Like so much food preparation here in Southern Italy, this is a technique more than a recipe, a way of thinking about ingredients more than it is about a way of cooking, per se. Depending on how you see the world (and what part of it you see), this could be one of the easiest recipes on this site, or one of the hardest. What’s the variable?
Your ability to source really fresh fish.
And as an oily fish, fresh sardines are so perishable that I’d argue, if you don’t like these, you’ve likely never had them fresh enough.
Start at Step 2, and ask your fishmonger to remove the heads and spines of three or four fresh sardines per person you intend to serve. (Step 1 is to find a fishmonger that you trust, who not only has very fresh fish but will take the time to lovingly clean any fish that you buy from him. More than watch repair. More than a good place to rent entertainment near your home, this is a quality of life issue. Pay attention to it.
In Lecce, I have Mimmino, who treats the fish he sells me as if he were going to eat it himself. (He also cleans sardines 4 or 5 times faster than I can (we’ve timed it), and if were to have been in his shop today with me, I assure you that his hands would have been just as blurry in person).
If you don’t have a trusted fish monger, find out and begin to use him or her. The culinary arts are no different than other arts: if no one supports them, they dry up and the next thing you know your fish is coming shrink wrapped in plastic trays, with a ‘sell by’ date stamped on it by someone else on the other side of the world.
The preparation itself couldn’t be easier. You use an acid to denature the proteins. Or, put another way, you dump an acid on them. I make my own white wine vinegar, which I believe is much stronger than commerical vinegars that are usually diluted down to 5 or 6 percent. But lemon juice works just as well. Or whatever citrus fruit you happen to have laying about. When in doubt, go classic. Your friends will think you know something.
Once the sardines turn from red to white, they’re ready. Drain and rinse and give them a dash of high quality extra virgin oil (I use pure Cellina di Nardò, a very fresh, local oil that doesn’t overpower), some parsley and mint (this last herb is far from a classic but it always garners compliments. In the Salento, you find fresh mint in many dishes, most of them savoury).
Wine suggestions? No, there aren’t any. The acidic nature of the vinegar or lemon juice will sizzle your palate to the point that no wine will really be able to triumph in complimenting it.
Or maybe beer. Or just give up on the idea of a perfect match and enjoy these little babies how grandmother intended them to be: tiny little succulent morsels that speak soberly of the big blue sea.