindly to them, or to the many invaders who followed—including the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Genoese, the Pisans (who left behind some gorgeous Romanesque churches of black and white dressed stone), and the Aragonese-Catalans. These invasions, combined with the depredations of pirates and outbreaks of malaria along the waterfront, pushed the Sards inland—even today there are very few coastal cities on the island—and, somewhat understandably, Sards developed a reputation for being wary of outsiders, a sentiment expressed by their bitter proverb "Furat chi de su mare venit" ("Whoever comes by the sea comes to rob us").
The islanders' introversion, coupled with their geographic isolation, nourished a unique culture expressed to this day in the Sard language, which is closer to Latin than to Italian, and in the folklore, which the Nobel Prize–winning Sardinian author Grazia Deledda captured in her 1913 novel Reeds in the Wind, describing the ammattadore, an elf who hides his treasure in seven caps, "jumping about under the almond woods, followed by vampires with steel tails". Likewise, the island's distinctive cooking has remained largely unchanged for centuries, but it has incorporated some foods of the invaders. Seafood dishes in particular evolved largely from specialties brought from other lands—for instance, cassòla de pesce, a mixed seafood stew similar to the zarzuela one might eat in Barcelona; and bottarga, dried salted roe of tuna or gray mullet, which is Egyptian in origin. The island's Arab legacy also shows up in cascà, a kind of Sardinian couscous made with vegetables; in Arab-style flatbreads, most notably the oversize crackerlike pani carasàu (or casaràu), known in Italian as carta da musicá (music-paper bread); and in fregula, little balls of semolina and saffron that resemble large-grain couscous. In the north, fainé, a kind of baked crêpe made with chickpea flour, is identical to the Ligurian farinata (and the Niçois socca) and was most likely brought in by the Genoese.
On my first visit to Sardinia, I was introduced to some of the other foundations of the local cuisine. Meat, particularly lamb, is used amply; the Sards, after turning their backs on the sea, developed a strong shepherding tradition (more than one-third of all of Italy's sheep are in Sardinia). Sheep's-milk cheese, or pecorino, is ubiquitous (the island produces about half of all the pecorino in Italy), and there is even a secret, illegal version known as casu marzu (see Sardinia's Liveliest Pecorino). Organ meats are a specialty, and I remember devouring cordula, sheep's pluck (heart, liver, and lungs) wrapped in braided intestine, seasoned with sage, thyme, and juniper berries, and stewed in tomato sauce with peas. Pork is raised inland, too, and Sardinia is famous for its porceddu, suckling pig pit-roasted on myrtle branches. The best-known pastas are mallòreddus, shaped like cowrie shells and made with semolina, water, and olive oil (saffron is sometimes added); and culurgiònis, semolina or potato gnocchi (or ravioli) stuffed with mashed potato and cheese and cooked in tomato sauce. The Sards are also great bakers, producing a plethora of breads—many based on semolina—ranging from scivagiu, the large round crisp-crusted bread of the northern reaches of the Campidano plain, to flatbreads like the soft spianata sarde and the aforementioned pani carasàu to the baroque wedding bread called pani nùzias—a work of art meant to be preserved, not eaten.
Shortly after I returned from my initial trip to Sardinia, I met a young Sardinian cook in the States named Pietro Chessa, now the chef at Amari restaurant in Sandwich, Massachusetts. Pietro and his wife, Mairy, were delighted when I told them that I was enamored of Pietro's homeland and its food and was looking forward to a return visit. If I wanted to learn more about the island's cooking, Mairy told me, I should spend some time with Pietro's family when I went back. They'd cook a meal for me (and with me) that I'd never forget, she promised. And when she added that Pietro's parents—like most Sards who don't live in apartment buildings—grew much of their own food, I was sold.
The Chessas live just outside the city of Sassari, which is to the island's capital, Cagliari, as Boston is to New York; it's smaller, but, as the site of Sardinia's first university, it perceives itself as more intellectually sophisticated. Pietro and Mairy hadn't been able to travel with me, because they'd just become new parents. Nonetheless, the Chessas greeted me warmly. As I drove down the long gravel driveway to their three-story house early one morning, they all came out to meet me—Pietro's mother and father, Giovanna and Francesco (a retired welder), and three of their seven grown children, including the exuberant, caramel-skinned, dark-eyed Antonella, who lives nearby, and two other daughters, GraziaMaria and Lucia, who live in the top two stories of the house with their families.
A lush two-acre plot surrounded the house, its trees and vegetables and fruits interspersed with irrigation pipes, pieces of fence, shovels, strainers filled with seashells, old propane cans, fallen apples, and apples piled in baskets. Terra-cotta planters of flowers and herbs sat everywhere. A weathered swing lay on the ground next to several old chairs, some broken, some not; a demitasse that someone had left the night before; and a collection of sleeping cats and kittens. Two mean-looking dogs, fortunately chained to the wall, barked hysterically.