Share |

Sardinian Flavor, Southwestern Success

Photos courtesy of Efisio Farris
Photos courtesy of Efisio Farris

It’s a long way from Sardinia to Texas—more than 5,000 miles, in fact, with an ocean and a continent in between. Despite this great divide, both of these territories share a local hero in chef and restaurateur Efisio Farris. 

            Born in the small town of Orosei, Sardinia, Farris emigrated to Texas in 1986. Two years later he opened a small trattoria-style restaurant, Arcodoro & Pomodoro, in Dallas, partnering with his American-born wife, Lori. Over the past 23 years the restaurant has moved and expanded, now seating more than 200 in an elegant house. The Farrises also operate another, similarly robust Arcodoro restaurant in Houston, which opened in 1996. 

Smart Start

Food is at the center of Efisio’s growing portfolio—Sardinian food, to be precise. The cuisine of this rugged Mediterranean island is the chef’s special commodity, but it’s also his personal cause. He wants to set the record straight, as is evidenced in his memoir-style cookbook, Sweet Myrtle & Bitter Honey (Rizzoli, $39.95), in which he writes, “Although [Sardinia] is Italian, only a small part of our food reflects the mainland . . . Lingering Roman, Arabian, Moorish, Catalan, and other Mediterranean influences make our cuisine a hybrid that includes many indigenous Sardinian ingredients.”

            Through his restaurants, cookbook, and a Web-based specialty food import company, GourmetSardinia, which he launched several years ago, Efisio is a proud emissary for the cuisine of his homeland. Growing up in a large family of exacting, self-sufficient cooks, he was groomed for the role. From the time Efisio was old enough to stir the rice, peel the fava beans, and trim the artichokes as his mother and aunts instructed, he was being schooled in the defining flavors of Sardinian cooking. “I’m family-taught,” he confirms. “Just by helping out and doing as I was told, I naturally learned.” As a young boy, he often made trips to the market for his mother, which provided its own lessons. “If I came home from the market with three good artichokes and five bad ones, I quickly learned how to tell the difference.”

            As in many Sardinian homes, Efisio’s family baked its own bread, pressed its olives for oil, made fresh maccarones (pasta), prepared casizzolu (fresh cow’s milk cheese), grew many of its vegetables, harvested local shellfish, and even butchered some of its animals. Efisio learned all the techniques and tastes, and came to adopt an important philosophy: “In Sardinia, hospitality is sacred,” he says. “We are raised to be gracious and gregarious . . . For my father, food started the conversation.”

Taste Trip

In the Arcodoro restaurants, the staff stages Sardinian cooking with a cast of regional ingredients that play both classic and modern roles. Fregul, for example, are small nibs of toasted semolina pasta that resemble Israeli couscous and are used in soups, salads, and rustic main dishes. In an ancient Sardinian recipe for potato soup featuring fregula and frue(a fresh Sardinian cheese curd made from sheep’s and goat’s milk), the chewy pasta adds a fresh taste and, as Efisio explains, “It absorbs some of the flavorful broth.” He also cooks the beadlike pieces of fregula in risotto-style dishes, noting that, “It’s half the work and time of traditional risotto.” Continuous stirring still is required, he adds, “but it takes only ten minutes to cook, and the hot stock can be added all at once rather than a little at a time.” The chef sources his handmade fregula from Riola, a small town in Sardinia where it is hand-sifted, set aside to dry, and then twice-toasted to give the grains an earthier flavor than that of standard pasta.

            Another starchy staple of Sardinia that is served nightly at Arcodoro is pane carasau, literally “toasted bread,” which refers to the round, crisp parchment-like leaves of yeasted flatbread that can be found everywhere in Sardinia. “It’s similar to lavash,” Efisio explains. Served in baskets at the restaurants, the pane carasau is warmed in the oven and dressed with a little olive oil, rosemary, and pecorino. It’s so popular, the chef notes, “You can forget about chips.” 

