The first thing to know about traveling to Sardinia is that one trip is not going to cut it. Visitors tend to underestimate how much there is to take in on this 9,300-square-mile island just west of the Italian peninsula. It’s a sweeping, rugged land of wild prickly pears and myrtle bushes set against brilliant blue backdrops, rough roads with even rougher signage, and people as welcoming as the Mediterranean. And then there’s the food. Distinct from Italian cooking, the Sardinian culinary canon is vast, with regional styles that vary by landscape. In the mountains and inland areas, meals revolve around meat and cheese; along the coasts and on the smaller peripheral islands, it’s all about seafood — oceanic delicacies like mullet bottarga in Cabras or tuna ventresca in Carloforte.
In short, incredible eating is everywhere here. What you won’t find much of, however, are English-language menus (that’s a good thing). Here, then, we’ve compiled a list of Sardinia’s staple dishes, which should help guide you through the basics. As far as tasting them all during your doubtlessly far-too-short visit? For that, you’re on your own.
Perfect for breakfast, though entirely acceptable any time of day, these small pies are filled with a mix of ricotta, saffron, and lemon, bound by a thin collar of crisp puff pastry. Originally an Easter dessert, they’re now found year-round at almost any local bakery. Keep an eye out for an equally tasty variation called casadinas, made with young pecorino sardo instead of ricotta. Where to get it: Biscottificio Collu, San Sperate (also available at local grocery stores).
Fregula is a unique variety of Sardinian pasta that’s similar to couscous and traditionally made by hand using a sort of sieve, called a scivedda, which divides the dough into small pellets. The preparation is similar to risotto, and you’ll most often find it heaped with small flavorful Sardinian clams and a little (or large) sprinkle of bottarga to finish. Pair it with a glass of nuragus or vermentino. Where to get it: Sa Cardiga e Su Schironi
Sardinia has a long tradition of cooking snails, especially in the North area around the third-largest city of Sassari, where the cuisine is inspired by the countryside. Here you’ll find snails prepared a number of different ways, most commonly simmered with a spicy tomato sauce or sauteed with oil, garlic, parsley, and breadcrumbs. Where to get it: Le Due Lanterne, Sassari
Suppa Cuata (Gallurese soup)
Stale bread is the key ingredient for this local dish, which, despite the name, looks a lot more like lasagna than soup. Slices of stale bread are layered with lamb broth and fresh cow’s milk cheese called casizolu, then finished with grated pecorino. Where to get it: Il Purgatorio, Tempio.
Roasted suckling pig (Porcetto arrosto)
Sardinian cuisine features many dishes that hinge on the island’s pastoral tradition. Shepherds would roast a small suckling pig in an earthen pit piled with wild-growing aromatics like myrtle and rosemary, but these days, it is more popular to prepare the pig spit-roasted for about seven hours to soften the meat and crisp the skin. Once roasted, it is covered with myrtle leaves and served slightly warm or at room temperature. Where to get it: Su Gologone, Oliena.
Malloreddus alla campidanese
With roots in the south and central parts of the island, this petite pasta made with durum wheat semolina flour, water, salt, and a pinch of saffron is sometimes called Sardinian gnocchi because of its shape (I think they look more like cavatelli, though). Malloreddus usually comes tossed in a slow-cooked ragu of pork sausages, tomatoes, and a heap of grated pecorino sardo. Where to get it: Ristorante Italia, Cagliari.
Seadas (or sebadas)
When is time for dessert, order this giant, deep-fried semolina dumpling filled with fresh sour pecorino cheese and lemon zest, traditionally served with bitter miele amaro (also known as corbezzolo, or arbutus’ honey). Where to get it: Pastificio Vito Arra, Lanusei
The Catalan influence on Sardinia (particularly the Northwestern area of Alghero) can be seen in the popularity of lobster stew, which is also a classic in that region of Spain. They keep it simple here: Female lobsters, complete with their red roe, are quickly steamed and then served with a sauce of tomato and onions and a quick emulsion of olive oil, lemon, and black pepper. Where to get it: La Lepanto, Alghero
The traditional ultrathin, crispy bread is a specialty of the island’s mountainous area. It’s made (traditionally by women) with hard wheat bran, water, salt, and yeast and gets double-baked at super-high temperatures (840 or 900 degrees Fahrenheit). During the first stage of the preparation, the bread puffs up like a balloon and is cut into multiple delicate disks; then, it’s baked again. Pane Guttiau is a version seasoned with local olive oil and salt. Where to get it: Panificio Soru in Ovodda, Azienda Galanu in Orgosolo, or Tundu Carasau in Oliena.
Pecora in cappotto
This mutton stew, made with rich broth, wild herbs, and potatoes, is the quintessential dish of the Sardinian islands. The name, which translates to “sheep in a coat,” is a reference to a pastoral tradition of leaving the oldest sheep in the herd unshorn during annual sheep-shearing feast. Today, mutton is being reclaimed by Sardinian chefs as a delicacy, and you’ll find it in modern takes on tartare, ragu, and even sheep’s milk ricotta panna cotta. Where to get it: S’Hostera Nugoresa, Nuoro.
These big, fatty ravioli — filled with potatoes, pecorino, and mint — are normally served either in rosso, with a simple red sauce, or with butter and Parmigiano. Each pocket is handmade to look like an art piece. They traditionally hail from the Ogliastra area, but there are many slightly different variations, like the version from the village of Villagrande that uses basil instead of mint. Where to get it: Ovile Bertarelli, Baunei.
Bottarga is a delicacy throughout the Mediterranean, and Sardinia is no different. Made of dried mullet fish roe, it’s grated over anything from pasta (spaghetti with grated bottarga on top is ubiquitous island-wide) to asparagus to raw artichokes, or served it on its own, sliced into big fat chunks and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. Where to get it: Ristorante Sa Barracca, Quartu Sant’Elena, or Zia Belledda, Oristano.
Cordula (lamb offal)
Quinto quarto translates to “the fifth quarter,” and refers to all the off cuts and offal meats that were traditionally prized throughout Sardinia. These days, many of these classic recipes have been slowly disappearing. One that’s definitely worth saving? Cordula, or spit-roasted lamb intestines. The meat is slow-cooked for hours to soften the middles and crisp the exterior, and eating with your hands is encouraged. You’ll also find intestines simply sauteed with fresh peas, or in a dish called trattalia, made with heart, lungs, and liver that are spit-roasted and served with sliced bread. Where to get it: Il Rifugio, Nuoro
The main ingredient in Burrida is gattuccio, a small variety of catfish that was historically considered a low-cost scrap fish. In this humble peasant dish, the fish is marinated in a vinegar-based sauce and then slowly cooked with finely chopped walnuts and the liver of the fish. You’ll mostly find it served as an appetizer in the Sardinian capital city of Cagliari. Barceloneta or Lo Scoglio, Cagliari.
Viviana Devoto is a San Francisco based writer and journalist. Originally from Sardinia, she reports about food and restaurants trends for American and Italian publications.