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Archive for the ‘Travel in Friuli’ Category

Udine's Torre dell'OrologioFive weeks of intense travel had nearly come to a close. It was my second to last morning, and while at breakfast, I learned that the temperature in Udine had reached 41°C (106°F) the day before. Having weathered nearly a week of record heat, I was feeling utterly exhausted. Each day, I had taken a bus or train to a different town and walked until my legs gave out. For four evenings in a row, I had eschewed dinner out, choosing instead to have a light picnic in the cool of my hotel room. Today, I succumbed entirely, deciding to do absolutely nothing at all.

I did briefly leave my room midmorning, so that housekeeping could come in. I strolled for about an hour, wandering around Udine’s centro. I was hoping to find an air-conditioned bookstore to browse in, but being Sunday, nearly all the shops were closed. Already, the temperature sign at Via Zanon read 30°C (86°F), and there seemed to be nowhere for me to go to find some shade. I found a bar at Piazza della Libertà and bought a panino made with bresaola, mozzarella, and fresh focaccia. That would end up serving as both my lunch and dinner.

I spent the entire afternoon in my room, writing sections of my book Flavors of Friuli. It was a productive day, though by dinnertime I was beginning to feel claustrophobic and disoriented. My room was on the ground floor of Hotel Principe, with windows facing out into the parking lot. For privacy, I kept the dark metal shutters closed at all times. Since I couldn’t see outside—and also because I hadn’t done anything physically tiring for a change—it didn’t seem conceivable that it was already evening. After eating the second half of my panino, I went out for another walk to reorient myself. Though not quite dusk, the sun was lower in the sky, casting a warm peach glow over the rooftops. It appeared that the whole city had come out for a pre-dinner passeggiata, reveling in the ever-so-slightly cooler evening air. After getting a gelato (cioccolato and stracciatella again), I melded with the crowd, savoring my last night in Udine.

The following morning, I took the train back to Milano, with the usual hectic 10-minute connection in Mestre. While I always traveled light—carrying only a rolling duffel and a small backpack—somehow I had acquired what felt like an extra 20 pounds of stuff. My bag was filled with cookbooks that I had purchased along the way (including one huge coffee table book), and I now had a third bag filled with miscellany that would no longer fit in the suitcase. Maneuvering all this up and down stairs in the stations, lugging it onto trains, and heaving the largest bag onto the overhead storage rack was no small feat. I was relieved to finally arrive in Milano.

Duomo di MilanoI was staying again at Hotel Speronari, just off Piazza del Duomo. My room was on the third floor, with no elevator. These are the last stairs I will have to climb, I consoled myself. After checking in, I paid a visit to the Duomo, then walked to Via Solferino and the gastronomia Più del Pane Callegaro. There, I picked up a picnic dinner of assorted mini quiche, with toppings of eggplant, tomato, zucchini, and potato. On the same street, I found a bakery and bought some treats to take with me: an American-style lemon bar, a mini apricot crostata, and two unusual-looking apple cookies. These would be my breakfast and snack at the airport the next morning.

I tried to go to bed early, but found myself tossing around all night. For once, the room had an electric fan, which I positioned next to the bed, but even with the window wide open, the fan could only recirculate the hot, suffocating air. I slept in 15- to 30-minute increments, afraid of missing my alarm, finally getting up at 4:30am to take a quick shower in the bathroom down the hall. Once I had dressed and repacked, I was on autopilot, a routine I had repeated so many times in previous years: awaken the receptionist on night duty, check out, walk 10 minutes in the eerie darkness to Piazza San Babila, and catch the shuttle bus to Linate Airport. Soon I would be back home in San Francisco.

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Do MoriWhenever I traveled to Friuli–Venezia Giulia, I could never bear to leave without visiting the neighboring Veneto region and my favorite city in the world: Venezia. My five-week-long trip of summer 2005 had almost come to a close, and I was taking the train from Udine into my beloved La Serenissima for the day. After three previous visits to Venezia during Carnevale (of which only one was intentionally planned to coincide with the event), I found myself desperately longing to encounter fewer crowds. The Biennale film festival was scheduled to begin the following day, however, so I was inevitably doomed to battle another sea of tourists.

Do MoriWhen I got off the train, I headed directly for the Rialto. Instead of choosing a single restaurant at lunchtime, my plan was to nibble on cicchetti throughout the day at my favorite bacari. My first stop was one of the best in the city, Do Mori, where I savored crostini with baccalà mantecato (puréed salt cod), a crab claw, and a baby octopus, all washed down with a refreshing midmorning glass of prosecco.

scallopsAt the nearby fish market, I wandered through the crowded aisles, wishing I had an apartment where I could take some of the beautiful seafood home to cook (that dream would come true one December five years later). I did purchase some scallop shells, which I needed for my recipe capesante gratinate (scallops baked with a bread crumb topping). Even though the oven-safe shells that I had bought at a gourmet food store back home were usable, they had been bleached an unnatural shade of white, their enormous size dwarfing the scallops within. The ones I picked up in Venezia were the real thing, fresh from the sea, with all the markings in pink and mauve that a scallop should have.

