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Archive for March, 2011

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!

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There was a chill in the air as I left Hotel Principe the next morning and crossed the street once again to the train station. Fortunately, this time, there were no strikes, and I was able to take the train to Cividale del Friuli. Located about ten miles northeast of Udine, Cividale is a delightful town straddling the banks of the Natisone River.

The train ride was only about 20 minutes, and so I arrived in Cividale by 9:00am. The town center was just a short walk from the train station, and I headed first to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Cividale was founded by Julius Caesar in 50 BC and was one of the region’s principal towns during several centuries of Roman rule. During the 6th century AD, the town was occupied by the Lombards, who had arrived from across central Europe on a fierce conquering spree. The museum contains relics from both Roman and Lombard civilizations, including a coin collection, eating utensils, swords and other weaponry, ivory ornaments, gold brooches, jeweled necklaces, and most famously, the sarcophagus of Cividale’s first duke, Gisulfo.

Next I visited the 8th-century Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta. This stark church houses the Museo Cristiano, whose most notable treasures are the altar of the Lombard duke Ratchis and the octagonal baptistery built for Patriarch Callisto.

My next destination was the Ipogeo Celtico, an underground series of caves that may once have been used for burial purposes. My guidebook had instructed to request the key at the nearby Bar All’Ipogeo. The key would then unlock an unmarked door around the corner. It was pitch black inside, and the light switch was not working. I returned to the bar for help, and the owner came with me to flip the breaker switch back on. The lights came on to reveal a set of steep stairs leading down into a dark cavern. As I descended, the sound of dripping water echoed against the rough, stone walls.

Back above ground, I took some time to wander through Cividale’s narrow cobblestone streets before proceeding to the next sights on my agenda. The sky was gray and cloudy, and the smell of burning wood hung in the air. Following the street signs (which were written in both Italian and Furlan, Friuli’s native language), I made my way along ancient winding alleys until I reached the Tempietto Longobardo. Perched on a cliff above the emerald green Natisone River, this temple is Cividale’s most significant Lombard monument. Inside the tiny church were faded frescoes, intricately carved wooden choir stalls, and six female saints in high relief poised above a grapevine-motif arch.

From the Tempietto, I walked to the Ponte del Diavolo. This “Devil’s Bridge” was named after a popular legend in which the townspeople of Cividale made a pact with the Devil. The Devil agreed to build the bridge overnight in exchange for the first soul to cross it. The next day, however, the townspeople outwitted the Devil by sending across a cat instead of a human.

The narrow bridge allowed only one lane of traffic, and pedestrians had to squeeze through on the side. To the immediate left after crossing the bridge was the Belvedere Panoramico with scenic views of the town’s church towers across the river. A set of dilapidated, mossy steps led down to a sandy bank along the water.

I accomplished all this in 3-1/2 hours, and it was time for lunch. I crossed back over the bridge and found myself at Osteria Alla Terrazza. With my glass of Tocai wine, the waitress served a complimentary slice of bruschetta topped with prosciutto and gorgonzola. I ordered the cjarsons alle erbe, tiny pasta half-moons that were filled with aromatic herbs, biscotti, apples, cinnamon, and cherry preserves, and then topped with melted butter, fresh sage, and smoked ricotta cheese. A ring of prosciutto encircled the plate as garnish. For dessert, I enjoyed a plate of struki (rectangular, bite-size turnovers filled with dried fruit and nuts) accompanied by a glass of honey-colored Picolit, the region’s widely acclaimed—though unfortunately low-yielding—dessert wine.

On my way back to the train station, I stopped at a bakery to buy a gubana, Friuli’s signature pastry. There are two types of gubana, and this one was the yeast dough variety, filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices—it would make a nice treat back in my hotel room! Here is my version of the recipe:

FILLING:
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup grappa or rum
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1/2 cup blanched slivered almonds
3/4 cup finely crushed biscotti or amaretti cookies
1/2 cup diced candied orange peel
1/4 cup pine nuts
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 egg

1. Place the raisins in a large bowl; add the grappa and let soak for 30 minutes.

2. Finely grind the walnuts and almonds in a food processor; add to the bowl of raisins. Stir in the crushed biscotti, candied orange peel, pine nuts, melted butter, sugar, cinnamon, and egg.

DOUGH:
3-1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast, divided
1/3 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup warm water (100° to 110°F), divided
2-2/3 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 egg
1 egg yolk
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced and softened
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• • •
1 teaspoon sugar

1. In a small bowl, dissolve 2 teaspoons yeast and a pinch of sugar in 1/4 cup warm water. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup flour. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes.

2. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Stir in 1 cup flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, the egg, and egg yolk. Cover and let rise for 1 hour.

