When I think of Sardinia, I think of the wind. During each of my visits to this strange almost prehistoric looking island, it was my constant companion. I have always found a dichotomy with the wind. On the one hand I love the fierce voice it gives to nature and the associations I always make with cozying up next to a warm fire or under a pile of blankets protected from its force. But on the other hand – particularly when it howls as incessantly as it does in Sardinia – it rattles my brain, makes me nervous and keeps me awake at night. Fortunately though, the middle of the night is often when I do my best thinking.
Of the many times I have visited this strange island, two trips I made with my friend and business partner Paolo Volpara defined for me how I will always think of Sardinia. Our first visit was to the northeastern coast of the island to the glamorous resort area called Costa Smeralda, famous for its glistening aquamarine waters and its playground for the rich and even richer. On our second trip we travelled to the opposite corner of the island to the Catalan city of Alghero on the northwestern coast. The two could not have been more different.
Except of course, for the wind.
To be fair, it wasn’t always at gale force. It sometimes whispered and sometimes howled, but its presence is a constant all over this island appropriately called “isolo del vento” (the windy island). Trees are bent by it. Vegetation is kept close to the ground because of it. Waves are pushed by it. And no matter where you are, in the silent of the night you will always hear its steady howl.
At the time of that first trip, we were still in the early stages of defining Convito. We were about to close our tiny first location, which consisted primarily of a grocery, a wine department and a deli with cheeses and meats and a small selection of freshly prepared salads and antipasti. Our new larger location would feature the same sections, but all departments would be expanded and we would add a bakery, a selection of prepared foods to take home and reheat like lasagnas and cannellonis and a small twenty-eight seat café. It was the café that would be the challenge. After all, I had not ventured into the restaurant side of the business until now. And it made me nervous. Whether over a glass of wine at dinner with Paolo or during some of my sleepless nights there, I did a lot of Convito strategizing in Sardinia. Even though I was a novice, I instinctively knew that deciding the focus of the menu was key to our success. It had to fit our clientele, kitchen limitations and reflect my taste. The wind became my partner in crystallizing those thoughts.
Whenever we weren’t trying to determine the next steps for Convito or seeking out culinary inspiration, I spent my time learning about this island whose voice was constantly in my ear. I had heard that the development of Costa Smeralda began in the early ‘60s by an international group led by Prince Aga Khan, an uber-rich Persian (by-way-of-Switzerland of course!) businessman and Imam who claimed to be a direct descendent of Mohammed. When Paolo and I visited in 1981 it still felt fairly new – especially by Italian standards – and we stayed in some sort of “clubby” resort overlooking the sea in Porto Cervo, the center of the area. Surprisingly, there was a comfortingly traditional feel to most of the buildings that was at odds with what most modern Italian developments looked like, let alone the odd pairing of religion and money that brought them to be. Paolo explained that many of these resorts were models of old Sardinian architecture that were updated, glamorized and surrounded by trendy pubs, nightclubs and restaurants. Today the region has sprawled further out from where we stayed, but the yacht-dotted waters and pristine beaches near our hotel remain the spot that still lures the crème de la crème from all over the world.
The day we arrived in Porto Cervo it was raining hard. We ruled out a walk on the beautiful white sandy beach and instead took a leisurely drive along the coast. I have never seen rock formations like these, though Paolo described them as reminiscent of the Normandy coast. When the rain let up, we stopped to check out the newly harvested cork trees. The lower trunks of the trees were stripped bare of their bark (the cork), which I learned was done only from May to August, a time when you can harvest them without damaging the trees. It takes about 25 years for the trees to reach the age where the cork can first be collected and then almost a decade between harvests. The patience which these farmers had to have was amazing and inspired me to think about Convito’s evolution beyond even our plan for the what we would be serving in our soon-to-be-opened café. In the back of my mind, building a Convito in downtown Chicago was something I wanted to explore, hopefully before the next time those fascinating cork trees were harvested again
With the weather finally turning in our favor, we stopped for a light lunch at a restaurant situated right on the water nestled into the innermost curve of a small bay. What followed was a show the likes of which I have never seen. The tide was turning and the calm, shallow waters of the bay were locked in a thunderous battle with the deeper sea that was fighting to get in. It was as if these two bodies of water were in battle with each other, their dramatic crashing and clawing resulting in huge waves that spit foam then circled back upon themselves creating powerful jets of water and spray. We were so fascinated with the “performance” that we hardly talked during lunch. In silence we marveled at this fantastic spectacle and enjoyed our appetizers with a glass of the local Vermentino wine, a rich white with flavors of lemon, ginger and nuts. Vermentino is a light-skinned grape said to have been originally cultivated in Sardinia in the fourteenth century. Though it is found in other parts of Italy as well, it is in Sardinian where the grape was first cultivated and where many believe the climate and terroir to be best suited to its dry, slightly aromatic character.
