I’m standing in a skinny cobbled street in the town of Orosei on the eastern shore of Sardinia, an island off Italy’s west coast. Above my head, curved terra-cotta roof tiles slope up toward the domes of historic churches, their cupolas and crosses scorched by centuries of Mediterranean summers. Beneath my toes, the stones have been rubbed smooth by the feet of generations; before me a long wall encases a single door, which slowly creaks open. Behind it stands a tiny old woman wearing a long, gathered skirt, her wispy gray hair scraped back into a bun. She looks confused—who is this stranger at her door?—until she catches a glimpse of my companion and her face breaks into a grin of a thousand wrinkles.
“ Efisio!” she exclaims as she rushes to hug him.
I’m in Sardinia with Efisio Farris, and the woman embracing him is Zia Mary, his father’s sister. Farris was born and raised in Orosei, though he’s spent the past 19 years in Texas, where he is the chef and owner of the acclaimed Sardinian restaurants Arcodoro in Houston and Arcodoro & Pomodoro in Dallas; in addition, he runs GourmetSardinia, which imports traditional foods such as the crisp flatbread pane carasau and saba, a sweet grape-must reduction similar to balsamic vinegar. Farris has also just finished his first cookbook, Sweet Myrtle & Bitter Honey, which will be published next month.
Sardinia has always moved too slowly for him. Even as a child, he was eager to explore the world beyond his village. But he respects island traditions and returns several times a year to visit his family, as well as to meet with suppliers and find new ingredients to bring back to America.
Zia Mary ushers us into the house. She vanishes for a moment, then reappears carrying a plate of homemade sweet ravioli filled with lemony ricotta.
“ This used to be my grandparents’ house,” Farris explains as Zia Mary passes around the plate and intently studies our reactions to her creation. “It’s the house where my parents lived when they were first married, and where I lived for the first years of my life.”
Now 46 years old, Farris has dark wavy hair showing the first flecks of gray, and a tiny tuft of a beard that hunkers just beneath his lower lip. He is the fourth of five children, and his boyhood chores encompassed everything from harvesting the olives in his father’s orchard to stirring the polenta on his mother’s stove. Most of the food the family ate then was homegrown. His father, Giuliano, was a stonemason by trade, but in the evenings and on weekends he tended his olive grove, vineyard and vegetable garden. The women made fresh pasta; they jarred the vegetables from the garden and the fruit from the trees. “And I was always in the kitchen touching everything,” Farris says.
Growing up, Farris also worked at his uncle and aunt’s restaurant, Su Barchile, and as a teenager, he spent an entire summer fishing for sardines and red snapper and trapping the lobsters, crabs and octopuses that thrive in these waters. “But Sardinians are not fishermen by nature,” Farris explains. “We were traditionally shepherds who lived inland and were afraid of the coast, because that’s where danger came from.”
Sardinia has endured centuries of invasion: The Phoenicians attacked as far back as 800 BC. They were followed by the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines and the Spanish, who ruled the island for 400 years. In 1861, the island became a part of unified Italy. Sardinia’s multicultural past has had a unique influence on its cuisine. The Spaniards are thought to be the first to have brought saffron to the island; the Greeks were likely the ones who first cultivated wheat. Sardinian food, with its traces of Spanish, African and Arabic influences, stands apart from much of the rest of Italy.
We finish our ravioli, and Farris offers to show me around the property. “My grandfather used to shave at this outside sink,” he says as he plants himself before a rectangular ceramic basin in the courtyard. “He was a huge man, and he’d stand here and shave with a knife. He could never get his sideburns even, so he’d take a little bit off one side, then a little bit off the other, then the other again. In the end they were up to here”—Farris playfully jabs at his temples—“and still weren’t the same height.” A photograph of Farris’s grandfather now adorns the bottles of house red wine that he serves in his restaurants; an image of his father decorates the white.
We slip through a gate in a side wall into an area where his uncle Valerio is working. He’s a short man with sparse, spiky gray hair, wearing blue overalls and slippers. Uncle Valerio shouts effusive greetings, then mutters instructions in Sardinian. Farris disappears into a small room and emerges with a large, dusty bottle. We drink Valerio’s wine—a rustic Cannonau, a varietal that is supposedly a descendant of the Grenache vines planted in Sardinia by the Spanish in the 14th century—and snack on hunks of tangy pecorino cheese, tender homegrown artichokes marinated in olive oil from the family’s own crop and pane carasau, the Sardinian flatbread. This bread, like the ewe’s-milk Pecorino Sardo we’re eating, harks back to the island’s shepherding roots: It was originally baked for shepherds who lived for weeks on end in the hills with their flocks, and it stays fresh for months.
Farris describes how his mother and aunts used to spend an entire day making great batches of this crispy bread. After the first baking, when it would rise and split like a pita, the women would carve each round tablet into two sheets and smooth the edges. “They were meticulous—it was a matter of pride that the edges were perfect,” Farris explains. Then followed a second baking to toast each wafer-thin slice until crisp.
The next day, Farris puts on an impressive display of the skills he learned in his grandparents’ home. We drive to the oceanfront villa of his sister Angela, where he is to cook lunch for 20 members of his family.
We pass through deep-green hills dotted with herds of long-haired sheep. By the side of the road grow trees of wild almonds, pears and mimosa and bushes of broom, along with large, thorny slabs of prickly pear cactus. On the horizon are the pale, silvery mountains from which Farris had marble quarried for the floors in his restaurants. Occasional hilltop castles recall the millennia of invasion and occupation by overseas marauders that have so shaped Sardinia’s language, culture and cuisine.
We begin to eat lunch at around 1 p.m., but as evening rolls in, we’re still seated. Farris has prepared the dishes with the help of his aunts, his sisters and his mother, Katerina. Their watermelon salad mixed with arugula, red onion, walnuts, ricotta salata and a fruity dressing is perfectly refreshing on this hot day. The Sardinian-style seafood paella seems to tell the story of this island’s tortured history in a single dish: Its essence is Spanish, but it has North African influences, since Farris replaces the usual rice with fregola, toasted round pasta that likely came to Sardinia from the Maghreb.
In another pasta dish—gnocchi-like malloreddus topped with a lamb ragù—“the ridges of the malloreddus absorb the flavors of the rich tomato sauce,” Farris says. “When I was growing up, at the end of the summer, the women would all get together to make enough tomato sauce to last for the whole year.” Next, Farris brings out a saffron-flavored shellfish risotto made with bottarga (pressed, dried fish roe) and carnaroli rice, an exceptionally creamy rice grown in the Tirso River valley on Sardinia’s west coast. There’s also a pork loin that has been marinated in garlic, thyme, rosemary and saba.
Farris leaves the table briefly, then returns with a dessert wine made from Vermentino grapes. After that come bottles of grappa, limoncello and mirto, a liqueur made with the fruit of a myrtle tree that grows in the garden where we sit. Next to it sprouts a corbezzolo tree whose blossoms are essential for bitter honey, a specialty of Sardinia.
As the sun sinks lower it lights the sand of the promontories, which weave in and out from the shore, a rich saffron yellow. Conversation leaps across and around the long table as three generations debate, laugh and yell in Sardinian, Italian and occasionally, thankfully, English. They share recipes; they argue about politics; they exclaim over photographs of previous family gatherings. Finally, Farris’s father utters one sentence that quiets them all.
“ Your new haircut,” Giuliano tells one of his granddaughters. “I’m afraid it was a terrible mistake.”
Polly Evans is the author of the travel memoirs Kiwis Might Fly, Fried Eggs with Chopsticks and It’s Not About the Tapas.