First you drive south along the east coast, past Sarroch and Pula and all the way to Chia, the most beautiful beach in the region. Follow the highway through the smaller town of Tuerredda. Just after the Tuerredda beach parking lot, turn right onto a dirt road with a handwritten sign: stella caduta, or "fallen star." Drive another mile down the dirt road, leaning into each bump and dip as you watch the loose dirt cloud around the tires of your rental car.
When the road ends and widens into a clearing dotted with a handful of sparse, irregular trees and tall but splotchy grass, you will park your car. As you step out, dogs will run up to greet you, curious but not skeptical, bouncing and pushing their paws against your lap to see you more clearly. It may be just one dog that approaches you or as many as four.
The dogs are sweet and friendly, but the sight of them is nothing compared to the horse that reigns over the house and paces in the field alongside it, sticking out his neck over the porch to watch you where you sit. And the horse, naturally, is nothing compared to the man himself – the lord of this particular manor, rich and simple, lush and stark in all of the ways you have come to love about Sardinia – the chef-cum-fisherman with one missing thumb, Piero Marini.
Like most of the best memories we made in Sardinia, we found Piero through Jon, the American expat helping me with an article I was reporting and writing. "You could go cook with Piero," he said in passing one day, adding that Piero was a pescatore.
"He has a restaurant?" I asked.
"Oh, no," he said with a wave of his hand. "It's just his house, but he gives cooking classes sometimes."
"So he's a chef."
With the promise of the freshest seafood caught just miles away in the Tyrrhenian Sea and a hands-on cooking lesson with a native Sardinian who speaks no English – whose only official qualification was apparently his Sardinian-ness – we asked Jon to book us a date with Piero.
I would love to tell you that we understood the directions perfectly and pulled up to Piero's house on our own, but the truth is, he had to come for us. He met us in his little red car on the street by the fallen star sign, and we followed him into his yard, his house, then his industrial-sized kitchen where he cooks for the few families who stay in his four-room agriturismo during the summer.
First, he tossed me an apron. He had prepped all of his ingredients in stainless-steel bowls, and I looked down at a preview of our first course. There was a single bowl with sprigs of parsley, a few julienned carrots, and garlic cloves; a bag of bread crumbs; and a bowl of mussels longer than my middle finger.
He glugged olive oil into a wide, hot pan, which was shaped like a wok. We tried to communicate "wok" in Italian but basically failed. Piero nodded politely.
He threw the bowl with the vegetables into the pot, gave them a quick stir, and added the mussels. He didn't cover the pot immediately, just let the shells saute in the sizzling oil. He took out a plastic bottle from his refrigerator, a extra-large, grocery store-style water bottle that he had refilled with bulk white wine. He poured the wine into the pot with a handful of breadcrumbs and covered it.
"Sale?" I asked. Salt?
He shook his head vigorously. "No sale." He said a bunch of words in Italian and pointed to the mussels and I understood that they had all the salt we needed.
He cooked the mussels for maybe five minutes all in all, alternating the pot lid on and off, the flame burning hotter and higher than I would have let it. Eventually he removed the lid for the last time and tossed in more breadcrumbs, then dumped the entire contents of the pan onto a platter. Et voilà, or whatever they say in Italian.
My first impression was that the broth was salty, which I couldn't explain except for a better understanding of the mussels themselves, which were plump and orange and tasted of the water we'd swum in the day before. My second impression – thinking slow, if you will – was that these were the best mussels I'd ever tasted. I thought back to the recipe I loved to make in my San Francisco kitchen, which had chorizo and tomatoes and parsley, and to the ones I'd made in my French culinary classes.
"I've only made mussels the French way," I told Piero, but really just looked at John, expecting him to translate. He did.
"Ah! Panna?" Piero wrinkled his nose in disgust. Cream? He said more words in Italian, which John translated for me but I understood implicitly: "Food should be simple."
For our next course Piero sauteed thick slices of fresh tuna with two raw tomatoes and plenty of olive oil, then tossed the "sauce" in cooked pasta, which we dubbed "rigatoninini" because they looked like miniature rigatoni. Piero had caught the tuna himself; whole, it weighed 50 kilos. Again, this dish called for about five ingredients.
We learned that the horse's name was Helios, like the sun in Greek mythology, and that Piero rarely rode him anymore because he had a bad back. We fed Helios carrots and patted the side of his head and he watched us as we ate.
Next, Piero seared swordfish on a grill pan heated on the stove and dressed it with thinly sliced onions that hd been marinating in olive oil. By this time, the third installment in our seafood adventure, we were stuffed – but I realized we'd never eaten a better or healthier meal in the past two months.
"Is there something special about this olive oil?" John asked Piero in Italian. We had noticed how flavorful it was, peppery and bright and fresh.
Piero explained that yes, the oil had been pressed from olives grown on his property. I hadn't even noticed the olive trees spreading their branches in the yard.
For dessert, Piero cut us watermelon slices and served them without any accompaniment. He poured tiny cups of mirto, a Sardinian digestif made from the fruit and leaves the myrtle plant, and came to sit and drink with us.
"Do you make the mirto yourself?" John asked.
Piero nodded: Si.
As the sky darkened and the wind picked up speed, I asked Piero why people in Sardinia live longer than people almost everywhere else in the world. He told us that plenty of Cannonau, the native red wine grape, is to thank; it contains many times the antioxidants of other grapes. He poured himself a glass of wine that was not Cannonau, raised it in a toast, and laughed.
He pointed to my iPhone lying next to me. “This is the problem today," he said in Italian. To sit and enjoy your red wine, he explained – to breathe in the air, to touch the earth, to feel time pass – these were his secrets to a long and happy life. And we all know they are not secrets at all.