The dish I ordered was listed under the pasta section but I consider it more of a salad or a room temperature pasta dish like the Pasta alla Checca (recipe in my Rome blog). Tomatoes, olives and basil were tossed with fregola sarda, a typical Sardinian ingredient that is a type of pasta (similar to Israeli couscous) made of semolina dough that has been rolled in small balls then toasted in the oven. It was the perfect light and delicious lunch. It was around this time that I was beginning to feel that these simple, easy to prepare dishes would be the kinds of recipes around which we would build our café menu. They would not tax our small kitchen and would represent the regional Italy I so loved. This was going to be exciting!
Fregola Sarda Fresca
1 – 17.5 oz. package of fregola sarda cooked al dente, drained well then set aside*
2 cups grape tomatoes, quartered
1/3 cup black olives, pitted then quartered
1 tablespoon shallots, finely minced
1 tablespoon lemon zest
¾ cup fresh basil julienned
3 oz. goat cheese crumbled
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste
Mix the fregola sarda with the tomatoes, black olives, shallots, lemon zest, basil and goat cheese. Make a vinaigrette with the olive oil, vinegar, honey and oregano. Whisk ingredients together. Toss with the salad. Taste for salt and pepper.
Paolo and I continued to eat our way through Costa Smeralda, though most of these restaurants were very unlike my other regional visits around Italy. I had mostly journeyed to either large cities or very small villages and towns, choosing restaurants or trattorias that featured local, regional cooking. Here in Porto Cervo though, the food reflected more of an international, avant-garde flavor. Dishes were usually based on traditional Italian cuisine but were lighter, more delicate and with more of an emphasis on presentation, using ingredients not typically combined. Here, more than any other place in Italy, I felt the influence of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement, which began in France in the sixties and seventies and had migrated across Europe by this time.
At another seaside restaurant Paolo and I visited, I ordered a risotto with strawberries and Champagne that was classic Nouvelle Cuisine dish. It started off tasting somewhat sweet but the addition of parmesan neutralized the sugars and added a savory component that complimented the dish perfectly. Though I was often disappointed with many of the Nouvelle Cuisine dishes I had ordered in my travels around Europe in the seventies and eighties, I absolutely loved this one and have recreated it many times since that trip. I suppose its impossible to dismiss what still to me seems to be the over-thought and occasionally pretentious cooking of the movement, because there really can be a great artistry to it. But at then end of the day I am more of a hearty-peasant-dish kind of gal, give me spaghetti with a simple tomato sauce any day!
Risotto Allo Champagne e Fragole
Risotto with Champagne and Strawberries
Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a side
4 ½ cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
1-tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
1 ½ cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1 cup diced strawberries, stems removed
1 ¼ cup Champagne*
¼ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
salt & pepper to taste
Additional strawberries for garnish
Additional basil leaves for garnish.
In a saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a steady simmer. Melt the butter with the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat. Add the shallots and sauté over medium heat until soft, approximately 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir until well coated. Add the strawberries and sauté lightly until they begin to lose their color and give up their juices. Add 1 cup of the Champagne (reserving ¼ to add at the end) and stir into the rice until it is absorbed. Begin adding the simmering rice ½ cup at a time. Continue stir cooking always making certain the rice is not sticking to the bottom of the pan yet not adding too much broth at a time. This process should be done over medium heat. (Approximate cooking time is 30 minutes). The rice is finished when it is firm but tender. You may need more broth or if you run out, use hot water.
When the rice is al dente, add the remaining ¼ cup of Champagne, the cream and basil. Stir to combine. Turn the heat off and add the parmesan cheese, stirring it into the rice. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve on individual plates with a garnish of strawberries and basil on top.
*When using Champagne in risotto, it is important to use a good quality one since after the alcohol cooks away, you are left with the true flavor of the wine. A substitute is a sparkling wine from Italy which should be dry (like Prosecco) not a sweet Asti Spumante.
