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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

S'Apposentu (Cagliari) - Chef Roberto Petza

The day: 5th September 2007, Dinner.
The place: Teatro Lirico (Cagliari, IT)

The venue: Ristorante S’Apposentu
Closest Airport: Cagliari (BA, Easyjet)

The food: Fine Italian/Sardinian Dining The drinks: Extensive and careful list, Italian based, very strong on Sardinian wines, wide range of prices, also by the glass.


This was the Michelin starred culinary destination during our beach-bumming holidays on the splendid Southwestern coast of Sardinia. Alas, all good things must come to an end; and this unfortunately applies to our holidays as well as to this restaurant: S’Apposentu will close in December because of financial disagreements between Chef patron Roberto Petza and his ‘hosts’ at the Teatro Lirico (a very colourful, very Italian story at once sad and farcical, too long to tell here, though…). Nevertheless Chef Petza is not going to disappear, so we think this report will be of interest to those who wish to assay his cuisine in whatever new enterprise he launches. At the time of writing, there is much speculation on whether he will abandon his native Sardinia or not. It would be a pity if he did, as Sardinia does not shine for ‘high’ cuisine as it does with natural beauty (while offering fantastic traditional cuisine - more on this story later...).
Let’s be straight: we are happy that Pezta is moving away from Teatro Lirico. We didn't find it a welcoming venue, situated as it is in an area which felt seedy and mildly threatening, and presenting the customer with a locked door necessitating the use of an interphone to communicate with the restaurant on the first floor. Appropriate maybe for a posh London club, not for a Sardinian restaurant (hospitality is a pleasant feature of this region). We arrive 15 minutes early with respect to our booked time, at 8.15pm, and the voice through the interphone informs us that the restaurant ‘is only operational at 8.30’. We are not offered to sit at the bar, but rather invited to take a walk in the dark in the unpleasant neighbourhood. We worry, as Man has done his military service sitting in an office and his self defence skills are rather poor. A rather strange and unwelcoming start, which brings us very close to calling the visit off.
But we don’t, and things improve once we finally get inside. The large room manages to be both warm-rustic and sharp-modern at the same time. Photos only on request as it is going to disappear anyway...
There is a nice and welcoming front room crew, who ask us whether we prefer a fantastic, large and intimate table in an alcove, or a much smaller ordinary table in the middle of the room. Is it only us who get these questions, or are there really people with twisted preferences?
We are offered a fine Chardonnay Solis. As we discover later, when they say ‘may we offer you…’ here they really mean ‘offer’, unlike the annoying practice in many other establishments, sorry Malga Panna to single you out on this occasion (we really liked your cuisine and so the disappointment was greater).
The bread arrives in its full glory.
Aaah, this is real Sardinian hospitality. Look at how varied, colourful and generous the offering is. A painting. What a triumph: tomato focaccia, plain focaccia, stuffed bread, grissini, plain white, carasau, seeded bread…please remember this picture when you find yourselves at a restaurants in London and are offered a single piece of bread from a tray tightly held by the waiter. The interphone sourness has vanished by now. But there is more, here’s the amuse-bouche:
It’s a Terrina of Muggine (Flathead mullet, we discover on the dictionary) with bottarga (slivers of salt preserved fish-eggs) of swordfish and onions. An explosion from the sea, balanced and intense, a perfect amuse-bouche with a range of flavours, not least the sweet-sour of the onion.
The list offers two six-course tasting menus at €60 each, one of them entirely fish based. To learn the price, Woman has to stretch her neck to Man’s menu, as here too women are not expected to pay, it seems – they get an unnervingly sexist priceless menu. As usual, we go a la carte. For primi we chose:
- Lasagne with fresh sausage sauce, San Gavino saffron and smoked ricotta (€18)
- Fish fillet, mussels and basil fregua.(€20)

On the lasagne, Woman was rather tepid, let’s say the same as the dish temperature…Too rich, the pasta was OK, but overall a rather ordinary ensemble, she opined. Man warmed up more: the herbs lightened up on the palate a satisfyingly rich dish, the pasta was very good, quite fine, and the smoky flavour from the ricotta came out wonderfully as a dominant note. The only agreement between Man and Woman was that the serving temperature should have been higher. We believe the kitchen was under pressure - more on this story later...
The fregua (or fregola, i.e. a traditional Sardinian pasta type, imagine giant cous cous ‘grains’) instead enthused both of us. The fish broth was very dense, concentrated and intense, with dill freshening it all up. The raw materials were top notch, above all we were impressed by the mussels. Note that like all self respecting ‘zuppe’ there was bread as well as fregua in the broth (this is one of the differences between zuppa and minestra – in case you wish to retain this piece of information, remember the Italian saying ‘if it’s not zuppa it’s soaked bread’!).
For secondi we had:
- Porcetto (suckling pig) cooked in three ways with red onions in wine (€25)
- Sea bass with thyme aubergine sauce, mussels and candied cherry tomatoes (€25)