            Efisio also uses pieces of the crisp bread as a free-form garnish in salads and in a Shepherd’s Soup ($6) of lamb broth, fresh mint, and ricotta salata. For an ancient peasant recipe, pane frattau($9.50), Efisio softens the pane carasau in broth to lend it a noodle-like consistency, then layers the dough with tomato sauce, pecorino cheese, a poached egg, a drizzle of olive oil, and a little fresh basil to finish. “My American friends call it the perfect brunch dish,” he remarks.

             Arcodoro’s Sardinian pantry wouldn’t be authentic without the distinct regional specialty miele amaro, or bitter honey. Although it sounds oxymoronic, the local bees actually produce a honey that first tastes sweet on the palate but finishes with an appealing bitterness. Unique to Sardinia, bitter honey is traditionally served with seadas—pastry fritters filled with local cheese. On the dessert menu at Arcodoro, Efisio’s seadas are made using a recipe for kneaded dough enriched with lard and olive oil. Zested lemons and fresh mint are mixed with the fresh cheese filling and, to serve, the bitter honey is warmed and drizzled over. “We use the honey in a sauce for shrimp and other seafood too,” the chef notes. “Nothing compares to it as an interesting flavor enhancer.” His Sardinian kitchen also uses semisweetabbamele—a thick tawny reduction of honey and pollen—in much the same way, drizzling it over cheese, salads, and ice cream.

Bottarga and Boar

Although Sardinia boasts 1,800 kilometers of pristine coastline, very little fish was featured in the local diet until the past few centuries, which is recent by Sardinian standards. “For thousands of years we believed the sea brought us nothing but trouble,” Efisio writes in his cookbook, referring to the succession of raids on Sardinia by various conquering armies, starting in 880 BC and lasting up until the 1850s. Nonetheless, one of the oldest and most revered of Sardinian ingredients, bottarga di muggin, comes from the Mediterranean. Shaped like a long, flat orange sausage, this regional bottarga is a pressed form of salted and air-dried fish roe, traditionally made from gray mullet. (Elsewhere, bottarga often is made from tuna roe, but the tuna version has a much stronger flavor.)

            Sardinians like their bottarga grated or thinly sliced; a little of the briny, compressed jerky-like preserve goes a long way. “It’s a beautiful ingredient,” Efisio says, extolling the many uses of bottarga as a condiment as well as a main player in various dishes. “We serve it simply, with spaghetti and pecorino, and also sliced in a salad with tomato, celery, and endive. Bottarga is great with fennel too.” Arcodoro chefs also make a citrus-cooked seafood carpaccio ($16.50) using whitefish—sea bass, halibut, or branzino—topped with thinly shaved bottarga.

            Of the meats most prized by Sardinian cooks, Efisio is partial to wild boar, especially those that can be found in the United States. “Wild boar in Texas is fantastic,” he exclaims, “because the animal has so many lush plants to feed on. The typical Sardinian wild boar lives in the mountains and is more lean and slow-growing.” In a classic treatment, the chef braises marinated pieces of wild boar with red wine, root vegetables, and saba, a syrupy reduction of unfermented grape juice. Another Sardinian-style pork main dish at Arcodoro is suckling pig roasted on a bed of mirto (myrtle). An evergreen common throughout the Mediterranean, myrtle has a sweet floral aroma and tannic berries that Sardinians prize for a variety of dishes. Efisio grows it at his home, but because the restaurants use at least a bunch a week, he orders myrtle from a local florist. “We discovered it there by accident one day,” he recalls. “Ordering from a florist is the easiest way to get myrtle in the United States.” But he advises consumers to ask for Mediterranean myrtle (Myrtus communis), not the more common crape myrtle found in many shops.

Raising the Glass

Unlike the mostly Sardinian fare at the Arcodoro restaurants, wines from all over Italy grace the lists. Although Efisio claims that there was no conscious effort to select the bottles of his nation exclusively, he does believe that “Italian wines are palate-friendly and truly accentuate the flavors of our ingredients.” A crisp glass of Prosecco is the house aperitif, while a Vermentino di Gallura DOCG from Sardinia is Efisio’s choice for seafood. For pastas, meat dishes, and cheeses, the Cannonau grape offers a dry, robust, and earthy flavor profile. Neither of these two regional wines was available when Efisio first opened his restaurant (“I carried all I could in my suitcases,” he recalls.), but today he is able to feature a large selection of Sardinian brands, including his father’s bottles. “At home, we drink Fidatu, one of our own family wines that is a blend of Cagnulari, Sangiovese, and Merlot,” Efisio shares.

