It’s a (pseudo-)scientifically proven fact that Americans actually like Italian food more than they like American food, and that’s exactly why I don’t usually write about it.
It’s not that I don’t love Italian food. What sort of goofball doesn’t freaking love good Italian food? But tons of journalists, chefs, and bloggers spend their lives writing about Italian food, and I have 167 other countries to worry about (wanna help?). So I rarely say much about Italian food, unless I encounter a variation that’s truly unusual and special.
So yeah: Arco Cafe on the Upper West Side. It looks like a nice, normal Italian restaurant, on a nice, normal corner of Amsterdam Avenue. But hiding inside are some hard-to-find treats from Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy that is woefully underappreciated by American devotees of Italian cuisine.
If you sit down at Arco Cafe, thinking that it’s a standard Italian place, you might expect to start with some nice, crusty Italian bread. Yeah, Arco Cafe has that. It’s fresh and delicious.
But Arco offers something far more interesting: Sardinian pane guttiau, a wafer-thin flatbread, flash-grilled with olive oil, salt, and rosemary. As we started munching, Daniele Fiori, the charming and patient Sardinian who co-owns the restaurant with his sister Francesca, explained that the flatbread was developed in Sardinia because it’s far less likely to spoil in the Sardinian climate than traditional bread, and Sardinian herders were able to transport the pane guttiau across long distances. Plus, it’s awfully tasty, especially if you’re enjoying it with a beautiful charcuterie plate.
For round 2 of our meal, we were blessed by a pair of excellent Sardinian seafood plates. The first was zuppetta di cozze, mussels in a spicy tomato sauce spiked with Vermentino, a Sardinian wine. But I was absolutely obsessed with the moscardini al Cannonau, a bowl of ludicrously tender baby octopus, stewed in a deliciously subtle tomato-and-wine sauce, made from Cannonau, a Sardinian version of Grenache. As one might expect from islanders, Sardinians clearly know a thing or two about preparing seafood. (Mainland Europeans, incidentally, sometimes resort to violence to make octopus tender.)
As one of our main courses, we had a fantastic Parmesan risotto, with braised short ribs. But that’s standard Italian fare: perfectly wonderful, but you’re here for Sardinian food. So you need malorredos: blissfully airy pasta, traditionally made by crushing the dough against a straw basket. These are gnocchi’s much brighter, airier, and more refined cousins, served at Arco with sweet sausage in a spicy tomato sauce. And I hear rumors that Daniele and his team will make malorredos with squid ink when the right ingredients are available – a uniquely Sardinian treat.
Maybe it was just because I’d drank too much of that lovely Sardinian wine that I rarely see in NYC (bottles of Cannonau and Vermentino, as recommended by Daniele), but this was one of those deeply enjoyable three-hour dinners that makes you do really silly things like ask the staff and owner to pose for a picture. Um, yeah… I, um, totally did that.
Fine, I admit it: I’m a goofball, sloshing with Cannonau and Vermentino. Now go eat Sardinian food.
866 Amsterdam Ave. @ 103rd
Subway: 103rd Ave. (1 train)