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Haunting Sardinia's out-of-the-way eateries

Perhaps the place that gave the sardine its name should feel inferior. But unlike its cramped, canned namesake, Sardinia sprawls - its vast terrain rich with natural beauty, ancient ruins, and surprisingly cosmopolitan cities.

On the map, the island of Sardinia is a giant eye winking from "the middle of the earth," as the word Mediterranean translates. A car - as my wife and I discovered upon arriving in the capital city of Cagliari - makes exploring Sardinia infinitely easier.

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It is impossible to sample Sardinia's indigenous cuisine without exploring some of the less populous villages in the farm country of the Barbagia region.

In addition to a wide selection of fish, Sardinia specializes in roasted meats, two kinds of bread, and a fresh sheep's-milk cheese that rivals its better-known cousin, Parmigiano Reggiano.

In Oristano, a growing city on the west coast of Sardinia, one can visit ancient Phoenician ruins, countless miles of salt marshes, and open markets. But the best discoveries await in the back streets, where small restaurants still serve the traditional food that defines the region.

As in other parts of Italy, Oristano lunch patrons usually order three courses and stay for about two hours, sometimes whiling away an entire afternoon siesta.

One restaurant included the Oristano specialties: horse, donkey, goat, lamb, piglet, and wild boar. I ordered the "mixed grill" - a medley of all of the above, except horse. The donkey - I admit - was tender, rich, and distinct from other viands prepared the same way.

Most meat in Oristano is roasted or grilled, although some thin cuts are fried. Wild boar, young lamb, and piglet are spit-roasted, often over wood fires in pits lined with fresh herb branches. "It's because of the herbs they eat," explained one chef, "that their meat tastes so much better."

In Aritzo, a town located in the mountainous center of the island, a serene community prepared for its annual chestnut harvest festival. At the end of the main road through town is a hotel run by three generations of women - Manca Maria Rosa, her daughter Merny-Fatima Rosa, and granddaughter Jali-Monat - each of whom contributes to the culinary duties as well as the upkeep of the hotel.

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Mrs. Rosa tries to persuade her dinner guests to stay in the hotel overnight, her disapproval apparent if you politely refuse.

Table side, she serves hot minestrone made in the Sardi fashion, with small pasta balls, chick peas, and vegetables, scooping the hearty broth from the pan in which she cooked it. The local specialty first course, handmade ravioli filled with potatoes and fresh local ricotta, could not taste more heart-warming.

For the signature seafood dishes of Sardinia, the best bets are the upscale restaurants in and around Cagliari. Most notable is Hibiscus, a fine restaurant located in Quarta Sant'Elena.

Somewhat daunted by the scope of an all-Italian menu prepared by a formally trained Sardinian chef named Nino Figu, we allowed our waiter to bring us a degustation (fixed menu) at the chef's whim. With the help of another chef, Nicola, who had come along to translate and explicate, we partook of tiny clams called arselles, (see recipe) a dense mullet roe called bottarga, octopus, squid, fried sea urchin, fleshy orange mussels, and a whitefish known as orata, all presented with an aesthetic eye uncommon in restaurants in Sardinia.

A traditional couscous-like pasta called fregula, which is rolled by hand in a stone bowl, made an appearance in a broth with arselles, and a "stock fish," not unlike halibut in flavor and texture, came bathed in a deliciously light sauce with pureed.0 shrimp and tomatoes.

Unafraid of bold flavor and fat content, Sardinian cuisine may seem overwhelming, especially when presented in multiple courses, but its uniqueness makes it a necessary stop on the tour of any gourmand in Italy.

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