The simple clam soup called sa fregula at Arcodoro Ristorante Italiano in the Galleria area says a lot about Sardinian cuisine. The Mediterranean-style broth of tender baby clams is flavored with a heady dose of saffron, a spice originally cultivated in ancient Greece, and lusciously thickened with fregola, barley-sized Sardinian pasta pellets that resemble the couscous of nearby Arab North Africa.
An island equidistant from the African nation of Tunisia and the mid-shin area of the Italian boot, Sardinia didn't come under the Italian sphere of influence until the Punic Wars, when Rome defeated Carthage, the empire once centered in present-day Tunisia. Punic Sardinians continued to resist Roman rule for a remarkably long time. In fact, they were so fiercely independent that the Romans built a temple to their warrior god to placate them. The Punic god, whose name was Sid, was renamed Sardus Pater in Latin, and his temple is now one of the island's most famous ruins.
Sid must be whispering in the ear of Arcodoro's owner, Efisio Farris, because the food here resists the Italian label. In fact, the menu represents the fiercely independent cuisine of Sardinia. Houston's Arcodoro and the other Farris family restaurants -- Arcodoro and Pomodoro in Dallas -- are said to be the only authentic Sardinian restaurants in the United States. And judging by the accolades the James Beard Foundation has bestowed upon them, they're certainly the most widely acclaimed.
Sardinian food draws on the island's African, Arabic and Middle Eastern history. The interior of the island contributes wild game, honey, herbs and farm products to the Sardinian larder. But as you might expect on a large island in the Mediterranean, the cuisine is dominated by seafood. Yeah, it's the same seafood found across the way on the coast of Italy, but Sardinian seafood dishes taste different.
The capesante e gamberoni pungenti that I sampled at Arcodoro, for instance, started with jumbo shrimp marinated with the fragrant Sardinian dried fish roe called bottarga. The shrimp shells were removed down to the tail, and then the meat of the shrimp was wrapped in paper-thin sheets of pasta and deep-fried. The first time I bit one, I thought I was eating the shrimp with the shell still on. On closer inspection, I realized it was a thin sheet of dough, then it dawned on me that the crispy pasta wrapper was a deliciously clever allusion to a crunchy shrimp shell.
The dish also contained scallops that had been pan-bronzed in an herb mixture that left them well seasoned and juicy. The seafood decoratively encircled a small pile of the couscouslike fregola, with the tails of the shrimp pointing skyward. Crisp leaves of fried spinach sprouted from the crown of shrimp tails, and the whole thing was dressed with an exotic honey sauce seasoned with orange, ginger, cilantro and spices. The dish was spectacular, and it didn't taste like any Italian food I'd ever eaten.
Fascinated by the fish and seafood dishes I had sampled on my first visit, I returned to Arcodoro to try the stuff the restaurant is famous for. I started out with a grapparita, a cocktail that Arcodoro has trademarked, which is a margarita made with the funky Italian spirit called grappa. Other ingredients include vodka and orange liqueur. The drink is served frozen in a glass with a sugar-coated rim. It's a pleasantly cold and alcoholic slush that's a little too sweet for my taste.
I also tried the world-renowned ravioli Arcodoro, advertised as the winner of an international "Ultimate Ravioli" contest. According to the menu, the ravioli were stuffed with scallops and shrimp and finished with a velvety seafood reduction. What I got were three giant handmade ravioli stuffed with a ground seafood mixture with a delicate flavor and a dry, chalky texture. These were propped up on a piece of pane carasau, the Sardinian flatbread that tastes like a big crisp cracker and has been made on the island for more than 3,000 years. Personally, I found the cracker more interesting than the fishy pasta pillows. No doubt the ravioli that won the competition tasted a little better than these.
My lunchmate ordered a swordfish steak in a lemon-caper sauce. The thin piece of extremely fresh fish, generously sauced with olive oil, lemon juice and salty capers, was the best thing I ate at Arcodoro: incredibly simple, yet absolutely perfect.
The best starter I sampled was a raw fish appetizer called carpaccio di branzino e bottarga di cabras, imported Mediterranean sea bass cured in a saffron marinade and sliced paper-thin. The slices covered a dinner plate garnished with greens, cherry tomatoes and shavings of bottarga, and dressed with olive oil. Wrap a big silky piece of marinated fish around some greens and tomatoes, and pop the whole thing in your mouth for an explosive Mediterranean sushi rush.
The pizza Smeraldina, named for the island's gorgeous Smeralda Coast, was an individual-size pie with Manila clams in their shells and fava beans, all topped with a sprinkling of white onion and garlic slices and a healthy dash of extra-virgin olive oil. First you have to scoop the clams out of the shells, and then you need to fold over the pizza so the fava beans don't roll off. Clams and fava beans are an odd-tasting pizza pairing.
Pasta and seafood is one of my favorite combinations, so I was eager to order Arcodoro's taglierini ai frutti di mare. I don't know what I was expecting, but the dish let me down. While the taglierini was supple and perfectly cooked, and the clams, mussels, shrimp and calamari all seemed fresh, the simple tomato sauce was a bland disappointment.
One outstanding, though non-Sardinian, fish dish I sampled was called rotolini di sogliola -- thin Dover sole fillets rolled around tender artichoke hearts and served on a bed of succulent pureed eggplant. But another non-Sardinian fish dish wasn't quite so successful. Grouper served with a medallion of foie gras on top didn't win any raves from our table. I don't oppose the combination of meat and fish per se; in fact, I was once served a whole flounder topped with beef marrow bones in Burgundy that still ranks high on my fish-dish hit parade. But the duck-liver flavor of the foie gras and the strong taste of the grouper just didn't come together in this presentation.
I still feel as if I barely grazed the surface of Arcodoro's menu. On my next visit, I hope to sample the pesce al sale, a whole Gulf red snapper encased in sea salt and baked in the pizza oven. I'm also eager to try the squid-ink risotto with cuttlefish. And I haven't even started on the veal and lamb dishes.
Arcodoro's disparate dining areas give the restaurant a wide range of atmospheres. There's a large quiet formal dining area with linens on the tables. There's also a semiprivate room with one large table that's popular with big parties. There's a more informal bar area, and then there are two sections of outdoor picnic tables, which are popular when the heat's bearable.
The first time I ate at Arcodoro, we arrived around 8:30 p.m. on a Friday. The bar was quiet, and we weren't really dressed for the formal dining room, so we opted to sit outside. After a lovely dinner, I wandered inside, looking for the restroom. And I was astonished by the transformation the bar had undergone.
The empty seats of an hour before were now filled with knockout babes in little bitty dresses, drinking bellinis. Smooth-looking thirtysomething guys were standing behind them three deep. And the pizza oven was cranking out the pies as fast as the pizza-maker could throw them.
Arcodoro is one of the most popular restaurants in the Galleria neighborhood. Whether you go there looking for authentic Sardinian cuisine, frozen cocktails, late-night singles action or all of the above, odds are you won't be disappointed.
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