Island in the sun

Pub date June 7, 2006


Of the great Mediterranean islands, Sardinia is probably the least well known. Crete has its Minoan past and the mythic connection to Atlantis, Sicily its mafiosi; Corsica was the birthplace of Napoleon but Sardinia is best known for lending its name, after a fashion, to a small member of the herring family, the sardine, which is abundant in the island’s waters and usually ends up being salted, boiled in oil, and packed in tins for export.

The sardine does not, interestingly, loom large on the menu of la Ciccia, a restaurant serving Sardinian cuisine that Massimiliano Conti and Lorella Degan opened toward the end of March in a storefront space at the foot of Church Street. The place isn’t hard to find: Picture a southbound J-Church train not making the sharp left onto 30th Street but instead flying off the tracks straight into a building as if in some Keanu Reeves movie, perhaps Speed X? and the building would be la Ciccia’s. If that is too dramatic, look for the sign, with its handsome orange lettering.

The address was the longtime home of Verona Restaurant and Pizza, a homey neighborhood spot serving Italian and Greek dishes and, of course, pizza. Verona’s dimness has vanished, and the smallish dining room has been discreetly swabbed with modernity the walls are an elegant pale green now, and there is a new sense of airiness but a certain charming rusticity persists. The menu card is written in Sardinian, a Romance language closely related to Italian but plainly distinguishable from it, and the kitchen continues to turn out pizzas some of the better pizzas you’ll find around town, in fact.

If you see the pizza as a splittable or sharable course among courses, rather than a meal unto itself, you will have begun to discover one of the central charms of la Ciccia. Those who want the standard American meal of starter, main course, and dessert will find what they are looking for, but those who seek to replicate one of those lovely European intervals of deliberate grazing, of a series of courses shared without hurry, will find la Ciccia’s variety of offerings, from pizza and pasta to "antipastusu e is inzalaras," rich enough to satisfy them too.

The pizzas are thin of crust and made to order, and the only bad thing I can say about them is that sometimes the points are droopy. But this could have been at least partly our fault, since the pies were presented to us unsliced (in accordance with Sardinian practice), and, in a pleasurable echo of certain kindergarten projects, we cut them up ourselves, with steak knives. The Sarda pie ($10) featured, in addition to a delicate smear of tomato sauce and several blobs of melted mozzarella, a Grecian punch of oregano and capers, while the margherita ($10), that trusty old friend, was fitted out with basil chiffonade.

Mozzarella recurs in a deconstructed salad ($8) of julienne roasted red bell pepper (like a heap of tiny, glistening snakes) and tongues of zucchini, the plate drizzled with balsamic vinegar. So far, so good for vegetarians, who will want to avert their eyes when the plate of salume ($9) appears: Here we have, in addition to crackerlike Sardinian flatbread (curled as if from the heat of the oven), slices of testa, lardo, and two kinds of salume. I liked it all, though the creamy white lardo seemed to be pure pork fat.

Seafood tends to be a natural principal of island cuisines, and while the preeminence of animal husbandry on Sardinia is reflected in the meatiness of la Ciccia’s cooking (and in the name itself, which means "belly" in Sardinian), the restaurant does have its treats from the sea. Prominent among these is octopus ($10) braised in olive oil with chili peppers, basil, and mint and presented with quartered oven-roasted tomatoes. The oily sauce is dark, exotic, and luxurious, while the octopus itself has something of the character, firm and slightly salty, of preserved fish.

As for meat: You’ll catch a nice whiff of fennel from the pork sausage that enriches a lively saffron-tomato sauce for gnocchetti ($13), a pasta variety that resembles half-split soybean pods. True carnivores might want something like the lamb stew ($17), a hearty but rather somber bowl of tender meat cubes, potatoes, and peas in a sunless brown sauce purported to contain saffron. It is good but not especially interesting, just as the lasagnette ($10), a kind of loose-leaf layering of semolina ribbons and shredded cabbage under a cap of melted pecorino cheese, is interesting but not especially good a kind of sauerkraut pasta, tangy-salty with an odd glimmer of sweetness.

A word on the wine list, which, being replete with Sardinian bottlings both white and red, is probably one of the more striking ones in town at the moment: Because Sardinia is a world unto itself in many ways, its viticulture, like its food, is diverse. Its most famous wine is produced from a white grape, vermentino, whose best examples grow in dry, windswept conditions in the northeast part of the island. Argiolas’s Costamolino bottling ($26) is a little rich by this standard, with plenty of tropical fruit, but quite seductively drinkable. A crisper white, for my taste, is the little-known nuragus de Cagliari (another Argiolas, $8 a glass), a seafood-friendly wine produced in the southern part of the island, around the provincial capital, Cagliari. There are even excellent reds, among them monica de Sardegna (yet another Argiolas product, $7 a glass), a svelte but tight wine, like a good pinot noir and definitely a cut above pizza wine, though good with good pizzas. SFBG

La Ciccia

Nightly, 5:30–10 p.m.

291 30th St., SF

(415) 550-8114

Beer and wine



Wheelchair accessible