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Savoring Sardinia

Francesco and Efisio Farris prepare up-and-coming Sardinian cuisine at their local restaurant, Arcodoro & Pomodoro. Our food and travel editor discovers their roots at their family’s restaurant back home.
By D Magazine |

ANCIENT TREASURES: A labyrinth of alleys built in the Middle Ages leads one to the Chiesa delle Anime.

The driver brings the cab to an abrupt halt at the curb of the Piazza Matteotti in downtown Cagliari. He throws the gearshift into park and turns his head to the backseat. I stare at his face, hoping to recognize at least one familiar phrase from his rat-a-tat-tat Italian.

One doesn’t come.

I know enough Italian to fake my way around Italy, but I am in Sardinia, an island 115 miles west of Italy, in the middle of the Mediterranean, that for thousands of years withstood invasions by Phoenicians, Romans, Genoans, and Spaniards, to name a few. It’s no small wonder that the “Italian” flowing my way is muddled by multicultural influences.

“Bus, Orosei? Es correctomundo?” I ask, butchering Italian, Spanish, and English.

“Orosei?” he asks.

“Si, Orosei,” I answer. Obviously “es correctomundo” did not translate.

I start the charades method of communication: pointing to a bus, I bounce up and down, move my arms around like I’m steering, and ask, again, how to find the prearranged bus that will take me to the small village of Orosei. “Bus, Orosei?” I repeat, way too loudly.

“Si, si, si, si,” he says assuredly, dismissing me from his cab.

Feeling worldly and in the right place—the bus terminal was right across the street—I settle on a park bench. I am an hour early; there is plenty of time to get my ride situation in order. The sky is blue, and the leaves of tall eucalyptuses quiver in the cool Mediterranean breeze.

My pilgrimage to Orosei, the hometown of Francesco and Efisio Farris, the brothers who operate the popular Sardinian restaurant Arcodoro & Pomodoro in Dallas and Houston, is under way. Nothing can keep me from reaching Su Barchile, the family-owned restaurant-hotel where, as children, the Farris brothers learned to cook. At this very moment, the kitchen, run by their teacher and aunt, Maria Loi, is whipping up a feast in honor of my arrival. Life couldn’t be better.

Efisio and Francesco Farris at Arcodoro & Pomodoro in Dallas.

An hour later, it could not have been worse.

Feeling lost, I stood alone—except for a curious goat—beside a dusty highway. I’m not sure at what point I figured out that my friendly cabbie had dropped me off at the wrong piazza, but when my hour of bliss turned into an hour and a half, I realized my ride to Orosei had departed the correct pick-up location without me. My panic was not subtle. I screamed like a psychotic street performer until several strangers in the piazza rushed toward me.

Thankfully, Sardinians are always happy to help. Someone took my intended driver’s cell phone number and tracked him down 30 miles outside of town, while another handed me a pastry filled with almonds and honey. Five strangers circled me, arguing about the best way to get me situated. Surrounded by madness, I flashed a cabbie a $50 bill. He threw me into a car and raced through the cobblestone streets to catch up with my ride.

Once he cleared the city limits, he pulled over and dropped me off on a desolate stretch of road.

Twenty minutes later, a rickety old van pulls up and the driver rolls down the window. “Nancy? Orosei?” he asks. I bend over, kiss the goat goodbye, and climb into the car.

Thus I learn my first lesson about the people of Sardinia: the culture is friendly almost to a fault. You can strike up a conversation (or ask for help) and before you know it, someone will be your savior, tour guide, or dinner host. They are proud of their heritage and more than happy to share it with you. They think of themselves as Sardinians first and Italians second. And, as illustrated by the lovely lady in the piazza who handed me a pastry in my moment of despair, they often relate through food.

Wild collard greens and pancetta, sautéed in olive oil and topped with fava beans and young pecorino, on pane carasu.