Cantinone Gia SchiaviI crossed the Rialto Bridge and made my way through Piazza San Marco to the Accademia Bridge, which led to one of my favorite sestieri, Dorsoduro. I had stayed in this relatively quiet neighborhood twice before, and my heart was still brimming with wistful memories of hidden alleys, misty canals, and the most tantalizing cicchetti at Cantinone Già Schiavi. Their vast selection of crostini, for which they are best known, included toppings of baccalà (both mantecato and alla cappucina); tomato, brie, and anchovy; and fluffy herb-flecked ricotta with sun-dried tomato. Knowing that I had one more stop on my bar-hopping lunch, I settled for just one bite—tuna salad sprinkled with cocoa—and another glass of prosecco.

By early afternoon, the late July sun was becoming unbearably hot. Not a single breeze blew in from the lagoon to ease the scorching temperatures. In an effort to cool off, I treated myself to a gelato (cioccolato and stracciatella) on my way to the Chiesa di San Vidal, where I bought my mom another CD by her favorite string ensemble, Interpreti Veneziani.

Ai Promessi SposiThe throngs of tourists in San Marco proved to be too much for me, so I decided to wind my way back through the less populated calli of Dorsoduro and Santa Croce. By the time I reached the Cannaregio sestiere, it was already 3:00pm. My final cicchetti stop of the day, Ai Promessi Sposi, was still open, though empty. Seeing as I had been snacking on and off all day, I only wanted a few more bites. I requested a crab claw, a little eggplant, some baccalà, and one canocia (mantis shrimp). The man at the counter told me to find a table, and he would bring me my plate. When he did five minutes later, the plate was twice as large as I had expected, piled high with food, and heated in the microwave. He had given me four crab claws (these were deep-fried and not nearly as exquisite as Do Mori’s), a huge serving of marinated eggplant, and a mammoth portion of baccalà (this one prepared with potatoes, olives, and anchovies). He had forgotten the canocia, but I wasn’t about to point that out. I just ordered myself a third glass of prosecco and decided to call this meal an early dinner.

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Spilimbergo's Palazzo ErcoleThe early morning air was already hot and muggy, without even the slightest breeze to temper the oppressive heat. With only a couple more days left in Udine before the end of my five-week-long trip, I decided to revisit the town of Spilimbergo.

My hope was to find a restaurant that served balote: cheese-filled polenta balls, native to the mountains north of Pordenone. According to local tradition, when a young man wanted to propose marriage, he would present an offering of balote to the potential bride’s family; if the balote were immediately placed on the fogolâr (fireplace) to roast, it was understood that he had the family’s approval.

Spilimbergo's Palazzo di SopraI took the train to Pordenone and then caught a bus to Spilimbergo. Mike and I had driven through the town in May of the previous year, but since we were on our way to Carnia, with several stops to make en route, we didn’t have long to explore. This trip, I had plenty of time to visit the main sights. First, I set out to locate some of Spilimbergo’s famous painted palazzi. One of the most well-known was the Palazzo Ercole (a.k.a. Casa Dipinta), whose frescoes illustrated scenes from the mythical life of Hercules. Then, after a bit of an uphill hike, I found the brilliantly painted Palazzo di Sopra, home to Spilimbergo’s town hall. Set amid a neatly manicured lawn and framed by two tall palm trees, its white façade was decorated with intricate yellow designs and a Venetian winged lion of Saint Mark.

Spilimbergo's DuomoI was especially looking forward to seeing the frescoes on the exterior of the 15th-century Palazzo Dipinto, but when I reached the courtyard of the Castello di Spilimbergo where they were located, I was dismayed to find all the frescoes shrouded in scaffolding. My disappointment, however, was short-lived—my spirits soon lifted as I came upon the sunny Duomo di Santa Maria Maggiore, whose yellow Romanesque Gothic façade featured a pattern of circular cutout windows.

At lunchtime, I headed to Osteria Da Afro, as it was on my list of places specializing in Friulian cooking. Although it was past noon when I arrived, the restaurant was not yet open. I was told to wait in the lobby, where I spotted, through a crack in a partially open door, the staff gathered around a table eating their meal. Finally, I was shown to a table in the empty dining room. Despite my expectations, there were few Friulian dishes on the menu. The waiter explained that la cucina friulana was more of a winter cuisine and that they tended to serve lighter dishes in the hot summer months. Feeling inclined to agree with him on that point, I was quite content ordering the melanzane alla parmigiana and an insalata mista.

Since there were no other customers, the waiter was able to spend a good deal of time at my table answering some of my lingering questions. We talked about the restaurant’s preparation of baccalà (salt cod) and trout—and most importantly, balote, which they frequently serve in wintertime. He described their size (larger than a golf ball, smaller than a tennis ball), the type of cheese they are filled with (traditionally the local salted cheese called asìno, but cubes of fresh Montasio may be used instead), and how they are served (no sauce but frequently with sautéed mushrooms on the side).

After lunch, I took the next bus back to Pordenone, where I caught the train back to Udine. For the third day in a row, I decided not to go out for dinner but to eat in my room instead. At the COOP supermarket, I bought some bananas, kiwis, and yogurt (happily, my room at Hotel Principe had a mini fridge). Then, at the nearby rosticceria, I picked up some sautéed zucchini and a slice of frittata. It was a light picnic, which my body was really craving after a full month of rich, heavy meals.

baloteHere is my interpretation of balote, as described to me at Osteria Da Afro. Since asìno cheese is not easily available outside Pordenone province, I have substituted a mixture of cream cheese (for the creaminess) and ricotta salata (for the saltiness). The texture is not as soft and creamy as asìno, but it holds its shape nicely when being wrapped inside the polenta. Consider serving the balote with some sautéed mushrooms.