Alghero, in the opposite corner of the island was the location of my next visit to this island. A charming port city with quaint shops and restaurants lining the fortified walls along its shoreline, Alghero was the first point of contact for Sardina’s Catalan invaders in the 16th century and their cultural, architectural and dialectic influence is felt here more than any other part of Sardinia. But were there to be any confusion as to where I was as I stepped off the plane, the wind reminded me immediately of my return to Sardinia!
The Sella & Mosca winery, located just inland from Alghero’s historic port, was the reason for this particular visit. One of Paolo’s clients represented the winery, and immediately upon arrival we were whisked away to the vineyards for a tour of the estate. Sella & Mosca is one of the largest contiguous vineyards in all of Italy and to this day is known for its premium wines made exclusively from estate grown grapes. Vermentino, Torbato and Cannonau are three of their most famous varietals. The winery was equipped with some of the most modern and very latest equipment not often found in even the largest vineyards on the mainland and I found myself mesmerized by the huge stainless fermentation tanks that loomed high above me. It was the furthest thing I could imagine from the wooden barrels and ancient cask stacked rows in the basements and caves of the other vineyards I had visited.
After the tour I left Paolo with his business associates and took a solitary walk along the beautiful shoreline, eventually choosing one of the many park benches that lined the promenade to sit in the sun and contentedly watch the dance of the sea. As usual, thoughts of Convito also danced in my head. The last time I visited this island, we were just opening our expanded Convito. Now we were making plans for opening a second Chicago location with a one-hundred seat restaurant. Creating this menu was even more of a challenge and proved to be one of the most difficult transitions for me in the business thus far. Unlike the 28-seat café menu which I had been pondering in Porto Cervo that featured antipasti, salads and simple pasta dishes; this menu would include much more – meat and fish entrees would have to be added to the menu, as well as more sophisticated appetizers, salads and pastas. It was daunting task, but one that I was happy to be back in Sardinia to reflect upon.
Dinner that evening was one I shall long remember. Upon entering the local restaurant where the event was being held, I soon discovered that I was the lone female in a room filled with Italian businessmen. Every one of them was smartly dressed in dark designer business suits, looking professional, serious and elegant. The room matched the men: dark, and appointed with heavy masculine furniture. Low melodious male voices (speaking only Italian, of course) provided the background music. Since my Italian at the time was tourist-grade only; grazie (thank you), dove si trova la toilette? (where is the bathroom?), more than a bit of panic began to set in. This was going to be a long evening!
We were seated, and not together. Paolo was several tables away and I was on my own. The conversation focused mostly on business (I think) but occasionally one of the men at my table tried to include me, though their broken-English questions were actually more difficult for me to understand than trying to dissect their Italian conversation. Soon enough it became perfectly clear to them that I understood very little, however, at one point in the evening I knew they were discussing my blond hair and green eyes. “Capelli biondi” – “occhi verdi” one of the men said as all eyes turned to me. Yikes! Immediately I was reminded of the trips I took with Paolo to southern Italy where he would tease me about how blonde women with light eyes were often kidnapped there and never seen again. “Stay close,” he would laughingly command.
Between my brief attempts to engage in conversation, I concentrated on the meal. Happily so. It was incredible. The chef at La Lempanto ,the seaside restaurant hosting the event, prepared a special menu for the occasion. “ Menu al mare (from the sea)”, the chef stated. Each course was amazingly fresh. All the fish came from Alghero’s famous fishing port just blocks away. The first course was local sea urchin followed by my favorite dish of the night, a succulent fish salad. New bottles of delicious Sardinian wine would accompany each course. Next up was an amazingly fresh tasting pasta with calamari which was followed by botarga (dried tuna), and finishing with my other favorite – an Alghero specialty – Catalan lobster with local tomatoes and red onions drizzled in extra virgin olive oil.
After learning of my enchantment with the seafood salad, the chef later came to my table and dictated the recipe. I’m not sure I got all of the ingredients in correct proportions but I have made it several times and it is very close to what I remember from that odd, but delicious evening.
