Served in nearly every restaurant throughout northern Friuli, cjalsòns are one of the region’s best-loved specialties. The word derives from the same root as the calzone from Naples, and the numerous spelling variations include “cjalcions” and “cjarzòns.” Pronunciation also varies with location. The dish has been mentioned in documents as far back as medieval times, but due to the involved preparation and sometimes lengthy ingredient list, cjalsòns were originally prepared only for Easter celebrations.
Cjalsòns are a type of stuffed pasta with a multitude of possible fillings. In every lush valley of the Carnia mountains, each cook prepares his or her own unique recipe, merging herbs and spices and creating a distinct shape and form for the dough. While there are generally two varieties—sweet and savory—the flavors often tend to overlap. The sweet cjalsòns may be filled with apples, pears, crushed biscotti, dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, and spices, but often contain savory herbs such as parsley, basil, and marjoram. Likewise, the savory cjalsòns have undertones of sweetness, combining such unlikely ingredients as potatoes, raisins, onions, cocoa, spinach, jam, and cheese. Both sweet and savory cjalsòns are served in melted butter and are typically topped with smoked ricotta cheese (ricotta affumicata) and a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon.
To continue my cjalsòns-tasting adventure, I visited a couple more of Udine’s restaurants. The first, Osteria con Cucina Sbarco dei Pirati (“pirate’s landing”), was a little disappointing. I was intrigued by the overly-festooned exterior, particularly the hand-written signs that were scattered all over the front windows and listed the specials of the day. Inside, the dining room was decked out like a pirate ship with random scraps of loot hiding in every nook and cranny. Life preservers hung from the walls, pots and pans blanketed the ceiling, and the large, wooden tables were covered with red-checked paper. Accordion music blared from a speaker, and the air was dark and smoky. (This was before the 2005 law that banned smoking in all bars and restaurants.)
Without even waiting for a menu, I ordered the cjalsòns, which were prominently advertised in the window. They came unadorned—no cheese, no cinnamon, no sugar—just six half-moon-shaped ravioli in a pool of melted butter. Although I will never know for sure, I suspected they may have been frozen and prepackaged. There is a company in Carnia that manufactures frozen cjalsòns, and while they are respectable enough for frozen ravioli, they just can’t compare to fresh, homemade ones. I left Sbarco dei Pirati promptly after my meager meal and headed directly to Gelateria dell’Orso to cheer myself up with a cup of cioccolato and stracciatella gelato.
The next day, Ristorante Al Vapore offered a sweeter cjalsòns experience. Located off a nearly hidden alley, the restaurant was completely empty when I arrived at 7:00pm. I’m used to being one of the first diners in a country where locals typically eat no earlier than 8:00 or 8:30, so that was not unexpected. But I was surprised to learn that the Austrians and Slovenians, being the city’s primary tourist demographic, usually eat dinner much earlier, around 5:00 or 6:00pm. (I guess the surprising part was that the restaurant was actually open to serve them at that time!) So I had the entire upper floor to myself. The goldenrod-colored walls were smartly adorned with paintings and various artwork. Decorating my table was a romanesco cauliflower (the green, pointy kind that looks like a small tree) hung with tiny, silver Christmas ornaments. Behind me on a table was a model of Venzone’s Duomo di Sant’Andrea constructed entirely out of lentils and cannellini beans.
Of course, I ordered their “cjalcions,” along with the verdure alla piastra. The plate of mixed vegetables included zucchini, eggplant, and yellow bell peppers and was nicely seasoned with oil and vinegar. The cjalcions, however, were the star of the meal. Much sweeter than any I had tasted to date, these fat pouches were stuffed with ricotta, spinach, pine nuts, and raisins—and given that they were topped with the requisite sugar and cinnamon, I felt no need for dessert!