            Not only has the availability of regional Italian wines and food expanded widely, so has Efisio’s appreciative audience in Texas. “In the beginning we had to be more Mediterranean than Sardinian,” he remembers, “but now we can showcase our special ingredients and dishes.” With his brother, Francesco, installed as chef de cuisine in the Dallas kitchen, and Chef Giancarlo Ferrara in charge of the Houston operation, Efisio spends most of his time developing projects or supporting staff in various stations of the restaurant. He also enjoys getting out on the floor and mixing with customers. “The locals are a lot like the people of my homeland,” he observes. “They are proud Texans first, and Americans second. The natives of Sardinia are Sardinian first, Italians second.” Attracted to their kindred, Efisio says that he’s always grateful for his second home in the Southwest. “Texas is a great place,” he proclaims. Judging by the daily covers, locals are saying the same thing about Arcodoro.

Formerly a pastry chef and senior editor at Santé, Elaine Khosrova is a food and restaurant writer based in New York’s Hudson Valley.

A Tasteful Page-Turner

Chef and restaurateur Efisio Farris is quick to admit that no single cookbook could capture the culinary zeitgeist of his Sardinian homeland, but he makes a stupendous attempt in his hardcover Sweet Myrtle & Bitter Honey (Rizzoli, 212-387-3400, Rizzoli.com, $39.95). The book is an archive of distinctly Sardinian recipes and gastronomic mores, as experienced and lovingly articulated by a native son. Rich details of cooking, eating, and sustaining Sardinian traditions lure the reader not only to the kitchen, but also toward a fervent desire to visit this unique Mediterranean island.

Fregula Kin Arsella

(Soup of Fregula with Baby Clams)

By Efisio Farris, chef/restaurateur, Arcodoro restaurants, Dallas and Houston, Texas

Yield: 4 servings

Littleneck clams or cockles                                                24

Fish stock                                                                              5 cups

Extra virgin olive oil                                                            ½ cup plus 3 Tbsp

Garlic cloves, thinly sliced                                                2

Flat leaf parsley, finely chopped                                    1 small bunch

Crushed red pepper                                                            pinch

Sea salt                                                                                to taste

Fregula                                                                        1½ cups

Saffron                                                                         pinch

Plum tomatoes, seeded, diced                                     3 medium

Lemon, zested                                                                        1

  1. Place washed clams in large pot with 1 cup stock. Heat until clams open. Remove clams with slotted spoon and set aside. Strain cooking liquid through a fine sieve and reserve.
  2. Heat remaining stock to boil. Meanwhile, heat ¼ cup olive oil over medium heat in large pot (terra cotta, if possible). Add garlic, parsley, and red pepper; saute 1 minute. Add reserved clam juice mixture and the boiling stock. Add salt to taste. When boiling, add fregula, saffron, and tomatoes; cook 10 minutes on medium heat, stirring frequently. (Add more stock if necessary.)
  3. Remove from heat and stir in lemon zest. Divide clams among bowls. Fill with soup and drizzle with remaining olive oil.

 


Caule Assofocatu

(Cauliflower with Olives)

By Efisio Farris, chef/restaurateur, Arcodoro restaurants, Dallas and Houston, Texas

Yield: 4 servings

Cauliflower                                                                   2 lbs

Garlic cloves, cracked                                                 2

Extra virgin olive oil                                                   ⅓ cup

Flat leaf parsley, finely chopped                             1 bunch

Sea salt                                                                             1 tsp

Bosana (or other fresh variety) olives                        1 cup

  1. Trim cauliflower and cut into florets. Rinse well.
  2. Place cauliflower in large pan with garlic. Drizzle with oil and parsley. Add salt and 1½ cups water. Cover and cook over medium heat 20 minutes.
  3. Stir in olives and cook 10 minutes longer to combine flavors. 
Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)

Recommended Reading

No related items were found.