3. In a small bowl, dissolve the remaining 1-1/2 teaspoons yeast and a pinch of sugar in the remaining 1/4 cup warm water. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add to the bowl of risen dough, along with the remaining flour and sugar, butter, salt, and vanilla extract; mix well. Using a mixer with a dough hook attachment, knead for 10 minutes. (It may be necessary to occasionally scrape the ball of dough off the hook.) Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface; knead briefly by hand. (The dough should be smooth and elastic.) Form the dough into a ball; cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise for 1-1/2 hours.

4. Preheat oven to 350°F, placing a pan filled with water on the bottom rack to create steam. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to a 14- by 20-inch rectangle. Spread the filling over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border on all but one short side. (The filling will be sparse in places; just cover the dough as evenly as possible.) Starting with one long side, roll up jelly roll style. Place the roll seam-side down on a sheet of parchment paper. Beginning with the end that has the filling spread to the edge, form the roll into a spiral. Transfer the spiral, along with the parchment paper, to a baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise for 30 minutes.

5. Sprinkle the top of the spiral with 1 teaspoon sugar. Bake until golden brown, about 45 minutes.

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My first morning at Udine’s Hotel Principe was greeted by a substantial buffet in the hotel’s downstairs breakfast room. After treating myself to a croissant and some frutti di bosco yogurt (the local Carnia yogurt is some of the best I’ve had), I crossed the street to the train station to catch the 9:30 train to Cividale. Unfortunately, there was a strike and the train had been cancelled. It was uncertain whether later trains would be running, so I decided to wander a bit and then check back in an hour.

My path led me to the imposing, brick Duomo di Santa Maria Annunziata. Inside the church, my eyes went first to the stately, gray arches draped in crimson damask. Lining the nave, ornate chapels featured trompe l’oeil ceilings plus several paintings by Tiepolo. Off the left apse was the Museo del Duomo, which housed a collection of clerical robes, jewelry (including twenty-two rings that belonged to Sant’Elisabetta), and 14th-century artwork.

I returned to the train station to find that the 10:30 train to Cividale had been cancelled as well. It seemed that I wasn’t going to make it to Cividale at all that day, so I decided to spend the day sightseeing in Udine instead. First, I headed to the outdoor produce market in Piazza Matteotti to pick up some bananas, a snack that I always buy no matter where I am. Next, I returned to Piazza della Libertà and spent some time admiring the statues, among which were figures of the mythological Hercules and Cacus, as well as the winged lion of Saint Mark atop one of the piazza’s two columns.

Following the path of my previous visit, I climbed up to castello hill, where I went inside the nearby Chiesa di Santa Maria di Castello. The tiny church is Udine’s oldest, dating from the 7th century; the campanile, topped with an angelic weather vane, was added in the 16th century. The church was empty inside, and as I sat contemplating my options for lunch, the clock struck noon, and church bells began chiming throughout the city.

I descended the hill on the opposite side into the large, round Piazza Primo Maggio. After picking up a few brochures at the tourist office, I circled the hill and randomly chose the first restaurant I saw that was open, Ristorante Pizzeria Manin. It turns out that the gas was out, and the restaurant was unable to serve anything except pizza. I ordered the pizza “chef” with mushrooms, bell peppers, artichokes, salumi piccante, prosciutto, and würstel (hot dog).

After a long, leisurely lunch, I paid a visit to the Musei Civici, a large museum complex housed in the city’s hilltop castle. There was then still plenty of time to see the Museo Diocesano. Housed in the Palazzo Patriarcale near the base of the hill, this museum is known for its many works by Tiepolo.

I had not yet begun working on my book Flavors of Friuli; therefore, my proficiency in restaurant selection was still somewhat lacking. Enticed by a picturesque arcade displaying the sign “Ai Portici,” I chose Ristorante Atlantide for dinner. I was hoping for some down-home, local character like Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo, but Atlantide turned out to be a bit more upscale. The interior was appealing in a kitschy sort of way, suggestive of a ship’s cabin: shiny, cobalt blue ceiling and walls with dark walnut trim; faux marble columns supporting potted plants in terra cotta urns; statuettes of Neptune-esque men and sea creatures lining the walls; and a red candle on each white-linen-draped table. The waiters were all sporting black-tie. There were three sections to the menu: seafood, meat, and pizza. I should have taken my cue from the lobster tank and display cases of fresh fish on ice, but instead I ordered from the “carne” menu. The antipasto misto was a sampler plate of salami, speck, bresaola, and two types of prosciutto. Then I had the gnocchi affumicati—plain potato gnocchi in salsa rosa (tomato cream sauce) topped with smoked ricotta cheese. Compared to the ethereal gnocchi di zucca from my previous trip, these gnocchi were just doughy and heavy—unfortunately something I would encounter often in the years to come.