Filling:
4 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces ricotta salata, grated (about 1-1/4 cups)

In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese and ricotta salata. Divide the mixture into twelve equal parts, rolling each into a small ball. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Polenta:
4 cups water
1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt

Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a medium pot over high heat. Stir in the cornmeal and salt. When the water returns to a boil, reduce heat to low; cook and stir until soft, about 25 minutes. Pour immediately into a 9- by 13-inch baking dish; spread evenly. Let cool for 15 minutes, or until just cool enough to handle.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Slice the polenta into twelve equal portions. Scoop out a portion of polenta and roll into a rough ball. Flatten slightly, place one cheese ball in the center, and smooth the polenta over to enclose the cheese. (The polenta will be very sticky, so work gently.) Place the finished polenta balls in a greased baking dish. Bake until heated through, about 25 minutes.

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Marano LagunareI awoke early to catch the 8:00am bus to Marano Lagunare, a small fishing village located along Friuli’s southern coast between Grado and Lignano. The trip took just over an hour from Udine, which gave me several hours to explore before lunchtime. The smell of salt air and freshly caught fish greeted me as I arrived at the harbor. Houses of robin’s egg blue, salmon pink, and sunflower yellow lined the narrow streets of the town’s old center, while boats of blue and white sat docked along the canals. As I ventured south along the water’s edge, however, the pastel colors vanished, revealing a less attractive, though perhaps more authentic, scene: fishing boats crusted with mud, rusty cranes, garbage-filled dumpsters, and backhoes hauling buckets of dirt.

Marano Lagunare Riserva NaturaleI circled back toward town, passing through a nondescript residential section on my way to the Riserva Naturale Valle Canal Novo, a protected nature reserve encompassing the marshy wetlands that surround Marano Lagunare. Unfortunately, the visitor’s center happened to be closed that day, so there were no guided tours. But it was possible to enter the park via a wooden footbridge that extended over the water into the dense thicket of reeds, home to countless forms of native wildlife.

Though it was only 11:00am, the intense July heat was beginning to tire me out. I returned to the central piazza and found a shady bench in full view of the Torre Millenaria. For over an hour I sat there, watching the comings and goings of village life—elderly couples out for a stroll, women pulling shopping carts of groceries, children frolicking around the tower steps.

Trattoria alla LagunaFor lunch, I headed to Trattoria Alla Laguna (a.k.a. Vedova Raddi), located in a three-story building of rust red stucco overlooking the harbor. I started with the frutti di mare gratinati, a plate of mussels and scallops baked in their shells with a bread crumb topping. Next, I was excited to try their signature dish, risotto alla Maranese, but was disappointed to read on the menu that they required a minimum of two persons for the order. From past experience, I knew that this was not uncommon. Nevertheless, I explained that I was writing a cookbook on Friulian cuisine and asked politely if it might be possible to have a single portion of the dish. The owner graciously acquiesced—and the risotto was delicious! Served with calamari, shrimp, mussels, and local wedge shell clams called telline, the risotto was prepared al dente in a perfectly soupy fish stock that tasted of the ocean.

Between courses, the owner came over to chat. He explained that all his seafood was locally caught in the lagoon and, strangely, that many Americans would come to visit each year around Easter. I imagined that “many” may have been a relative term, given the few Americans I had ever encountered in Friuli—and since Marano Lagunare was not at the time listed in any of my English-language guidebooks.

Shortly, the owner returned with a huge guestbook for me to sign. He revealed that the book was for his “famous” guests and pointed to one signature in particular by a dignitary from Iran (I never quite caught exactly who he was). The owner went on to boast that when he was a child, and his father ran the restaurant, Ernest Hemingway dined there quite often. I felt honored, though somewhat baffled, that he had requested my autograph, too.

Marano LagunareAfter lunch, my plan was to take the boat to Lignano Sabbiadoro, the region’s largest beach resort. It was a pleasant 40-minute ride across the lagoon, sunny but with a cool breeze floating over the water. In the distance, scattered amid the marshes, were tiny, thatched fisherman’s huts called casoni.

Lignano SabbiadoroCompared to Marano Lagunare, Lignano was huge. I only had an hour before my return bus to Udine, so I didn’t get to explore the resort town as fully as I would have liked. The beach itself was approximately five miles long and serviced by more than forty bathing houses, all renting umbrellas and lounge chairs to vacationing sunbathers. It was now peak season, and thousands of those colorful umbrellas dotted the soft, golden sand, all lined up in flawless rows. I walked partway down the beach to an enclosed jetty that extended out over the sea. The sapphire blue water was shallow and calm, and I wished that I could go for a swim myself.

Lignano SabbiadoroStanding there alone, surrounded by families, couples, groups of friends—everyone attached to someone else—a certain melancholy began to set in. I was, for the most part, quite comfortable traveling alone and rarely felt awkward even going into restaurants by myself. As an only child, I had grown accustomed to keeping myself company and generally enjoyed the solitude. But every so often, as on that day in Lignano, I wished that Mike (my now husband) had been able to come on the trip, so that I would have someone to lounge on the beach and splash in the sea with.

I walked back past highrise hotels, tacky gift shops, and gelaterie, most of which were closed at that late hour of the afternoon. Near the bus station, I did find one gelateria that was open, and I treated myself to a double scoop of limone (lemon) and yogurt. The sun was beating down, and I was glad to finally board the air-conditioned bus.

