Sometimes it seems as though you can't swing a strand of spaghetti in this town without hitting an Italian restaurant and not just any Italian restaurant, but one whose idea of authenticity is white linens on the tables, Ol' Blue Eyes on the stereo, and a big-bellied waiter in a black jacket and bow tie, bellowing fuhgeddaboutit! if you ask any questions for a description of the lasagna, whether the tiramisu is homemade, directions to the restrooms.
He will probably be from Buenos Aires.
And then there is Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante, which stealthily stole onto South Beach's Purdy Avenue in mid-October. No white tablecloths, no Frankie, no advertising, and no reservations taken. Yet each one of the 96 seats is occupied every night (there will soon be alfresco dining). Occupied with locals, that is. Ecstatic locals, really, because Sardinia is one of the best restaurants to ever set down in South Beach. It is so ... Sardinian! (Even though they don't serve sardines.)
I have spent time on this Mediterranean island not on its pretty, glittery Costa Smeralda, but in the rough and rocky interior, where gruff men make grappa and women bake bread (in one town, Oliena, they don't even allow men to watch them bake). Sardinia is the first place I ever had warm sheep's milk cheese drizzled with honey or any cheese with honey. So it seemed fitting to begin the meal at this Purdy ristorante with a goat-cheese-and-honey-topped pane carasatu, also known as carta da musica (music paper) for its parchmentlike quality. Preparing these wisps of crisp flatbread entails baking very thinly rolled pasta until it blows up like a balloon, slicing it in half to make two very slender breads, and then placing them in the oven again until they're crackly. The carasatu carted out here is imported, and was tasty with a slight smear of cheese and distinctive chestnut honey. Still, I'm not sure it's worth ordering à la carte, because it comes in the bread basket, and you're also likely to encounter it alongside another dish during the course of your dinner. In fact carasatu is even used in place of pasta in the rabbit ragu and porcini lasagna. Sardis really enjoy eating carasatu, as well as their bunnies and boars.
Get off to a rousing start by assembling your own personalized antipasti platter. Select one, three, five, or all items from among column listings of meats (coppa, bresaola, prosciutto di parma), vegetables (braised fennel, roasted beets, an assortment of olives with wild fennel flowers), and cheeses (Gorgonzola, Taleggio, and three types of Pecorino although aged Pecorino Stagionata is really best savored at the end of the meal). There are plenty of other choices, all presented upon gorgeously garnished wooden boards, ideal for sharing over a quartino or two or three or four of wine. This is, after all, an enoteca.
What, you might query, is a quartino? A small glass decanter that holds a quarter of a liter (thus its name), which is one-third of a bottle, or about a glass and a half. Traditionally quartinos were filled with cheap wines, but Mario Batali's Babbo in New York began filling them with finer vintages, and a new tradition was born. This option permits tasting a few different varieties per sitting like, say, a few hard-to-find Sardinian labels. Plus it offers flexibility if people in your party want different types of wine. Another good idea: Split quartinos of white with your appetizers and then graduate to a bottle of red with main courses.
D.H. Lawrence described Sardinia as having "escaped the net of European civilization" and as being "not a bit like the rest of Italy." But the food is similar to rustic Italian, and Sardinia Ristorante's chef and co-owner Pietro Vardeu, who is from the island, captures the country spirit much like Batali does less dependent on strange animal parts but equally reliant on the smoke-imbued majesty brought to bear (and boar) by a roaring wood-fired oven. You can catch a bird's-eye view of those flames via a seat at a seven-stool dining bar facing the hearth, which is set like a fiery ruby in the blue-tile wall.
The dining area is divided in half by a wooden wine rack running from floor to ceiling. The bar likewise splits at the same point the left side more alcohol-and-wine-related than the hearth side. Rich woods and stonework forge an unpretentious neighborhood ambiance common to an urban osteria, trattoria, enoteca, or any other casual eatery ending in an a. The chattering, clattering crowd is made louder by reverberating acoustics, which just adds to the spirited sense of excitement that permeates the space. Co-owner Tony Gallo, from Turin, works the room like a restaurateur should, being hospitable to his guests while quietly quarterbacking his crew. And forget about fuhgeddaboutits this well-trained Italian team seamlessly works in tandem and was pitch-perfectly in tune to our table's needs.
This menu is so alluringly composed that reading it brings despair at having to decide between a whole fire-roasted octopus and a baked-prawn-and-fregola stew (fregola being Sardinian pellets of semolina pasta); between pancetta-wrapped quail and three veal meatballs (popettini) over slices of braised fennel in a fresh tomato sauce (Sardi-hearty hunks of country semolina bread sopped the sauce nicely); between baby clams in saffron broth and cockles, a ribbed clam more popular in Europe than the States, which turned out to be less of a choice than suspected we were served baby clams in place of the cockles. Still, the petite bivalves were sweetly saline and stunningly chaperoned by sautéed heirloom tomatoes seeped with red chilies and fresh basil.
The main courses were even more impressive. Wednesday's nightly special is roast baby suckling pig, on the bone, perfumed with rosemary, marinated in mirto (Sardinian spirit made from myrtle berry), and cooked the age-old Sardi way by the fire of burning logs. The succulent pork came accompanied by roasted potatoes and a root-toot-tooty ratatouillelike eggplant/pepper ragu. Thursday's peasant-style stew wowed, too; fleshy lumps of baby lamb, still on the rib bones, came with a whole potato, whole carrot, stalk of celery, and sheets of cippolini onion in a light meaty broth. Whole free-range poussin (Cornish game hen) likewise exuded the splendor of smoke, and was bursting with plummy flavors from its marination in Cannonau, Sardinia's most renowned red wine. The little bird was sided by roasted beets and Brussels sprouts daring and delightful vegetable choices. Black Angus rib-eye steak receives just a pinch of salt and pepper prior to its flaming in the hearth, which of course is all it needs. The oven runs between 700 and 800 degrees.
Branzino baked in salt crust, a Venetian recipe, is presented at the table, whisked back to the kitchen for decrusting and deboning, and returned as pristine, juicy, mildly flavored white fillets delicious when kissed with a squeeze of lemon. The fish, also known as striped sea bass, is plated alongside logs of charred asparagus spears capped with melted Pecorino cheese.
Pastas were a tad less distinctive than the rest of the fare, yet orecchiette flecked with rapini and pieces of surprisingly mild wild boar sausage couldn't have been executed any better. Spaghetti with a one-pound lobster in its cut-up shell came soaked in a luscious seafood-infused red sauce rife with garlic, spicy buddin chives, and vermentino, a white Sardinian wine. The lobster was a little overcooked, the kitchen's only misstep.
Ripe, honey-soaked berries dotted a plate of chocolate hazelnut "fritters," a pair of fried, puck-size cakes with Nutella centers oozing out. Another innovative dessert brought ravioli stuffed with sweet Pecorino, orange and lemon peels, and minced mint, gracefully drizzled with chestnut honey, although after eating such rich fare, you might opt for some refreshing peach sorbet.
Sardinia's prices are also refreshing: Most pastas are $11 or $12 (the lobster version is $22), most main courses in the mid-twenties. Wine markups are kept in check as well. Upon completing your meal, you might even be treated to a complimentary round of orangecellos a Sicilian twist on limoncello. So just how good is Sardinia Enoteca Ristorante? Fuhgeddaboutit!
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