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Now that Balance on the Ball had been published, I was craving another creative project. I had had some success writing a few articles for fitness magazines, but I yearned for a subject I felt more passionate about. So I came up with the (somewhat naïve) idea of becoming a travel writer. My next trip to Italy took me first to Torino, where I interviewed Salvatore “Cicco” Ciccorelli, a dollhouse craftsman known for constructing faithful reproductions of actual Italian homes. (This article was published in Dollhouse Miniatures magazine.) From there I headed to Padova, and finally—drawn by memories of frico and cjalsòns—to Udine.

It was yet another cold, wintry afternoon when I arrived. This time I chose Hotel Principe, primarily for its convenient location across the street from the train station and next door to the bus terminal. My room was sparse and had very little charm, but it afforded all the comforts I needed, such as a spacious bathroom and large, plush bath towels. The staff was extremely friendly and helpful, making me feel right at home in proper Friulian style. In fact, Principe quickly became my go-to hotel for every subsequent visit—and there have been many, given that Udine’s central location makes it an ideal base for day trips.

After settling into my hotel, I went out exploring. I took a circuitous route, skirting the edges of the city center, and found myself on Via Zanon, where a murky canal ran alongside the street, shaded by drooping willow trees. At one time, Udine had a series of canals, called “rogge,” running through the city, but most have since been filled in. Eventually, I ended up at Piazza della Libertà, that delightful square filled with Venetian-style monuments. Although the air was frosty, the sky was blue for a change, perfectly matching the blue-and-gold clock face of the Torre dell’Orologio.

When it was dinnertime, I headed directly to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. I arrived promptly at 7:00, when the doors opened, but there was already an elderly woman seated at a corner table. Over the next few years, I would continue to see the same “signora” every single evening that I was there, always sitting in the same spot. I never felt bold enough to inquire, but I speculated that she may be the owners’ mother.

Al Vecchio Stallo’s menu changes daily, always featuring a number of local specialties. Although I hadn’t yet begun my research for Flavors of Friuli, I was still curious about Friulian cuisine. So I ordered something I had never heard of and couldn’t even pronounce: mignaculis. The waiter explained that they were “piccoli gnocchi,” but I found the misshapen lumps to be more akin to spätzle than gnocchi. A traditional dish from Carnia, they were served with a heavy sauce of tomato and sausage. The portion was huge, and I could only manage to eat half of it. When asked by the waiter if I would like anything else, I declined, saying (in Italian) that I was “piena” (full). His response, also in Italian, was “How many months?” Apparently, the word “piena” has a colloquial meaning that I was unaware of: pregnant. It never was entirely clear to me if the waiter was serious or if I was being teased.

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My second visit to Friuli was brief—a one-day stopover in Udine with Mike (my then boyfriend and now husband). We had just spent an exhausting week in Venezia during Carnevale. Now, Venezia is my absolute favorite place in the world, and it does possess a special magic during Carnevale time—but unfortunately the city becomes overrun by massive throngs of sightseers. So it was a huge relief to leave the mayhem of tourist-infested Venezia and arrive by train in the relatively tranquil city of Udine.

We had a reservation at Hotel President, where I had stayed on my first visit, but on arrival, we found the hotel to be closed for renovation. Fortunately the owners redirected us to another hotel across the street, Hotel Clocchiatti. Compared to Hotel President, which had a sterile, businessman’s-hotel feel to it, Hotel Clocchiatti was charming and attractive, the room a mishmash of floral and striped designs.

After grabbing pizzas at nearby Pizzeria Da Raffaele (I had salumini piccante and Mike had funghi), we took a leisurely stroll to Piazza della Libertà. There I discovered the disco solare, a sort of sun dial positioned under an archway in the Porticato di San Giovanni. This bronze disk supposedly casts a ray of sunlight on a precisely calculated point on the wall every spring and fall equinox at 12:00 noon.

That evening, we met up with my friend Steno Dondè, the owner of the Ledragomma GymnastikBall factory, and his wife, Liviana. They drove us to their hometown of Brazzacco, where we had dinner at Ristorante Al Fogolâr. We started by sharing a platter of prosciutto di San Daniele, which was followed by plates of the best gnocchi di zucca I have ever had. The dumplings were made with butternut squash, served in a generous bath of browned butter, and topped with fresh sage and smoked ricotta cheese.

