The day: 8th September 2008, Dinner.
The place: Solanas, Strada Provinciale per Villasimius (Cagliari), Italy (tel. +39 – 070 750 630)
The venue: Ristorante da Barbara
Closest airports: Cagliari (British Airways, EasyJet)
The food: traditional fish trattoria
The drinks: reasonable list, mostly local.
Weird address, you may wonder, and indeed it is no proper address, since this place is along the panoramic road that from Cagliari winds eastwards towards Villasimius, offering breathtaking views of the amazingly beautiful turquoise and emerald waters and white beaches that grace the island of Sardinia. Exceptional circumstances require exceptional measures (where have we heard this recently?), so exceptionally here’s a non-food photo:
Indeed, though it is just outside the little hamlet of Solanas, which consists almost completely in summer houses, it is the only restaurant you will find along the road for a few kilometres in each direction. Confidently, in we go. Well, it does not work like that: althought it is still relatively early (just after 8 pm, a few minutes after opening time), and the place is fully booked? Without a booking, your choice is to either hang around for a couple of hours waiting for somebody to finish their dinner and go, or decide to plan better next time, and book well in advance. Which is what we do, so next time in our expectations are set pretty high!
Alas we cannot show you any pictures of the interior, as the place was so packed we could not even squeeze in a corner which was human free – but it is a very traditional family run trattoria, with proper clean and ironed tablecloth, and big tables – space not much of an issue here. Granny Barbara looks on from pictures on the wall, and you can pretty much recognise her features in both waiting and kitchen staff.
Here is the bread:
Delightful pane carasau (flatbread). The menu has no surprises, in the sense that you find listed here what you would find on any other menu in a local trattoria: among antipasti, the usual suspects are mixed seafood antipasti, seafood salad, clams and mussels, mosciame di tonno, and the like. Among primi, the ubiquitous fregola, or spaghetti with clams, or king prawns, while mains would include the fish of the day, but a quick glance at the fish counter is better than wasting time perusing the usual list of cuttlefish, bass, bream, tuna and so on.
So, we decide to begin with:
– seafood salad (€8)
– fregola with arselle (clams), mussels and bottarga (€8.50)
The seafood salad was gorgeous: the fishy bit consisting of thoroughly enjoyable, superfresh prawns and tender octopus, with some salad tomatoes, all doused in a very perfumed and delicate olive oil, with a hint of lemon and the nicely refreshing taste of the thinly sliced celery and carrots.
The fregola, indicated as house specialty, was obviously home made. Imagine a super coarse cous cous (with which fregola share a similar technology’), which is then dried out in the oven a bit (before boiling), so that some of it acquires a slightly brown colour. The bottarga, not in slivers but grated, was not very prominent, perhaps overpowered by the shellfish: the clams and the mussels were superb, and the fregola was infused with their flavour. Definitely deserving to be highlighted as a speciality.
Next, a super spigola (seabass), large enough to be made into chunks and then grilled (at €5 per 100g).
Perhaps the picture is not revealing of the scale, but this baby weighed two pounds – so €45 it was, and very well worth every cent of it. We had never had a spigola first chopped and then grilled like this, and indeed we can confirm that this is a very acceptable way to cook it when it comes this big, although the flesh was perhaps less moist than it could have been. The unanticipated bonus for us of this way of cooking, is that it is easy to reach all those parts of the flesh in the head that are otherwise fiddly to tease out. This was obviously very fresh and above all wild fish (we felt like we had offended them by asking if it was farmed, how could we suspect such a crime?!), which carried with it all the flavour of the sea, simply beautiful.
By now we were quite satisfied, but could we leave the seadas go, at €4 each? Of course not:
One each to avoid quarrels, these must be among the best we ever had. The fresh pecorino cheese inside just of the right saltiness to challenge the sweetness of the honey, and the pastry was excellent, flaky in the right degree, perfectly fried. Stunning.
With €2 cover charge per head and a bottle of local Vermentino at €16 (recommended by the waiter), our total bill came at €89.50, that is roughly €60 for the two of us. For such an amount of fish, and of such quality, to people used to London prices, it sounds almost like a joke. Really very honest, as the fish price is not marked up too much on what you would pay at the central market in Cagliari.
The waiting staff was superb, especially for this type of traditional establishment: six people serving around 150 covers efficiently, speedily and still finding the time to check whether everything is going fine for you, and even engaging in polite conversation at the till. Solidly family run, the young guys, all reassuringly pale from working their socks off inside while scores of their friends beach bum, are obviously trying to move this place to the next level. This is indeed a pleasing feature: a restaurant based on tradition, offering traditional dishes cooking techniques, but with a front room that is run in a modern way. Scores of customers come here from very trendy Villasimius, some no doubt stepping out of their luxurious yacht to indulge in the simplicity of the family style cooking of excellent materials.
Should you ever come this way (o yes, you should!), make sure you pay a visit to Da Barbara in Solanas (and caeful: do not confuse it with Santa Barbara nearby, also OK but deifnitely not quite at this level).