Before returning to Hotel Principe, I took a walk into Udine’s centro. It was so swelteringly hot that I knew I wouldn’t feel like having a big dinner that evening. Deciding to eat in again, I picked up some apricots, strawberries, and a tomato at the produce market. Then, I found a bar that sold tramezzini and bought a sandwich with turkey to go. I ate my picnic dinner early, in the cool of my hotel room, watching the news on TV and trying to figure out my plans for my final three days in Friuli.

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Prosciuttificio ProlongoToday’s destination was San Daniele del Friuli, where I had appointments to visit two prosciuttifici (prosciutto factories): Prolongo and Il Camarin. I took the bus from Udine and luckily had the foresight to get off while still in the outskirts of San Daniele, before the bus headed up the hill into the old section of town. Otherwise, it would have been a long walk back down.

At first, I was quite disoriented. I had no idea where I was in relation to the address I was looking for, but after walking up and down the street a few blocks, I got my bearings. Once I found the correct street, I spent another few minutes puzzling over the fact that the odd numbers on one side of the street didn’t correspond to the even numbers on the other side. About five minutes later, I arrived at Prosciuttificio Prolongo.

Alessio ProlongoI was greeted by siblings Alessio and Arianna, whose grandfather started the business. They took me on a tour of the factory, a fairly small operation, producing only 7,000 to 8,000 hams per year. Alessio spoke no English, so Arianna helped translate—though I actually understood most of his Italian. We visited the refrigeration room, where the hams were kept during the salting phase, and then the curing room, where rows of hams hung from wooden beams. They explained that the entire curing process takes a minimum of twelve months. Alessio demonstrated how to test for readiness—by inserting a horse-bone needle into the meat and judging its quality by the aroma released.

After a sample of their product, we said goodbye. It was only 10:00am, and my next appointment wasn’t until 2:00pm. Checking my map, I saw that it wasn’t too far away, so I decided to take a chance and head over there early. I had a little trouble finding my way—they had given me the wrong street number in their email—but after asking a passerby for directions, I arrived at Prosciuttificio Il Camarin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis factory was much larger than Prolongo. Their website advertised guided visits, and picnic tables were set up outside, waiting for the throngs of tourists to arrive for a day of prosciutto tasting. Since he wasn’t expecting me until the afternoon, owner Sergio was busy taking an inventory count. He did, however, take time out to show me through the various rooms, where thousands of hams lined the walls and rafters. In contrast to Prolongo, Il Camarin produces 15,000 hams annually.

I was finished by 11:00am and headed up the steep hill into San Daniele proper. For the next hour, I sat inside the Duomo, organizing my notes from the morning.

Ristorante Alle Vecchie CarceriFor lunch, I headed straight to Ristorante Alle Vecchie Carceri—my third time eating there. To start, they brought their usual complimentary small plate of polenta topped with ricotta affumicata and poppy seeds. I ordered an appetizer of smoked duck breast, sliced thin like prosciutto, served over a bed of mixed greens and cubes of salted cheese. The menu had said that the salad also contained apple, but there didn’t seem to be any in mine. Then, as always, I couldn’t resist ordering the cjalsòns. Up until I had tasted the amazing ones at Ristorante Salon in Arta Terme, Alle Vecchie Carceri’s had been my top favorite. They were now my second favorite, still better than most, the delicate disks of dough plump with a sweet-savory filling of potato, caramelized onion, sugar, cinnamon, and raisins. At least, they used to contain raisins—today, the fruit was conspicuously absent. Nevertheless, the cjalsòns tasted divine, swimming in melted butter and topped with cinnamon, sugar, and smoky ricotta affumicata.

After arriving back in Udine that afternoon, lethargy began to set in. It had been exactly a month since I had left San Francisco, and the constant exertion and extreme heat were taking a toll. I decided to forgo dinner out and have a picnic in my hotel room—something that I would end up doing for the remaining few days of my trip. At the rosticceria around the corner, I picked up a piece of cold, dry chicken and some marinated artichoke hearts, sour and oily. It was not an especially good meal, but all I wanted to do was go to bed and sleep.

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BordanoAfter three weeks in Carnia, it was a shock to be back in the stifling summer heat of Udine. The night was a restless one, what with my tossing and turning and constant fiddling with the air conditioner. Nevertheless, I had to rise early in order to catch the 7:30am train to Venzone.

Once there, I set out immediately across the bridge spanning the wide Tagliamento River. My destination was Bordano, home to the Casa delle Farfalle, Europe’s largest tropical butterfly garden. Since Bordano was not reachable by bus or train, I had no choice but to make the journey on foot. It was a peaceful hike along the shady highway—very few cars and no hills, the river on one side, dense woodland on the other.

Casa delle FarfalleI arrived in Bordano after about an hour, weary but delighted by the kaleidoscope of color that greeted me. The town’s tranquil streets were adorned with brilliant murals of butterflies—on houses, shops, office buildings. Even the post office had a butterfly painted above its sign.

The Casa delle Farfalle itself comprised three greenhouses, containing over 400 species of butterflies from Africa, the Amazon, and Indo-Australia. The butterflies were free to fly, surrounded by exotic vegetation in a miniature rainforest setting of vines, rare palms, and colorful orchids. The air was damp, filled with the echoes of mist and fluttering wings. Indigenous birds, reptiles, fish, and other insects completed the realistic ecosystem.