After three hours of winding through serpentine roads with views of sheep- and cattle-studded mountains to the left and the rugged coastline on the right, I arrive at Su Barchile in the medieval village of Orosei. The doors to the tiny hotel and restaurant burst open. The aromas of garlic and roasting meat and another mass of concerned people envelops me. “Bene!” My luggage disappears. “Prego!” Kisses smother my cheeks. “Bella!” My fingers wrap around a glass of wine. A plate of cheese, figs, and bread appears. My love fest with Sardinia begins.

If you know anything about Sardinia, you probably learned it from People. Every summer the magazine runs photos of rich and famous stars like Cindy Crawford, Harrison Ford, and Denzel Washington yachting on the turquoise waters and frolicking in the opulent jet-set playground developed by Prince Karim Aga Khan around Porto Cervo on the Costa Smeralda. He spent billions to create a strip of luxury hotels, villas, restaurants, and high-end boutiques.

But between the Gucci and Prada-centric northern shore and the southern capital of Cagliari, with its fortresses and ancient rock-cut tombs, lies a unique country rich with a 3,000-year history of flora, fauna, and food.

The Sardinian table shows a passion for local ingredients. Traditional preparations are peasant-style, and while at its root the cuisine is Italian, there are strong Spanish accents. Unlike American cooking, Sardinians aren’t wasteful: kitchens traditionally whip up spleen pâtés, tripe sandwiches, and sanguinaccio, a black pudding made of pig’s blood, grapes, sugar, and fennel. Technique is secondary; Sardinians cook from the heart. When you eat in Sardinia, you taste the soil, sea, and flavors of an ancient civilization.

Efisio cooks in his sister’s kitchen surrounded by family.

The island, with five distinct climates and geographical regions, is self-sufficient. Wild game, lamb, and goat come from the mountains, while the forests are scented with strawberry and myrtle trees. Berries from the latter are distilled into Mirto, a potently fragrant digestivo. Luscious fruits (figs and plums) and vegetables (artichokes and wild asparagus) grow in the fertile farmlands. Exotic clams, mussels, and squid are harvested from the Mediterranean, while freshwater fish are caught in the rivers. More than 3 million sheep patrol the island, hence the abundance of pecorino cheese made from ewe’s milk. Grapes grow everywhere; Sardinia’s winemaking dates back to ancient times. You’re nobody without your own pig—suckling pig spit-roasted over a fire is a must for any celebration. And you can’t walk 10 feet in any direction without finding shelter in the shade of an olive tree. The olive oil from Sardinia is some of the best in the world.

The restaurant at Su Barchile is a microcosm of Sardinia. All of the ingredients served in the restaurant are produced by the family and have been for five generations. Francesco and Efisio’s grandfather was a merchant who loaded an ox-driven cart with homemade olive oil, artichokes, olives, and figs and traveled from town to town, bartering for soap, cork, cheese, or whatever else they needed. The basement of the three-story hotel-restaurant was once used to store cheese, and chickens roamed freely outside.

ANCIENT TREASURES: Simple peasant-style dishes like teardrop pasta with lamb and aged pecorino are at the heart of Sardinian cuisine.

After-school chores for Francesco and Efisio included making salami with their uncle or picking artichokes, tomatoes, olives, and grapes from one of the family’s garden plots. When Aunt Maria opened the restaurant in 1976, she called the brothers into her kitchen, where they learned to make pasta, plum jelly, and cheese. It was a big undertaking when the family started cooking for the public, but for the Farris brothers, it was just a natural progression of their small-town life to work there. “I didn’t do all that to become a chef,” says Efisio. “It was never a job; it was just how we grew up. Cooking is embedded in my genetics.”

IT IS 3 O’CLOCK ON A THURSDAY AFTERNOON IN MID-APRIL. Francesco, Efisio, and Efisio’s wife Lori are sitting down to a late lunch at Arcodoro & Pomodoro on Routh Street. They are excited about the new line of gourmet products they are producing and exporting from Sardinia. “We’ve come a long way,” Francesco says. “Finally we have customers who really know the difference between Italian and Sardinian food. We’ve really had to educate them.”

