Welcome to my blog! One of the most difficult aspects of writing my book Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy was choosing which pieces to include. Obviously, there were many, many details of my travels (specific meals, days spent sightseeing, characters I met along the way) that never made it into the book. Well, I’ve decided to share these personal stories with you now.
I’ll begin with my story of how it all began. I was a full-time Pilates instructor, preparing to self-publish my first book, Balance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates. Having been obsessed with Italy for as long as I can remember, I was always looking for an excuse to travel there. So when it occurred to me that the Gymnastik Balls I had been using for the exercises in my book were made in Italy, I immediately contacted the company and set up a meeting with the owner. It just so happened that the company, called Ledragomma, was located in a small town outside Udine, right in the heart of Friuli.
So it was in February 2000 that I made that first trip to Friuli. I flew into Milano Malpensa and took a train the next morning to Udine. The owner of Ledragomma, Steno Dondè, had recommended a hotel on the outskirts of town called Hotel President. It was quite adequate in all aspects except for the fact that it was so far away from the city’s center—and any decent restaurants. But that didn’t matter so much at the time—I was just thrilled because it was the first time I had splurged on a room with its own bathroom!
Steno (or Signor Dondè, as I called him then) picked me up the following morning and drove me to the Ledragomma factory in Osoppo where I watched vats of oily, green liquid transform into large, rubber balls. A giant cage held hundreds of variously colored balls piled high to the ceiling. We had our business meeting, formal and brief, getting by with a mix of both Italian and English. The outcome of the meeting was an arrangement with their U.S. distributor to help subsidize the first printing of my book (it’s now on its third printing) in exchange for displaying their logo on the cover.
Italians seem to have a very personal approach when it comes to doing business, and so after our meeting, Steno invited me to join him for lunch. He drove me to a town called San Daniele, where they make what I now know to be the world-famous prosciutto. We stopped at a small place called Prosciutto Al Paradiso and enjoyed a huge platter of prosciutto, accompanied by bread and olives and glasses of Merlot.
As we talked, Steno discovered that cooking was one of my favorite hobbies and that I was especially interested in Italian food. When I had described the uninspiring meal of spaghetti al ragù at Pizzeria Da Carmine that I had endured the previous evening, he determined to introduce me to true Friulian cuisine. We made plans to meet later that week for dinner. Although I didn’t know it yet, this dinner would turn out to be a turning point in my life.
The restaurant Steno took me to is one of the oldest in Udine, called Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. Occupying a 17th-century building that used to be a horse stable, the osteria has been serving food for at least a hundred years. It was a rainy winter evening, and the osteria was packed with people coming in out of the cold. I let Steno order for me. I began with cialcions (also commonly spelled cjalsòns), a filled pasta from the mountainous area in northern Friuli called Carnia. While there are countless recipes for cjalsons, most are either sweet or a combination of sweet and savory. The version at Al Vecchio Stallo was on the savory side, filled with herbs and providing only a hint of sweetness from the cinnamon and butter. They were topped with ricotta affumicata, a smoked ricotta cheese that is one of Friuli’s specialties.
Next, I had frico con polenta, a fried cheese and potato pancake served with polenta. Cut from a skillet-sized pancake, the wedge of frico was crispy on the outside and oozing with melted cheese and mashed potato goodness on the inside. Being a sucker for melted cheese, I was instantly captivated.
The next dish, however, was not love-at-first-bite. As a side dish, or contorno, Steno ordered one of his favorite comfort foods—brovada. At the time my limited language skills didn’t help me understand what I was eating, but it was sour and vinegary and I didn’t like it at all. Later, when I was able to consult my dictionary, I figured out that the dish was made of turnips. Further research taught me how they were fermented for a month in the residue leftover from pressing grapes for wine. I’ve since developed an appreciation for brovada, the same way I’ve developed an appreciation for getting up at 6:00am every day—not so bad once I’m used to it but definitely not something I would choose willingly.
Our meal ended with sorbetto di limone—a rather runny lemon sorbet in a glass that I suspected was spiked with something along the lines of grappa. (Looking back, I believe it may have been the Venetian cocktail sgroppino, or at least a variation on it.) And so concluded my first Friulian dinner. It would be another four years before I would start working on Flavors of Friuli, but the seeds were planted and I was hooked.