Al Fogolâr’s style of gnocchi easily became my benchmark for the dish, and I have never since tasted any gnocchi so delicate and cloud-like. It took a bit of experimenting to recreate the dish at home, and I found the secret to be a reduction in the amount of flour. Most gnocchi requires enough flour to form a dough that can be rolled into a rope and cut into small pieces. Instead, this version uses a lot less flour. This result is a rather sticky dough, so instead of rolling it, the dough is dropped by rounded teaspoonfuls into boiling water to cook. The dumplings come out as soft and fluffy as a feather pillow.

After the incredible gnocchi, our final course seemed almost anticlimactic. We had frico con polenta, a thin pancake of potato and Montasio cheese, fried to a crispy exterior, leaving the center soft and gooey. It was served with polenta, as is nearly every meal in Friuli.

The next day, Mike and I took the train to Firenze for our final days in Italy, but I was already anxious to return home to begin recreating those gnocchi! Here is the recipe I came up with:

1 large butternut squash (about 2 to 3 pounds), halved lengthwise
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg
• • •
½ cup (1 stick) butter
2 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh sage leaves
½ cup grated ricotta affumicata or ricotta salata

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Place the squash halves on a baking sheet. Bake until tender, about 45–50 minutes. When the squash is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the seeds and membrane. Scoop out enough flesh to measure 2 cups. (Reserve any extra for another use.) Place in a medium bowl; mash well. Cool to room temperature.

2. Stir the flour, salt, and egg into the mashed squash.

3. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Working in batches, drop rounded teaspoonfuls of dough into the water, taking care not to overcrowd the pot. Cook until the gnocchi rise to the surface; remove them promptly with a slotted spoon.

4. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Cook and stir until the butter has browned, about 8–10 minutes; remove from heat. Stir in the sliced sage leaves; add the gnocchi and toss to coat with butter. Serve topped with grated ricotta affumicata.

Note: I’ve heard that Ristorante Al Fogolâr has a new chef now, but I haven’t been back to see if their gnocchi is still as fantastic.

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It was merely by chance that my first three trips to Friuli took place in February, and so my initial impressions of the region remained a bit clouded by the cold, gray, dreary weather. Yet I remember being thrilled by the view from my hotel window of majestic, snow-capped peaks in the distance. Years later, having visited Friuli during each of the four seasons, I am still the most enthralled with its landscape—from wildflower-strewn fields to rolling hills blanketed with vineyards to steep cliffs that plunge dramatically into the sea.

My first trip, however, was brief, and I only had a couple of days to explore. In Udine, I simply wandered through the old streets of the city center, ducking into churches whenever possible to get momentarily out of the cold. I had not yet studied any history of the region, but the Venetian influence in the central Piazza della Libertà was obvious. The blue- and gold-faced clock tower bore a resemblance to the one in Venice’s Piazza San Marco; the pink- and white- striped Loggia del Lionello was a small-scale version of Venice’s Palazzo Ducale; and I spotted three winged lions of St. Mark guarding over the piazza.

Passing under Palladio’s Arco Bollani, I hiked up the winding cobblestone path to castello hill. In addition to the massive castle (which houses a complex of several civic museums) and the tiny Chiesa di Santa Maria in Castello (Udine’s oldest), the hill offered sweeping views of Udine and those snowy mountains to the north.

When I awoke on my final morning in Udine, it was pouring rain. I lay under the warm covers contemplating the luxury of staying in bed all day. But then I remembered Steno advising me to visit Trieste, the capital of the region. I doubted that I would ever return to this far corner of Italy, so I dragged myself out of bed and scrambled to catch the next train.

Despite the incessant rain, I gave myself a cursory walking tour of the city.  I strolled past the Canal Grande and the Serbian Orthodox church of San Spiridione, then through the expansive Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia lined by stately government buildings and facing the stormy Adriatic Sea. From there I climbed the steep hill to the Cattedrale di San Giusto and Castello di San Giusto, where I rambled around the castle’s ramparts for a bird’s eye view of the city.

Back down the hill, I decided to catch the bus to Castello di Miramare. I hadn’t yet had any lunch, so I grabbed a quick sandwich to eat on the way. What a relief to sit down, dry off, and tuck into the warm rosemary focaccia crisped on the griddle, with perfectly melted mozzarella, salty prosciutto, and fresh tomato inside.

The bus hugged the coastline for the 20-minute ride. I got off at Grignano, a charming harbor just below the Castello di Miramare, which perches on a promontory overlooking the sea. Since it was still raining, I didn’t get to wander through the park’s fifty-four acres of manicured gardens, but I truly enjoyed touring the castle’s lavish apartments. I was particularly entranced by the views of dark, churning waves out the ornately draped windows and momentarily lost myself in the fantasy of 19th-century life.

Soon, I was back in San Francisco, but those initial memories chose to linger. I had not planned on ever returning to Friuli, but year after year, something kept drawing me back.

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