The island of Sardinia, a semi-autonomous region of Italy, boasts two distinct food and wine cultures. On the coast, dotted with small fishing villages, fresh seafood rules. It is pulled from the surrounding waters, simply grilled or sautéed, and washed down with soft, high-alcohol white wine. In the rugged, mountainous inland, the fare is suckling pig, lamb, kid, or game, roasted in a stone pit, and accompanied by coarse bread, grilled sheep cheese, and mugs of soft, high-alcohol red wine.
At least, that's how it used to be, up until around WWII. Since then, fancy tourist hotels have displaced the fishing villages, industrial fishing fleets have depleted the Mediterranean of fish, vineyards producing modern wines have displaced many of the flocks, and today's Sardinians are less likely to work with fishing nets or sheepdogs than with laptops and cell phones. But, like all Italians, they still stick close to tradition at the table.
La Ciccia, recently opened in the former Verona Pizza at the foot of Church Street in Noe Valley, is the first restaurant in the area to specialize in the region, and owner-chef-sommelier Massimiliano Conti is on a mission to acquaint San Franciscans with all his homeland's culinary delights. To that end he imports special spices and other ingredients, and has a remarkable selection of Sardinian wines, including some very hard-to-find bottles and older vintages.
The L-shaped dining room's gotten a thorough makeover, and has a clean, spare look, with unadorned walls, modern fixtures, and plenty of light. The space is small, and tables are closely packed, but conversation's not the problem it can be at many places — maybe due to a lack of cocktails and a slightly older crowd. The coolness of the space is offset by the warmth of the serving staff, and particularly by the hostess, Conti's spouse Lorella Degan. The place somehow manages to be simultaneously familial, relaxed, and sophisticated — a very Italian trick.
The menu is quite short: including daily specials, four or five each of appetizers, primi (pasta or soup), pizzas, secondi (fish or meat), and desserts. A hungry party of four could easily taste everything except the pizzas on a single visit. Dish names are all in Sardo dialect, which looks like Italian except with a lot more d's and u's (for example, instead of calamari, it's calamaredusu), but they're all explained in English
The first appetizer to arrive set a high standard: tiny squid sauteed until just tender, served in an earthy, inky broth flavored with mint and white wine. The dish brought out the fruitiness in the slightly tart Argiolas “Costamolino” vermentino, one of the best inexpensive examples of this indigenous white. This wine's such a classic to pair with seafood that one of the most popular brands has a picture of a rock lobster on the label.
Equally good was a selection of house-made charcuterie: three kinds of gamey salami, flavored with hot pepper, black peppercorns, or fennel, and curls of firm-textured, delicately spiced pancetta (cured, unsmoked pork belly). Uncooked bacon? Yes, it sounds weird, but with the house-made carta di musica crackers and sips of Sella & Mosca cannonau (grenache), it was the best thing on the table. A vegetarian antipasto plate's individual ingredients — slightly grainy mozzarella, green-tasting zucchini, and roasted peppers drizzled with olive oil — seemed off when tasted separately, but eaten together they overcame their individual faults and achieved a lovely balance.
The kitchen excels at seafood pastas. Tagliolini with artichokes and bottarga is a brilliant combination: thin-sliced artichokes braised in oil then topped with salty bottarga (salted grey mullet roe). Most bottarga looks like wood shavings, but the Sardinian version crumbles, ending up like flying fish roe, only smaller. This is a must-try dish while artichoke season lasts. Fregola (large toasted couscous) with clams and a soupy tomato sauce had just a restrained hint of saffron. Spaghetti alla chitarra (long, square noodles made by pressing sheets of fresh pasta through a set of narrowly spaced wires with a rolling pin) with a sauce of mixed seafood had a great, toothy texture. The spaghetti went especially well with the “Is Argiolas” vermentino, a pricier bottle worth ordering to see just how good the wine made from that grape can be. All three pastas were so good we sopped up every drop of sauce with crusty house-made bread.
White zucchini soup with mussels sounded like a seafood dish, but instead was dominated by the pure, simple flavor of the squash, its vegetal quality maximized by lots of good olive oil. The mussels weren't central but provided a nice contrast.
Lamb stew with saffron, potatoes, and peas was the standout among the entrees: braised until falling off the bone, with a hint of saffron, the meat was so tasty we sucked every last speck off the ribs. This dish was a heavenly match for the cannonau. Hanger steak with cannonau sauce turned out to be served alla tagliata, sliced and layered on a bed of arugula. The beef was tasty, but the side of wilted cabbage was amazing, thanks to a sprinkling of special Sardinian fennel seed. Some Californians might think the braised tuna was overcooked, but the firm flesh went nicely with the assertive, minty tomato sauce. If I'd been a normal customer instead of a reviewer, I might never have gotten around to trying any of the other entrees.
The kitchen also turns out a few pizzas. The pizza Sarda with mozzarella, sheep cheese, capers, and oregano was nice, but not really on the level of the best of the other, more sophisticated dishes. Perhaps the space came with Verona's old oven and Conti feels obligated to use it out of a sense of thrift.
Desserts were reminiscent of Sicily. A crumbly ricotta cake was mostly cheese, flavored with candied fruit, and served with saffron honey. Farro cooked in milk had the texture of very dense rice pudding, and got most of its sweetness from reduced saba (grape must). Both were overshadowed by the lagniappe: glasses of Anghelu Ruju, a complex, many-layered dessert wine, and reminiscent of vintage port. Unfortunately, on a subsequent visit the wine wasn't on the list.
Conti used to work for Winebow, one of the biggest Italian wine importers, which helps explain the breadth (more than 120 bottles from $27 to over $300) and depth (vintages from 1992 to 2005) of the all-Italian list. Half a dozen of the whites and a dozen of the reds are Sardinian, and all that I tried of those were delicious and interesting. Nuragus was a soft, fruity white, similar to a Sicilian falanghina, that would be great as an aperitif, and Santadi cannonau was Bordeaux-like with aromas of dry straw. Neither of these matched as well with the food as the other wines. One glitch: A bottle of Argiolas Korem, a proprietary red made from a blend of bovale sardo, carignagno, and cannonau, something like a good Chateauneuf-du-Pape, was so warm that I asked the waiter to ice it for a couple of minutes. When he brought it back, it was clear he'd misunderstood what I wanted and just put it in the refrigerator, so it was still warm.
Except for that minor imperfection, the time I spent at La Ciccia was pure pleasure. Go there with a hearty appetite, get yourself a seafood pasta and some vermentino, then the lamb stew and cannonau, and let La Ciccia transport you to Sardinia for a couple of hours.