Interview with Franco Oghittu, Chef and Co-owner of La Barrique Food and Wine in Cagliari, Sardinia.
I recently had a chance to spend some time with Francesco (Franco) Oghittu, chef and along with his wife Michela, owner of La Barrique Food and Wine, a restaurant and wine bar in Cagliari, Sardinia that specializes in traditional and innovative Sardinian cuisine. Their restaurant has received favorable reviews in Gambero Rosso’s 2009 Viaggiare Bene and the 2009 guide 365 Migliori Ristoranti Italiani. Franco also knows something about wines, having been certified by the Associazione Italiana Sommelier (AIS) as an official taster and sommelier.
So, tell me about your restaurant – where it’s located, how large, etc.
Franco: Our restaurant is in the centro storico (“downtown historic”) area of Cagliari, the regional capital of Sardinia. We opened in March 2001 and it is centered on wine. Called La Barrique, it is named after the small barrels used in ageing the best wines. While we like to serve Sardinian wines with our food, we also have a large variety of wines from mainland Italy.
We serve both “traditional” ethnic Sardinian dishes as well as some “modern” seafood and fish dishes. It is a mix of old and new flavors.
We have just expanded the restaurant and opened a new dining area and can now accommodate 80 people.
I’m curious about your characterization of seafood and fish dishes as “modern.” What do you mean by this?
Franco: Though one might expect a Mediterranean island to rely heavily on fish and other seafood, there are not so many what I would call “traditional” fish dishes in Cagliari.
In the old days, because of the threat of invasions and diseases such as malaria, for safety reasons Sardinians did not live on the coast but lived in the mountainous interior region. So life in traditional Sardinia was not centered on seaside activities and traditional Sardinian cuisine did not rely on seafood or fish dishes. Rather, meat dishes are the traditional cuisine of Sardinia, especially roasted meats such as suckling pigs and game. These meat dishes are typically accompanied by cheese and bread and hearty red wines.
As the threats of invasions and disease subsided, people began moving to the coastal areas and restaurants followed. More recently, because of our warm weather and beautiful beaches Sardinia has also become an international tourist destination. With fresh seafood and fish abundantly available all year round, the restaurants have responded and have made a fine art of cooking seafood dishes.
Your wife Michela also works in the restaurant. How do you divide responsibilities?
Franco: I’m the cook and am responsible for everything that goes on in the kitchen while Michela is the maitre d’ and greets guests and manages the dining room. We each have our own areas of influence and we only fight when we step into each other’s area of operation.
Michela: we’re used to working together because we’ve known each other a long time. We met in high school and used to sit next to each other and work together in class. But it sometimes is a delicate balancing act because everybody knows that cooks have bad tempers (laughter).
Did you receive your culinary training in a school, or at work in a restaurant
?Franco: In college I studied engineering and Michela studied physics. I learned how to cook primarily through working in our family restaurant located just outside of Cagliari. I opened my own restaurant right after graduating from college when I was 22 years old. While I did attend culinary courses in the Cagliari area, these were not formal degree-granting food programs.
Now, I’m a teacher in a highly regarded food and restaurant management program, teaching regional Italian and Sardinian cuisine at the Instituto Antonio Gramsci.
What is your favorite regional dish?
Franco: My favorite Sardinian dish is Panada. It is a rustic puff pastry filled with tiny slices of stewed lamb or eel, sun-dried tomatoes and other vegetables and seasoned with local herbs such as rosemary and oregano. It is a typical Sardinian dish that is especially popular in the area around Cagliari. It is molto simplici.
What wine goes best with that dish?
Franco: I recommend a young, food-friendly, medium-bodied red wine with good structure such as Santadi’s Grotta Rossa Carignano del Sulcis.
What is your favorite wine?
Franco: That’s easy. My favorite wine is, not surprisingly, a Sardinian red called Terre Brune, also from the Santadi cooperative and a consistent recipient of Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri (“Three Glasses”) award. Another wine I also like is Turriga Red IGT by Argiolas, a pure Sardinian red that is a blend of Cannonau and other local varieties.
Is this trip to Washington, DC primarily for business or pleasure?
Franco: Both – we are visiting and also checking out business opportunities. It is our first visit to Washington, D.C. and we have spent several days visiting museums and other sites. We also have had some really good dining experiences here. We also plan on visiting some places outside of D.C. in the Virginia and Maryland countryside.
But we have also spent some time visiting and talking with restaurant owners and other individuals regarding business opportunities in the Washington, D.C. area. Our goal is to open a restaurant here similar to our restaurant in Cagliari. I have to say that we are really impressed with the business opportunities here.
What have you liked most about the Washington, DC area?
Michela: We both love the museums here – especially the Natural History and American Indian museums. We were especially interested in the food served at the American Indian museum. Does that sound Italian?
Franco: You can understand a place better when you can see what they eat!
In Italy we have set ways of doing things, certain rituals – especially involving food. In the U.S., it is much more informal. Everything looks easy here.
You restaurant is listed in the most current issue of Viaggiare Bene, Gambero Rosso’s restaurant and hotel guide for Slow Food. That’s quite an accomplishment. Were you surprised?
Franco: It is a very big accomplishment but we both thought we had a good product and were confident that it was just a matter of time before we were discovered. I only use local, preferably organic, ingredients in my cooking. So it just made me more confident that the issue was not “if” but “when” we would make the listing.
But selection was pretty tough. It involved several unannounced visits by secret reviewers. The reviewers did not introduce themselves and we don’t know when they actually visited our restaurant. But after the second visit they called to compliment us and tell us that our restaurant would be included in the next (2009) issue of Viaggiare Bene. We celebrated that day with a bottle of Prosecco!
If going to Sardinia, their address is:
La Barrique Food and Wine
Via San Lucifero, 17 – 09125 Cagliari
They also offer wine tasting and traditional and innovative cooking classes in Cagliari for foreigners. To obtain more information on their wine tasting and cooking classes, email Franco at firstname.lastname@example.org
June 18, 2009