I made it back to Venzone by noon and settled down at an al fresco table at Locanda Al Municipio for lunch. I ordered the stinco di vitello: two thin slices of rather fatty veal, served with gravy and slices of tomato and cucumber. Since I still had over two hours before my return train, I lingered awhile at the restaurant and then even longer at the Duomo di Sant’Andrea. In the quiet afternoon shade outside the church, I phoned my contacts at two prosciuttifici in San Daniele and made appointments to visit the following day.

Venzone's Duomo di Sant'AndreaFinally, it was time to head back across the highway to catch my train to Udine. The station had no biglietteria, no WC, no waiting area—just a platform on either side of the tracks and a small shelter where the train schedule was posted. Given the small size of the town, I was not surprised to find only one other person waiting, a young guy over on the other side of the tracks.

Three o’clock came and went, and my train still had not come. I crossed to the opposite platform to double-check the schedule. The young guy was still there, pacing back and forth, making calls on his cell phone. He had learned that a transportation strike was in effect, and there was no way to predict whether any of the afternoon trains would be arriving. A little worried but still optimistic, I waited a bit longer to see if the next scheduled train would come. It didn’t.

Trying to fend off the panic that was starting to set in, I headed back across the highway and inside the stone walls of Venzone. I found only one business to be open at that hour, a bar in the piazza by the Duomo, and I went in to inquire about the strike. They had no information about it, nor did they know whether any buses would be running either. At least I was able to find out where the bus stop was situated along the highway and that my train ticket, which I had already purchased, was also valid on the bus.

There was one last train scheduled that afternoon, and seeing that the station was on the way to the bus stop, I thought I’d give it another chance. But my waiting was in vain—that train didn’t show up either. My last hope was the bus, but I had no clue as to its schedule until I arrived at the stop. As it turned out, the last bus of the day would be arriving within a half hour. My stomach was tied in knots as I waited, seated on the curb, not knowing if the buses were also on strike—not knowing what I would do if I were truly stranded there. The air was hot and muggy, and sweat trickled down my forehead as the minutes ticked by. Then, precisely at 5:40pm, I spotted the blue SAF bus heading my direction. Once on board, I collapsed into a window seat, closed my eyes, and breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Udine's Osteria Al Vecchio StalloBy the time I reached my hotel, it was practically time to head out for dinner. I had planned to go to Hostaria Alla Tavernetta, but the sign posted in their window said they would be closed for the next two weeks. So, without a second thought, I continued on to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo, my consistently reliable fallback. As a treat after my harrowing ordeal, I ordered my favorite dish, frico con polenta. The cheese and potato pancake was freshly made and cut into a huge wedge. It came with a rectangle of grilled white polenta, a welcome change from the soft, yellow cornmeal that Chef Mario usually served. To complete my meal, I also had my favorite of his side dishes, zucchini alla scapece (zucchini sautéed with vinegar, herbs, and spicy pepper).

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Udine's Osteria Al Vecchio StalloMy three weeks in Carnia were over, and it was time to return to Udine for the final week of my trip. From Forni Avoltri, I caught the bus to Tolmezzo, where I made the connection to Udine. I arrived just before noon, checked into Hotel Principe, and went out immediately to have lunch at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. The restaurant was packed, rather unusual for a Monday at lunchtime, although perhaps it was due to increased holiday travel. It was, after all, late July. I ordered the deliciously creamy baccalà (salt cod stew) with polenta, along with a side of grilled eggplant, zucchini, and red bell peppers.

After lunch, I took some time to unpack and rest—it was a relief to have a day without any strenuous hiking or sightseeing. Then, around 4:30pm, I headed across the street to the train station and caught the next train to Cormòns. It was a short trip, and by having my dinner at the town’s enoteca (wine bar), I would be able to get back to my hotel early and call it a night.

On my way into Cormòns, I stopped at the COOP supermarket and stocked up on apricots and peaches. After five weeks of eating in restaurants, I was really starting to miss fresh fruit.

Enoteca di CormonsWhen I arrived, the Enoteca di Cormòns was nearly empty, save for a man and woman in biking attire having wine at the bar. I sat at one of the long, wooden tables and ordered an antipasto plate of assorted cheeses, salami, prosciutto D’Osvaldo, and olives, along with a glass of Ribolla Gialla. Noticing that the couple at the bar were Americans, I invited them to join me at my table. It turned out that they were on a cycling tour of northeast Italy and had just tasted at least twenty local wines. Tempted by my plate of goodies, they ordered the same. I found it refreshing not only to be speaking English after a month of nothing but Italian, but also to not be eating alone for a change.

Friuli: Path of FlavoursThroughout my trip, I kept coming across the book Friuli: Via dei Sapori by Walter Filiputti. Since it was a large, heavy coffeetable book, however, I wanted to wait until the end of my trip to purchase it, so that I wouldn’t have to lug it around any more than necessary. Seeing that the enoteca carried copies of the book in several languages (including the English translation, Friuli: Path of Flavours), I decided to go ahead and buy it. Of all the books in my Friulian cookbook collection, this one is by far the most gorgeous, with full-color photos throughout. It features several of the restaurants I have been to—Alla Pace, La Subida, All’Androna, Al Lido—along with recipes for some of their signature dishes. The book also discusses the history of Friuli, as it pertains to the region’s cuisine, with detailed descriptions of its typical foods and artisanal products.

