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Archive for May, 2011

This month I have two articles featured in the Dream of Italy newsletter: “Rediscovering Paradise in Castiglioncello” and “10 Great Things to Do on the Island of Elba.” I first visited Castiglioncello as a dance student at the Pro Danza Italia festival in 1994. Several years later I returned to the festival as a Pilates instructor and stayed in the stunning Villa Santa Lucia. Then, nearly a decade after my first visit, I returned yet again to relive those early memories—and to attend the town’s famous Festa del Pesce. During that last trip to the Tuscan coast, I also spent a week on the island of Elba, exploring everything from beaches to mountain peaks to rock and mineral museums.

The May 2011 issue is now available to subscribers at DreamofItaly.com.

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Armed with a mission to discover everything there is to know about Friulian cuisine, I arrived in Milano on a cold February evening to find myself without a hotel reservation. I typically stay at the inexpensive Hotel Speronari, just steps from Piazza del Duomo, but when I emailed them months earlier, their response had somehow gotten lost in cyberspace. So I then booked a room at Hotel Nuovo—upon arrival, however, I discovered that they had “lost” my reservation! Desperate, I asked them to call over to my trusted Hotel Speronari, who luckily had a room available for me, albeit a more expensive double.

The next morning, after a quick visit to Milan’s magnificent Gothic cathedral, I took the train to Trieste. There, I checked into Nuovo Albergo Centro, a bare-bones hotel in the center of the grid-like Borgo Teresiano district near the train station. I was paying for a private bath (now that I was in my 30s, I felt I at least deserved that luxury), but although the bath was private, it was inconveniently located outside my room and down the hall.

After settling into my room, I took a walk to get my bearings. My previous visit to Trieste (also in February, several years prior) was a quick day-trip, and because of the pouring rain, I hadn’t explored as much as I would have liked. This time, I was pleased that the Serbian orthodox church San Spiridione was open, the inside a brilliant burst of blue, gold, and silver. I passed the vast, waterfront Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia, bordered on three sides by elegant Austrian-style government buildings.

Shortly, I happened upon a bakery called Pasticceria Penso. I had read in my guidebook that it was one of Trieste’s oldest, and so I went in to inquire about the recipes for three of Trieste’s traditional pastries: putizza, presnitz, and pinza. Working the counter was a sweet, older lady named Silvana. She had once visited San Francisco (my hometown) and seemed excited that someone was conducting research on their desserts. But the store soon became quite busy, and Silvana asked that I return another day so that she could give me the recipes I had requested. I left with three slices of pastry in tow: apple strudel, ricotta strudel, and sachertorte.

After browsing through a nearby bookstore—and beginning my Friulian cookbook collection with four new cookbooks—I stopped in for an early dinner at Buffet Da Pepi. In Trieste, a buffet isn’t at all what we Americans call a buffet (i.e. an all-you-can-eat Las Vegas meal); rather it began as an old-world-style fast-food counter where merchants and shopkeepers could grab a quick midmorning snack. Today, buffets usually provide a few tables for a sit-down meal, typically remain open all day, and close before the late Italian dinner hour. Established in 1897, Buffet Da Pepi is said to be the oldest still in existence—and it seems to be the most popular as well.

While many of Trieste’s buffets offer a variety of local dishes, including jota (bean and sauerkraut soup), goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew), gnocchi di pane (bread dumplings), and baccalà in bianco (salt cod purée), Da Pepi specializes in pork. My favorite thing to order is the piatto misto, a pig-shaped platter of assorted types of pork, such as ham, bacon, sausage, and tongue, accompanied by sauerkraut, mustard, and freshly grated cren (horseradish).

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Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy has just been awarded the prize of First Runner-Up in the “Home” category of the 2011 Eric Hoffer Book Award.

Other awards:
2011 Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA) Book Awards, “Best Cookbook”
2010 Independent Publisher Book Awards, bronze medal
2010 Living Now Book Awards, silver medal

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If you have been following my posts from the beginning, you will have read about my travels in Friuli up until 2004. It was the beginning of that year that I decided to write Flavors of Friuli. For a couple years, I had sporadically pursued travel writing as a second career but found it most unfulfilling. Not only was the constant rejection getting to me, but I found it difficult to concentrate on multiple projects. I much preferred the long-term task of writing a book. I also found myself being drawn with a passion to food-related topics—particularly the cuisine of Friuli, since it was, at that time, relatively unknown. And so, one day, the idea for my book was born. I took my first “research” trip in February 2004; then, over the next two years, there were three more trips, during every season and to every corner of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Along the way, I interviewed chefs, talked to the local people, collected cookbooks—and practically ate my way through the region. I savored goulasch at the top of Monte Santo di Lussari near Tarvisio; I gorged on a piatto misto of at least six types of pork in Trieste’s oldest buffet; and I devoured countless pastries in bakeries from Aquileia to Zuglio.

Stay tuned for future posts that will recount the tales of my further travels in Friuli—this time armed with a purpose.

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On Sunday, April 17, I appeared at the Sacramento Italian Cultural Society to sign copies of Flavors of Friuli. Following my slide presentation that highlighted Friuli’s culture, geography, and architecture, as well as many of the region’s traditional dishes, I demonstrated the preparation of balote (cheese-filled polenta balls), which guests were then able to sample. Thank you to Bill Cerruti and all the volunteers who made this event possible!

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Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy has just been awarded “Best Cookbook” in the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA) 2011 Book Award Program.

Other awards:
2010 Independent Publisher Book Awards, bronze medal
2010 Living Now Book Awards, silver medal

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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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