Growing up in a small village, we shared everything - there was a lot of give and take. We’d go to the neighbours to pick some cherries and oranges; others would drop off a little bit of wine or grappa they’d made. My grandfather always had a couple of cows to make fresh cheese and everyone had piglets in their backyard. Wild boar hunting was so popular that I had my gun licence before my car licence. That’s the Sardinia I grew up in.
When I was young, I used to go and pick wild asparagus and make myself a frittata in the afternoon – but I was a kid, I didn’t know if cooking was a game, or if it was something more serious. From when I was 14, I used to spend the summer months working in my uncle and auntie’s bar. That’s where it all started. From there, I worked in a hotel in Costa Smeralda and a tiny restaurant in Olbia. Around that time, I met my wife Marilyn – she was on a working holiday from Sydney and we ended up taking a summer job together in a restaurant in San Teodoro. At the end of summer, Marilyn returned home and a couple of months later, I followed.
After arriving in Sydney in 1992, I started my apprenticeship at an Italian restaurant in Terrey Hills. Five years later, I opened my first restaurant, Cala Luna in Mosman. I slowly started to introduce Sardinian ingredients and soon that became my focus. At first it was hard, no one knew what some of these ingredients were, especially bottarga [dried, salted mullet roe sacs]. After we were reviewed, people started believing in what we were doing. It was a lot of work, but we loved Cala Luna.
A few years later, Marilyn and I opened Pilu at Freshwater. It was a big move, but if a restaurant is going to be our life, this is the place everyone dreams about – water views, a beautiful building and a big kitchen. I got to cook the food I knew and loved. We were able to make Sardinian pastries and bake our own bread – an important part of every Sardinian meal.
The oven-roasted suckling pig has become our most popular dish. It’s simply roasted and prepared in the same way we do it in Sardinia. When I was growing up, the suckling pig would be served on a cork platter, with just a raw vegetable salad. At the restaurant, we like to offer a few different condiments - scented apple sauce, mustard fruits or sometimes salsa verde. But it’s still served on a cork platter, as Sardinia is quite a big cork producer.
When we opened Pilu at Freshwater in 2004, there weren’t many places cooking regional Italian food. There was Lucio’s, Buon Ricordo, Beppi’s... and that was about it. Eight years later, everyone is talking about regional cuisine – it’s exciting and I’m proud to be a part of it.
As seen in Feast Magazine, Issue 17, pg86.
Photography by Chris Chen and Alan Benson.