Rome-based Jersey girl and friend of Fathom Katie Parla has long been our trusted expert when it comes to eating and drinking magnificently in Italy. She's probably yours, too, if you have followed her on Instagram, on her cooking show Katie Parla Rome, or have one of her many excellent Italian cookbooks, the latest of which, Food of the Italian Islands, we're excerpting here. While Sicily may be the Italian island that gets the most attention, here she makes a case for why Sardinia to the north is the one to visit, in no small part because that's where they cook suppa cuata (we have the recipe here).
Sardinia and Its Smaller Islands
I’m starting with Sardinia here, not because it comes before Sicily alphabetically, but because I want it to be the destination of your next Italian holiday. Naturally, I think all the islands should be a priority, but realistically, you have to choose one as a starting point, and this should be it. It’s wild. The island lies about 150 miles off Italy’s west coast, just opposite the mainland regions of Campania and Calabria. Corsica is a short ferry ride to the north, while Tunisia is due south. Sicily, which is just a bit larger than Sardinia, is about 200 miles southeast and is home to around 3.5 times the number of inhabitants.
Sardinia was one of the earliest places in Europe to be settled and has historical ruins dating back more than ten thousand years. Things really started to get going among local tribes in the Stone Age, circa 3200 BCE, and by 2000 BCE, settlers had arrived from mainland Europe. The Nuragic culture, the island’s most important native community, survived until the third century BCE. The vestiges of this ancient society are still present all over Sardinia, mainly in the form of nuraghe, fortified stone complexes that rise from fields and perch on hills all across the island.
By the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, things started heating up in the Mediterranean. The Greeks and Carthaginians were on the move and in competition with each other. When you consider Sardinia’s dominant position between North Africa and the European continent, it’s logical that the Carthaginians would establish colonies there. The evidence for their vast trade network is still preserved at sites like Tharros on the Sinis peninsula. The still thriving bottarga (cured gray mullet roe) tradition of the area testifies to the enduring influence of Carthage.
The Romans took over in 238 BCE (though they were unable to completely eradicate the stubborn Nuragic culture, especially in the Barbagia sub-region, which still boasts a reputation for defiance) and reigned over the island for seven centuries. The island was attacked and conquered in the Middle Ages by waves of invaders, including the Vandals, Byzantines, and Arabs. But it asserted self-rule by four kingdoms until the fourteenth century, when Spain’s Aragon rulers began to exert influence amid attacks from the maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa.
Throughout its millennia of civilization, Sardinia has maintained a strong rural character, and does so to this day. There are twice as many sheep (three million!) as people on the island, and about one-third of all of Italy’s sheep reside there. Their main product is pecorino (sheep’s-milk cheese), which takes countless forms. The best known are Pecorino Romano (in spite of its name, almost all of it is made in Sardinia, not near Rome) and Pecorino Sardo, salted cheeses with a sharp, piquant flavor. There are other wonderful cheeses, too, like Casizolu and Fiore Sardo. Since antiquity, durum wheat has been an important product and is responsible for the forms and flavors of Sardinia’s intricate pasta shapes like lorighittas and ornamental breads.
The cuisine is hearty and land-based, featuring plenty of meat, especially lamb, goat, suckling pig, wild boar, and other game. There’s fish, of course, but thousands of years of invasion threats from the sea meant that Sardinians mainly settled and developed their culture on the interior of the island; the food reflects that. Desserts are sweetened with honey, sugar, and sapa (grape molasses). Sardinia’s culture is a boozy one, too, with lots of homemade spirits still produced widely, as well as a thriving wine production based mainly on red Bovale, Cannonau, Carignano, and Monica Grapes and white Nasco, Nuragus, Vernaccia, and Vermentino grapes.
All this nourishes a fiercely independent culture that celebrates rural traditions like nowhere else in Italy and lives to support its politically active shepherds. It’s wild and festive and still bound to ancient religious traditions and the foods that accompany them. A trip through Sardinia really does have the feeling of exploring prehistoric civilization in a way unrivaled elsewhere in Italy.
L’Isola di San Pietro
Ferry arrivals to this small island off the southwest coast of Sardinia land at Carloforte, its main village. The picturesque seaside town was founded in the eighteenth century by coral fishermen originally from Liguria, the coastal region in northwestern Italy of which Genova is the capital, who had settled abroad in Tunisia for economic reasons. When the coral supply off the Tunisian coast dried up, they appealed to Sardinia’s ruler, Charles Emmanuel III, for a place to settle, and he granted them San Pietro, on which they built a community from brick and stucco, transforming the small island into an important tuna-fishing port. The Ligurian cultural heritage persists to this day — pesto alla carlofortina is a popular pasta condiment and combines classic Ligurian ingredients — basil, pine nuts, and olive oil — with the island’s tuna. The Tunisian connection survives, too. Villagers make a dish called cascà, a pasta closer in appearance to Sicilian or North African couscous than to Sardinia’s much larger version, fregula.
Just southeast of the Isola di San Pietro, Sant’Antioco is quite a bit larger and connected to Sardinia via a causeway. The island’s namesake, Saint Antiochus of Sulcis, was exiled to the island, condemned to work in its lead mines for converting others to Christianity, thus transforming it into a pilgrimage destination for devotees to the second-century martyr. There are a few coastal villages connected by asphalt roads, but the island’s interior is mostly undeveloped hills of brush and sparsely inhabited farmland. The cuisine, like that of its neighbor, draws on preserved seafood like canned tuna, as well as bottarga from tuna and mullet.
L’Arcipelago della Maddalena
This chain of islands was awarded national park status, mostly protecting it from the gross development that has virtually robbed the Costa Smeralda in northeast Sardinia of any hint of regional identity. There are regular ferry departures for La Maddalena, the largest of the islands, from Palau, a village in northern Sardinia, and a roadway across a narrow channel connects it to neighboring Caprera. The other islands are sparsely inhabited and really only accessible if you have rented a boat (no yacht needed; a dinghy will do it). The food situation is a bit grim, but there are plenty of sandwich shops and bars on La Maddalena and Caprera that serve generic food, which is really all you need to fuel a swim or a hike. The arcipelago della Maddalena might not be a big player in Sardinian food culture, but it’s an important symbol for the island. Renato Soru, former president of Sardinia, oversaw the closure of the US Navy base in 2008. The base had been there since 1972 and was set up for Cold War defense. For years, politicians ran on a platform of demilitarizing the island, and this anti-imperialist sentiment remains a major tenet of local culture, with lots of graffiti all over Sardinia to prove it. Even today, military bases, both foreign and Italian, trigger the Sardinian instinct to rebel against being invaded and controlled.
Ready to Cook?
Try your hand at this recipe for suppa cuata, Gallura-Style Bread Casserole.
Don't Stop There. Read the Whole Book
Reprinted by permission of Parla Publishing, LLC.. © 2023 by Katie Parla. All rights reserved.
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