I wish my local Italian joint was Acqua e Sale, the cosy neighbourhood Italian restaurant that opened in North Perth last month. I wish my local Italian joint did a house-baked bread basket like Acqua e Sale: an Instagram-ready beauty feathered with elegant sails of pane carasau flatbread and thick slices of chewy, Italian-style pane di casa. I wish my local Italian joint did crisp, lightweight pizzas like the ones lifted from the woodfired Acqua e Sale oven. But most of all, I wish my local Italian joint did a gnocchetti Sardi alla Campidanese like Acqua e Sale does.
Confession time: when I ordered this dish, I didn’t know what was coming, other than the pasta was probably going to be small and gnocchi-ish, and that its origins could be traced back to the Italian island of Sardinia. But what would these junior gnocchi be made of? Potato? Ricotta? Maybe some unexpected riff on pâte à choux in the manner of gnocchi parisienne? Ba-bow. Turns out gnocchetti Sardi – at least the way Acqua e Sale chef Fabio Concas makes it – contains three simple ingredients: semolina flour (the coarser cousin to wheat flour), water and salt. You mix it, rest the dough, roll it out, cut your little gnocchetti Sardi (also known as malloredus), then press each shape onto a gnocchi board to create the tiny ridged grooves that help the pasta latch onto sauce. According to Concas, it takes half an hour to produce one portion of gnocchetti Sardi. It’s time well-spent.
The pasta’s other major a-ha moment? Its texture. Whereas most gnocchi seems to be prized for being pillowy and cloud-like, gnocchetti Sardi is all about bite and pleasant chew. In this era of soufflé pancakes and buttery sous-vide meat boiled in a bag for 900 hours at 37 degrees, using your teeth to eat might seem quaint, but for diners who prize texture as much as taste, there’s plenty to like here. The pasta plays wickedly with its sauce – a saffron-spiked tomato sugo studded with fresh sausage made by a local butcher – while grated Su Sardu pecorino, a hard sheep’s milk cheese that also hails from Sardinia, is a strong and geographically fitting finishing move.
The dish originated in Campidano, a city in Sardinia’s south, and it’s an elegant riposte to the idea that Sardinian food is all about seafood. Traditionally, most Sardinians were shepherds and farmers who lived inland rather than on the coast, hence the prevalence of sheep, goat and pork in the Sardinian food canon. (Having said that, Concas and his crew do seafood dishes well, not least because they’re very generous with their deployment of bottarga, Italy’s deeply savoury cured mullet roe – another ingredient synonymous with Sardinia.) Although Middle Eastern in origin, saffron is grown in Sardinia and is believed to have been brought to the island by the Phoenicians thousands of years ago – a cool nod to the island’s cosmopolitan history and its location between Europe and the Middle East.
Fellow Italian food geeks will be thrilled to hear that Concas is slowly introducing more Sardinian dishes to the menu. Last time we spoke, he flagged seadas (honey and cheese pastries) and culungiones (braided ravioli stuffed with potatoes) as two regional specialties that would be making their debut shortly. Like I said, I wish Acqua e Sale was my local Italian joint – but I’m grateful that it’s in my city (along with many other excellent Italian restaurants), offering culinary escapism for Perth diners longing to taste the diverse flavours of Italy right now.