While strolling through downtown Udine on a chilly, mid-December evening, the sound of violins filled the air as I passed by a string trio performing on the sidewalk. Star-shaped Christmas lights hung suspended over Via Mercatovecchio, and small evergreen trees adorned with red velvet ribbons graced the curving, portico-lined shopping street. I was on my way to Piazza della Libertà, where the city had set up its annual Mercatino di Natale.
Underneath the pink- and white-striped Loggia del Lionello—a small-scale version of Venice’s Palazzo Ducale—a brass band was playing Christmas carols. Across the street, the dome of the clock tower and the adjacent loggia were strung with glistening lights. In the center of the piazza’s raised terrace stood a giant Christmas tree, surrounded by several dozen Christmas market stands. These red, white-roofed stalls sat in rows along a grid of green carpet and showcased a variety of trinkets and edible treats. As I perused the stands, I met a number of friendly locals, eager to show off their handmade goods.
To help warm up frosty shoppers, Lidio Fabbro kept chestnuts roasting in a big copper kettle. Another vendor, Stephano Tonelli, was selling his homemade jams and preserves. The local bakery La Casa del Dolce displayed desserts such as apple strudel and fancily molded chocolates — as well as lumps of black candy meant to look like coal (children traditionally receive these from La Befana, the Italian counterpart to Santa Claus).
One particular stand was selling foods from the Puglia region, including salami, biscotti, and orecchiette pasta. Here, I tried a sample of dense almond cake. Further along, I joined a crowd of gray-haired men for a taste of vin brulé (mulled wine) and some samples of crostini with prosciutto di San Daniele.
Other vendors along the way were selling dried fruit, nuts, soaps, pressed flowers, candles, and Christmas ornaments. I was especially impressed with the craftsman who was demonstrating his technique of pounding decorative patterns of holes into strips of copper to make votive candle holders. Lastly, brothers Claudio and Adriano Marzona were selling jars of honey and beeswax candles in various shapes and animal forms. Their brochure declared, “Friulian bees have a lot to do.”
Suddenly, the stands began to close up for the evening, and it was time to meet my friends Steno and Liviana for dinner. We had planned on returning to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo, but on the way there, we passed by another of Udine’s century-old restaurants, Antica Trattoria Al Lepre. When it opened in 1907, Al Lepre was a popular gathering place for artists, musicians, and poets who would linger for hours drinking and playing cards. Like many of the city’s traditional restaurants, Al Lepre was having to close because of sky-rocketing rent and the high cost of serving quality food. It turns out we were there on one of their last nights of service. Steno explained that the younger generations of Friulians are not so interested in preserving their culinary heritage and would just as soon eat at McDonald’s.
After lamenting this sad state of affairs, we ordered our meal. I started with sarde in saor, the Venetian dish of sardines marinated in vinegar and onions. Then I had musetto, a fatty, cartilaginous sausage made from pig snout, skin, and various other bits of pork all mixed together with white wine and spices. Instead of brovada (pickled turnips), which is the traditional accompaniment to musetto and a dish I am less than fond of, I ordered a side of puré (mashed potatoes) and a salad.
As we were leaving, we stopped to chat with the owner, who presented me with a special souvenir: a cup and saucer monogrammed “Antica Trattoria Al Lepre.”
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