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berriesIt was the day of the Festa dei Frutti di Bosco in Forni Avoltri, and gauging by the number of tables set up, it looked to be the largest of the food festivals I had so far attended. The village straddled the Degano River, and most of the events were taking place on the farther side. Carnival rides had been erected in an empty parking lot, and rows of booths wound upward through the streets. By this time, I had started to recognize some of the same artisans at each festival—selling crafts such as jewelry, woodwork, paintings, dried flowers, and soap.

Forni Avoltri Though I was tempted by the vast array of food stands, I decided to wait and eat a little closer to lunchtime. So I took a short hike up into the mountains, past a dribbling brook and miniature waterfall, to the hamlet of Pierabach. The road was paved but climbed steadily uphill the entire way. I stopped after about an hour, when I had reached the Goccia di Carnia plant, where fresh spring water is bottled for sale.

Along the way, I had passed Osteria Al Fogolâr, one of the restaurants I had read about but hadn’t been able to find on my initial day of exploration. It was only 10:30am, however—still too early for lunch. Later, on my way back down to Forni Avoltri, I peeked in to see if there were any tables available, but by then the place was completely packed. No matter, I told myself, since I had planned on eating lunch at the festival anyhow.

In addition to handing out samples of prosciutto and cheese, vendors were selling sausages, herb-filled tortelli, barley soup, and of course, frico. But as always, I couldn’t resist trying the cjarsòns. I slid to the rear of the long line to wait, and to my surprise, standing in front of me were none other than Giacomo del Fabbro, president of the Centro Culturale and host of the previous evening’s cookbook event, and the mayor, whom I also recognized from the event. When they saw me, I got a major chiding from both of them for leaving the book-signing prematurely. I had assumed that the event was over when, at 10:00pm, everyone stood up and headed for the door. Apparently, that had only been the intermission. Later, there had been a food tasting, and I had missed it! I really kicked myself for that mistake, but it just shows how badly the fatigue of traveling was beginning to affect me.

After the scolding, the mayor handed me a free voucher for the cjarsòns. Then, following an interminably long wait, I finally got my plate. By this time on my trip, my standards for cjarsòns had been set extremely high. Regrettably, these fell a bit short. Made with a potato-based dough, they were heavy and doughy, over-sweetened and overcooked, and I could only bring myself to eat one.

jellyrollLuckily, my lunch was redeemed by the elaborate spread of sweets. Countless stands were serving up cookies, crêpes, frittelle (fritters), and even gelato, but the biggest tent of all held a vast display of berry-themed desserts. There were cakes and pies of all shapes and sizes, from jellyrolls decorated with whipped cream to tarts studded with a kaleidoscope of fruit. Everything featured wild berries—strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, red currants, and even gooseberries. I chose for my treat a huge slice of crostata with a thick cookie crust, mixed berry jam, and fresh blueberries peeking through the lattice top.

Forni Avoltri paradeAfter a brief rest in my room at Hotel Scarpone, I went back out in the afternoon to see the parade. Townspeople were dressed in rich medieval costumes—velvet gowns and brocade tunics, complete with faux swords and shields. I followed the procession from the center of the festival back across the river, accompanied by drummers and minstrels, and followed by a logjam of cars, everyone trying to beat the traffic out of town.

At 5:00pm, I paid a visit to the town’s Collezione Etnografica, an ethnographical museum located down the street from my hotel. Though tiny, it showcased many aspects of traditional Carnian home life, including furniture, clothing, cookware, and crafts.

Afterward, I returned to my room to rest some more before dinner. I was quietly reading, when suddenly I heard the sound of trumpets blaring. I stuck my head out the window and saw a marching band heading down the street toward the town hall. Grabbing my room key, I dashed downstairs and followed the crowd to the piazza. A pompom-waving drill team was performing, after which the Miss Carnia beauty pageant was announced. Eight model-thin girls proceeded to compete in three outfits: t-shirt and pants (or skirt), formal dress, and swimsuit. The microphone was broken, so no one could hear the announcements, but I stayed the full 90 minutes to see which waif would win the title.

It was my final night in Forni Avoltri, and not having made a reservation elsewhere, I took a chance on dinner in my hotel again. Of course, the frico was still not available, but they did have the cjarsòns. I ordered those, along with a light second course of prosciutto e melone and an insalata mista. Unfortunately, it appeared that the cjarsòns were the exact same ones being served at the festival—it did seem plausible that the hotel could have catered the event. At least these tasted fresh, though the filling was ice cold. For once, I voiced my dissatisfaction, though no offer was made to bring a new plate. As I was eating, I noticed another table being served pizzas, which were not even listed on my menu! Yet again, I was flummoxed by the obviously disparate menus. Later, when the waitress came to inquire about dessert, I had to remind her that she had not yet brought my salad. When it was finally time for dessert, I requested only a couple of apricots, which were served with knife and fork, just like my grapes two nights earlier. One of the apricots, however, was moldy inside. This time, I didn’t bother to complain; I just left the fruit open-side up on my plate, its blue and white fuzz clearly visible.

crostata alla marmellataHere is my recipe for crostata alla marmellata, inspired by the mixed berry jam tarts at both Forni Avoltri’s Festa dei Frutti di Bosco and Sauris’s Festa del Prosciutto:

Marmellata:
1 cup fresh blackberries
1 cup fresh raspberries
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup sliced fresh strawberries
1 medium apple, peeled, cored, and grated (or puréed in a food processor)
2-1/2 cups sugar

Place the blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and apple in a large pot, mashing slightly with a spoon. Cook over medium heat until the berries soften and release a little of their juice, about 5 minutes. Stir in the sugar. When the liquid begins to boil, reduce heat to low; cook until thickened, about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. (When the jam is ready, a small amount of syrup will hold its shape when cooled. To test, dip a spoon into the liquid; as it cools, the syrup will thicken and coat the spoon.) Transfer the jam to a medium bowl; cool to room temperature.

