• Culurzones (Danielle Abou Karam)Source: Danielle Abou Karam
The cooking of Sardinia makes a fine introduction to the diversity and richness of regional Italian cooking.
Max Veenhuyzen

16 Jun 2021 - 10:13 AM  UPDATED 22 Jun 2021 - 9:32 PM

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Once upon a time, "Italian food" in Australia meant garlic bread, lasagne, spaghetti Bolognaise and pizza. Today, the country's dining landscape has evolved to a stage where consumers, chefs and restaurateurs alike understand that Italian food isn't a single cuisine, but a variety of tastes and traditions from the country's numerous regions.

This diversity is reflected in Australia: From the sunny, Sicilian cooking of Joseph Vargetto's Mister Bianco in Melbourne, to the fortifying northern-Italian pastas and specialties served at Lulu La Delizia, the buzzy Perth trattoria owned by Ivana and Joel Valvasori-Pereza.

Among the first of Australia's restaurants to push the Italian regional cooking barrow was Sydney's Pilu at Freshwater, a waterside dining room that zeroed in on the food of Sardinia, the Mediterranean island where chef-owner Giovanni Pilu was born.

Giovanni Pilu of Pilu restaurant in Freshwater hails from Sardinia, which provides inspiration for his menu.

While the notion of regional Italian cuisine is commonplace nowadays, this wasn't always the case.

"It wasn't a walk in the park," recalls Pilu on opening his eponymous restaurant in 2004 with an all-Sardinian menu that starred specialties such as culurgiones (dumplings filled with potato, cheese and mint that are shaped like ears of wheat) and seadas, fried pastries filled with cheese and served with honey.

Seadas feature a universally revered pairing: cheese and honey.

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Bottarga, Sardinia's famously pungent salted and dried mullet roe, was a particularly tough sell in those early days and was mailed to Pilu by his mother from Sardinia.

"Even now, a vast number of people still think that Italian food is only lasagne and meatballs. Don't get me wrong, I love lasagne. It's my favourite dish. But it's not what Italian cuisine is about."

Sardinian restaurant Pilu in Freshwater overlooks the ocean. Sardinian food is known for its seafood.

In Sardinia's case, the food isn't strictly "Italian" either. Sardinian cuisine is influenced by the Phoenicians, the Spanish, the French and different republics from pre-unification Italy, including ancient Rome: All groups that, at various stages, ruled the Mediterranean island found 350 kilometres southwest of the mainland and just south of the French island of Corsica.

"Sardinian cuisine changes from north to south because we've been colonised from two different points," explains Fabio Concas, another Sardinian-born chef and the owner of one-year-old Perth Sardinian restaurant, Acqua e Sale. The restaurant's name, which translates to 'water and salt', is a reference to both Sardinia being an island and the salted water used to cook the excellent Sardinian pasta that Concas hand makes, including malloredus, a toothsome, all-semolina gnocchi.

"If you go to the north from where Pilu is from, there's a lot of Spanish influences and there are even cities that speak Spanish and Catalan. On the southern side where I'm from, we have more Moroccan and Arabic influence in our food."

"Sardinian cuisine changes from north to south because we've been colonised from two different points."

Considering Sardinia is the second-biggest island in the Mediterranean Sea, it's not surprising that seafood features prominently at Sardinian restaurants. Zuppa di pesce, fish soup with the couscous-like fregola inherited from the island's former Arab rulers, is a ubiquitous menu sighting. Olbia, a coastal city in the island's northwest, is an important mussel growing centre in the region, while the San Benedetto market in the capital of Cagliari in the south is home to the island's most important fish market.

Fregola Sarda with saffron mussels and clams

Fregola sarda (rolled balls of semolina), a specialty of Sardinia, is cooked with saffron (grown on the island) with a luxe mix of seafood. 

Despite the prominence of the sea and seafood to Sardinian culture, Sardinians traditionally lived inland in the hills where they would be safe from invaders who would arrive via the coast. This gave way to an agrarian, subsistence way of life centred around grain-growing. Indeed, Sardinia is home to a wondrous array of breads including, perhaps most famously, its paper thin flatbread, pane carasau. 

People also kept livestock, both for meat — Pilu's suckling pig is legendary — and dairy. Sardinian cheesemakers produce hundreds of cheeses with goat's and sheep's cheeses such as pecorino among their specialties.

Get the recipe here.

Meet pane carasau, Sardinia's twice-cooked shepherd’s bread
Snack it, stack it or turn it into a wonderfully soggy sauce mopper.

Although the Phoenicians brought winemaking to the island, it was the Spanish that exerted the greatest influence on Sardinia's wine. Vermentino, the island's best-regarded white grape, is believed to be Spanish in origin, as are the widely-planted red grapes, cannonau and carignano.

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Like many regions, Sardinia's cosmopolitan cooking history provides chefs such as Concas and Pilu with rich seams of inspiration and new dishes for people to discover. However, while knowing your history is important for thoughtful chefs, they still need to be in the moment.

"Wherever you are in the world, if you respect the local, seasonal ingredients, and they are seasonal ingredients, you can cook good Italian food," says Pilu.

"It's as simple as that."

Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @maxveenhuyzen.

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