La Coppetta di Mare alle Noci
Seafood Salad with Nuts
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1-pound medium shrimp
1 pound cleaned squid
½ pound bay scallops
1 ½ cups carrots, ¼ inch dice
¾ cup celery, ¼ inch dice
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup chopped walnuts
2 hard-boiled eggs diced
6 lettuce cups
Cut the shrimp in half. Cut the body of the squid into ½ inch rings. Cut tentacles to desired size. In large sauté pan, place ¼ cup of the olive oil (reserve the rest) over high heat. Add the shrimp and sauté for 1 minute. Add the squid and sauté for another 2 minutes. Add the bay scallops and sauté for 1 minute. Add the carrots and the celery and sauté for another 2 minutes. Turn heat off and add the parsley and the basil. Toss. Allow mixture to cool. Drain.
Make a vinaigrette with the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice and lemon zest. In a bowl toss the sautéed ingredients with the vinaigrette. Taste for salt and pepper. Mix into the walnuts and egg. Place lettuce cups in small bowls. Top with salad and serve.
L’Aragosta Cipolle e Pomodori
Lobster with Onions and Tomatoes
The lobster dish requires no recipe.
It consists of pieces of cooked lobster (boiled, grilled or baked, kept in their shells), wedges of fresh tomatoes and red onions scattered about on a platter then drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and garnished with whole leaves of fresh basil.
When the meal finally ended, we said our goodbyes and returned to the hotel. It was situated on a small peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea. The wind screeched, the shutters banged against the hotel walls and the restless sea tossed gigantic waves on the rocks below my window. The wind again! I felt as if I were on a deserted island in the middle of the ocean (which now that I think about it, I sort of was!). Eventually I gave up any attempt at sleep and began writing in my journal. My middle-of-the-night scribbling gave way to list making, one of my favorite activities.
In lieu of sleep I decided to make a list describing the “most memorable meals” I consumed in my Italian journeys so far. Sardinia was atop the rankings for sure. By daybreak a pattern emerged. Dishes that were simple and flavorful with a natural organic presentation (no precious garnishes) seemed to be the ones that most matched my taste. This, I decided would be the kind of food I would serve at the new Downtown Chicago Convito. But I wanted this menu to have a multi-regional focus as well. I did not just want to serve only the familiar northern and southern Italian dishes. I wanted all of Italy to be represented and I wanted the menu to have an educational component to it. The menu would not only describe the dish but the region or restaurant it came from as well. Once again, I think my origins as the daughter of an educator – and a former teacher myself – made it part of my nature to want to educate. It was a seminal moment, both in the development of Convito’s menus and my recognition of how I wanted my business to develop going forward.
I would return to Sardinia one more time several years later to attend the wedding of a good friend, Roberta Lai. My connection to Roberta was through Paolo. Before her successful career in Italian television & radio, Roberta had been Paolo’s assistant when I first met her. She often “took care of me” when I was in Milan making appointments, scheduling flights back to Chicago or substituting for Paolo at lunch or dinner when he was otherwise occupied. Eventually our business connection grew into a friendship. I adore her.
The wedding was in a remote part of the Island and we could only stay the night, but I was so eager to return to this place it was an easy decision. My son Rob, daughter Candace and then husband Bob attended the wedding with me. We stayed in a lovely seaside hotel and the morning of the wedding brought with it blue clear cloudless skies and of course…the wind.
Relatives and friends of Roberta’s met in the middle of a rocky plain beside a tiny ancient white church where the ceremony would take place. The church was not large enough to accommodate the guests so most of us stood outside listening to the wedding ceremony over the loud speaker. The priest’s homily was one I remember to this day – so appropriate to Sardinia and to my experiences there. The theme of his discourse was The Wind – The Uninvited Guest . “In marriage and in life,” he said in a searing voice, “people and situations come into our lives unexpectedly, uninvited. They are not always wanted. But none-the-less we have to deal with them. Make adjustments. It is ‘the how’ of those dealings that makes the difference.”
I am not certain I got all the words right (a friend of Roberta’s was translating in my ear) but I certainly understood the general meaning of his message. I think we have all experienced those uninvited guest in our lives and though they are not always welcome companions at the moment we are with them, they generally leave us better, stronger and more resilient people when they have blown away to some other unsuspecting person.
Though there were times I wished the wind would let up even just a few minutes during my visits to this amazing island, I’m somehow comforted to know that no matter how many years pass, how much development occurs there or how many culinary fads come and go, the wind will always blow (incessantly!) in Sardinia and my memories of her.