The porcetto was presented very neatly, two ‘fat’ cuts (belly and shoulder) and the chops, the latter breaded in almond shavings and quickly ‘scalded’. The belly had been cooked at 60 degrees in red wine, while the shoulder at 95 degrees with ‘mirto’. We forgot where the ‘green salt’ was…perhaps in the mushrooms - definitely too salty. The reason why we know these details is not that we bring thermometers with us, but that we were so impressed by the marvellous cooking that we sent the marvellous sommelier (yes, it was that busy a night) on an expedition to the kitchen to enquire on the chef’s secrets. Individually, each of these preparations was superb, Man finding the dominant and clear charcoal flavour at the centre of this symphony especially pleasing. The ‘conceptual’ reservation we have is that overall there was no respite, even in the chops, from the richness of the fat (which of course cannot be avoided in a suckling pig) making the dish a little heavy to our taste, for all its accomplishment.
The bass was no less good a dish. The thyme flavoured aubergine was superlative, and this should not belittle the main ingredient, of supreme quality as we had now come to expect. A slight acidity from the tomatoes underlined and complemented the other flavours aptly. We should also mention the wagonload of mussels and the unadvertised crispy pecorino cheese (we think). Altogether, as usual, this dish was rather involved. While Woman munches away quite unmoved by the aesthetics, Man would like to invite you to admire the colour palette of this presentation.
A pre-dessert arrives:

It’s a watermelon sorbet with whitecurrant. Nice and fresh, ideal after those mains.
From the interesting dessert menu we choose:
- San Sperate caramelised peaches with vanilla yoghurt mousse and coffee biscuit
- Cannolo filled with chocolate cream, Guerand salt and chilli pepper, with plums and candied lemon peel

For Man the peaches were a stunner of a dessert, very balanced, beautifully simple, the intense coffee biscuit matching the mousse ideally, and the peaches as good as they come. Does the very demanding Woman agree? She remarks that it’s more a Chantilly than a mousse (to be fair the Italian description said ‘spuma’ i.e. foam), but she agrees that it is veeeery well turned out, and that the coffee biscuit is exceptional: a really fine dessert indeed, with those flavours that remain sculpted in your memory!
Less agreement on the cannolo. Man quite appreciated the satisfying classic match at the core, in a beautifully looking and ambitious dessert conceived to strike and blow over, though balance is not one of its features: a dish to throw yourself in and enjoy the unruly mix of flavours without thinking too much. Woman was rather more taken aback by the violence of the chilli on the throat and not thoroughly impressed by the chocolate. However, overall, she concedes it was a good and interesting dessert.
Despite us having no coffee, the petit four are brought to us, as a full stop to an evening of great generosity.

We just tried the chocolate covered strawberries, and they were very good.
We had a Nieddera Contini 2004 Rosso della Valle del Tirso, recommended by the Sommelier off list at 18 Euros (a really interesting and nice wine which we’d never heard of, amazing value for money). Adding water (0.75 litres) at Euro 4, the total bill came to a round 130 Euro, well inside our £100 even after adding the well-deserved tip.
The service staff was very good, although the service itself was very hit and miss, with the typical alternation between extremely long waits and lack of any wait between dishes, which is the mark of a kitchen slightly off balance. A special mention is deserved by the Sommelier, whose friendliness and devotion to the customer were equal to his competence and professionalism. There was an obvious shortage of staff in the front room, as the Sommelier himself had to double as a waiter, rushing around to pick up empty plates. In spite of the pressure, though, all waiting staff were cheerful throughout.
The cuisine of Chef Petza is built around strong, clear and memorable flavours and expresses a rather ‘aggressive’ imagination. If any of his dishes has a fault, it will always be by excess rather than by defect. Although to our own personal taste some more balance, lightness and restraint would have sometimes been welcome (and we repeat, this is just a subjective preference others may not share), no-one can doubt his technical excellence, commitment to the highest quality in materials, ability to stride creatively tradition and innovation, and deftness of presentation. There is also a sense of great generosity and hospitality. We will remember this dinner as a pleasant and remarkable experience. R.I.P. S’Apposentu, and onward to the next venture!

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