Dough:
2 cups blanched slivered almonds
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 eggs

1. Finely grind the almonds in a food processor. Transfer to a large bowl; stir in the flour, sugar, lemon peel, salt, cinnamon, and cloves. Blend in the butter, a little at a time, until crumbly. Add the eggs; mix until the dough forms a solid mass. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

2. Preheat oven to 350°F. Divide the dough into two parts, about two-thirds for the bottom crust and one-third for the lattice top. (Keep the reserved third of dough refrigerated until ready to use.) Roll the dough on a lightly floured sheet of waxed paper to form a 10- by 15-inch rectangle. Invert the dough onto a greased 10- by 15-inch baking sheet. (Any rough or broken areas may be easily patched.) Spread the jam over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border on all sides. Roll out the reserved third of dough on a lightly floured surface. Cut into 3/4-inch-wide strips; arrange the strips over the jam to make a lattice crust. Bake until the crust is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

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Forni Avoltri's Chiesetta di Sant'AntonioOn my first full day in Forni Avoltri, I would be visiting the Val Pesarina, the last of Carnia’s seven valleys on my itinerary. After an ample breakfast at Hotel Scarpone—yogurt topped with some cereal flakes, a slice of chocolate Bundt cake, a banana, and a glass of grapefruit juice—I set out to buy my bus ticket.

Since I had some time before my bus would arrive, I took a walk across the river. There I found a delightful little church, the Chiesetta di Sant’Antonio, its pink stucco walls standing out in contrast against the pale blue sky. On my walk back, a woman who was tending her garden called out the traditional Friulian greeting, “Mandi,” and I stopped to chat. Americans don’t typically venture as far north as Forni Avoltri, she told me. I must have been a real novelty, for she then called to her cousin, “Vieni a vedere l’americana!Come see the American! After I told them about my interest in Friulian cuisine, the women mentioned that there was to be a presentation on the cooking of Carnia at the Municipio that very evening.

At the bus stop moments later, I saw a flyer announcing the event, a book-signing for Cucina della Carnia by Melie Artico, a book I had coincidentally just purchased the previous week. While waiting, I asked an elderly lady which building was the town hall, and she pointed to it in the piazza behind the bus stop, also commenting that they never see any American visitors there. I told her about the book I was writing, and she said she hoped it would bring more tourists to their small town. Continuing our conversation on the bus, she asked the name of my book, so I presented her with my business card, which gave both my name and the book’s title, Flavors of Friuli. An old man sitting behind her piped up and asked for one too—as if I were someone of particular importance!

My bus arrived in Comeglians, where I had almost two hours to wait for my connecting bus to Prato Carnico. There was nothing to do or see in Comeglians, but I found a tiny church, Chiesa di San Nicolò, where I could sit and escape the harsh sun.

Prato CarnicoI arrived in Prato Carnico after a brief 15-minutes ride. The sight that caught my eye first was a home straight out of a fairy tale, with its tall, brick walls, green-tiled roof, immaculate white trim, dark green shutters, and colorful flower garden. (The green-tiled roof was a style characteristic of the nearby Val Degano, and this was the most charming example I had ever seen.)

Fortunately, the town’s one restaurant, Ristorante Ai Sette Nani, was open. Inside were several paintings of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a tribute to the restaurant’s name—one that seemed oddly appropriate after having just passed that storybook cottage with the green roof. There were only three menu items available—understandable, perhaps, given that it was a slow day and I was the only customer. I ordered the gnocchi di zucca but was dismayed when I glanced over at the bar area and saw the cook putting my plate into the microwave. Rustically misshapen—from the technique of dropping spoonfuls of dough directly into the cooking water—these pumpkin gnocchi had the potential to be delicious had they been fresh. As it stood, they were tough, doughy, and obviously reheated—a far cry from the delicate ones I had had several years earlier at Ristorante Al Fogolâr in Brazzacco.

One of the dishes on my “to-try” list that I hadn’t yet found on any menu was pendalons. I had read that this side dish of string beans and potatoes was native to the Val Pesarina, so I asked the waiter if they ever served it. They did, although he said that string beans were not currently in season. When I had finished my meal, I declined to order dessert; nevertheless, the waiter brought me a plate of crostoli—strips of fried dough dusted with powdered sugar, a traditional Carnevale treat.

As I was paying my bill at the counter, the cook (and apparently the owner/waiter’s mother) came out of the kitchen to explain to me how she prepares pendalons. Basically a potato purée mixed with string beans, hers are topped with a sauté of pancetta, onion, garlic, parsley, and chives. I took careful notes, so that I could recreate her dish at home.