Efisio was the first to leave the homeland in 1986 when he headed for New York to work in an Italian restaurant that his cousin managed. “People barely knew what tiramisu was then,” he says.

One night, Lori Seeman walked in to eat, and Efisio “fell in love at first sight.” Eventually she  persuaded Efisio to open a restaurant in Dallas. They married in 1988 and took over the old Rocco’s Oyster Bar location on Cedar Springs Road.

“Italian regionalism was in the air,” Efisio says, referring to the rise of Tuscany and Peidmont as culinary epicenter, “It was buffalo mozzarella, carpaccio—you know, safe, rustic stuff like that. I had to make what Dallas customers wanted so that they would trust me. Then I knew I could introduce them by baby steps to more regionalized Sardinian dishes.”

Arcodoro & Pomodoro soon had the reputation as an Italian restaurant with a Sardinian touch. You could have your linguine with clam sauce, but a smattering of Sardinian ingredients like bottarga—salted, pressed mullet roe—made their way to the menu. “We had to be careful,” Efisio says. “Half our customers thought Sardinia was near Cuba. When I told them it was in the Mediterranean, I still had to tell them where that is.”

FAMILY MATTERS: Efisio and his Aunt Maria in the family restaurant.

Well aware that they had to adapt their cultural dishes to the American palate, the Farris brothers experimented with new combinations. They lightened preparations by using oranges and limes. The results worked well in Dallas; however, when they returned to Orosei to cook for the family, they got mixed reviews. “My nephew and my mother were horrified when I served them a seafood salad made with cilantro,” Efisio says. “They screamed, ’What are you trying to do, kill us?’”

Today Sardinian specialties are the highlight of the Arcodoro &Pomodoro menu. And the tradition of growing their own ingredients has crossed the ocean. Francesco has a garden behind the Dallas location, where he tends to tomatoes, artichokes, grapes, and herbs, which grow from the seeds of plants harvested from the family plot in Orosei. It’s not unusual for Francesco to dash out of the kitchen to pick a fig or cut a myrtle branch from trees rooted from cuttings from their family’s farm. “It has taken us 18 years to scream that we are a Sardinian restaurant,” Efisio says. “Now we have lots of customers who come in after a trip to Sardinia and they understand it. They get the passion, and they love it.”

PEPE CHESSA IS EFISIO AND FRANCESCO’S COUSIN. He waits tables at Su Barchile. Pepe speaks English.

I like Pepe.

SARDINIAN SWEETS: Fresh casadinos (cheese pastries) and amarettos (small almond cakes) are typical festival fare.

Without Pepe and his sister Antonella, I would have no idea what I am putting in my mouth as I sit down with the extended family for my feast. For close to four hours, platters, plates, and glasses are delivered and disappear in a blur. Cousins, uncles, girlfriends, boyfriends, and Aunt Maria, Pepe, and Antonella “force feed” me almost the entire menu.

Lost in a sea of Sardinian voices, I sample homemade pecorino; thin, crispy sheets of Carasau bread; and slices of bottarga. Ravioli blackened with cuttlefish ink and stuffed with lobster and shrimp is followed by linguine with huge Mediterranean scampi, fresh from the sea not a half-mile from my chair. The steam from the scampi, prawns, and clams fills my mouth with the tastes of heavy minerals and salt that are so distinctly Mediterranean. When the myrtle-scented pork arrives, I hold my stomach and shake my head, but Maria picks up a fork and feeds me like a child. Plates of pastries and Catalan-inspired custards arrive, along with strong coffee and a snifter of Mirto.

The next morning I wander down to the empty restaurant. Maria comes out from behind the bar and motions for me to sit. She shouts to the kitchen, and a few minutes later, small bowls of mascarpone, bitter honey, homemade jams, breads, and frothy cappuccino appear. She picks up each dish, lecturing me on the contents, her fingertips coming to a point at her thumb, gesturing with each point. Once again I stare intently and wait for a familiar phrase. She slathers some bread with homemade honey-sweetened ricotta and plum jelly and passes it to me.

I take it in my mouth and understand her every word.

Credits

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