Prato CarnicoAfter lunch, I took a walk to explore the tiny town. Along the highway, I passed the campanile pendente (leaning tower); its church was destroyed in an earthquake in 1700, and only the tower had been renovated. Then, finding a road leading down to the river, I crossed the bridge and wandered uphill through a residential area amid shady woods and winding roads.

Back on the highway later, I realized how far I had strayed from Prato Carnico. Instead of heading back, however, I took a gamble that I’d reach the next village, Pesariis, in time to catch my return bus. Speed walking most of the way, I made it with just five minutes to spare! Pesariis is known for its Museo dell’Orologeria, or “museum of watches.” I wished I had had time to visit, but the buses in this valley were so infrequent that I had no choice but to return to Forni Avoltri—via Comeglians again, where I had a full hour to wait for my connecting bus.

I left for dinner early, hoping that I would finish in time to attend that book-signing event. I had made a reservation at Ristorante Al Sole, located a short distance across the river. When I arrived, owner Tiziana Romanin immediately introduced me to Giacomo del Fabbro, president of the town’s Centro Culturale, who was hosting the event. He sat at my table for a few minutes before I ordered, as amused as everyone else seemed to be that an American was visiting their out-of-the-way village, and especially pleased that I was writing a book about Friulian cuisine.

Instead of handing me a menu, Tiziana suggested some of their specialties. I started with the cjarsòns, her aunt Lia’s recipe. Prepared with a potato-based dough, the pasta was filled with a mixture of fresh ricotta, raisins, crushed amaretti cookies, parsley, and cinnamon, and served with melted butter, cinnamon, and ricotta affumicata. To drink, she recommended a glass of Verduzzo, its honey and citrus notes pairing perfectly with the sweetness of the cjarsòns.

Next, I had the frico, which came with a slice of polenta, some saucy sautéed wild mushrooms, and a couple bites of veal stew. Though Tiziana had originally specified that the frico was going to be prepared con patate, what I was served actually contained no potatoes. Instead, it was a less common type called frico friabile: crunchy deep-fried cheese with the unique appearance of a porous sea sponge. I had tried this kind of frico once before, at a food festival in Arta Terme, and found it to be extremely greasy. Careful not to express any criticism, I discussed with Tiziana the various types of frico, and she eagerly brought me a thin wedge of frico made with potato and onion. This was the frico I had fell in love with several years earlier—crispy on the outside, soft and cheesy on the inside. To accompany this portion of my meal, Tiziana brought a glass of housemade red wine.

When I finished eating, I was in a hurry to pay my bill so that I could make it to the book-signing by 8:30pm. I tracked down Tiziana on my way to the front counter, and to my complete astonishment, she refused to let me pay for a thing!

Cucina della CarniaI arrived at the Municipio just in time. The room was already crowded with dozens of people seated in rows of folding chairs, but Signor del Fabbro spotted me and led me to an empty, reserved seat in front. During his opening speech, he introduced me as “a special guest from America.” The author was there, of course, along with a panel of scholars, but rather than focusing on the region’s cuisine, the discussion centered around the efforts of translating her cookbook into the Furlan language (each recipe is printed in both Italian and Furlan). I understood some of what was said, but not enough to fully hold my attention—my stomach was full, the room was uncomfortably toasty, and I was exhausted from my long walk earlier. When everyone stood up an hour later, I assumed the event was over (although, to my great embarrassment, I learned the next day that it had only been the intermission). I approached Melie Artico to autograph my copy of her book, and then, after not being able to find Signor del Fabbro to say goodbye, I just left.

During the lecture, I had noticed raindrops beginning to pelt the room’s large window. By the time I left, the skies had unleashed a full-blown thunderstorm. Not having had the foresight to carry my umbrella, I pulled my light jacket up over my head and sprinted the few blocks back to Hotel Scarpone.

pendalonsHere is the recipe for pendalons from Ristorante Ai Sette Nani:

12 ounces string beans, cut into 1-inch-long pieces
1-1/2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1. Place a steamer rack inside a large pot; fill with 1 inch of water. Place the string beans on the rack. Bring to a boil over high heat; cover and steam until just tender, about 10–15 minutes.

2. Place the potato slices in a large pot, along with 1 cup water; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 20–25 minutes, stirring occasionally as the water begins to evaporate. Remove from heat; coarsely mash the potatoes. Stir in the string beans and black pepper. Season to taste with salt.

Topping:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta, onion, and garlic; cook and stir until the onion softens and the pancetta is brown and crisp, about 7–8 minutes. Add the parsley and chives; cook and stir until wilted, about 1–2 minutes. Serve the topping over the potatoes.

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Forni AvoltriI left Forni di Sopra early, catching the 9:15am bus east to Villa Santina, where I had about 90 minutes to wait for my connecting bus north to Forni Avoltri. This was to be my final stop in Carnia—a festive one, for the town was hosting the annual Festa dei Frutti di Bosco that weekend. I arrived at 12:30pm and checked into Hotel Scarpone, conveniently located directly across the street from the bus stop.

Without even bothering to unpack, I immediately headed down to the hotel’s restaurant for lunch. Having recently learned some valuable lessons regarding pensione protocol, I didn’t hesitate to request the regular menu, explaining that I was conducting research on Friulian cuisine for a cookbook I was writing. Upon handing me the menu, however, the waitress proceeded to point to a couple of the least interesting-sounding pastas—the same ones from their pensione menu and, apparently, some of the only items available. Skimming down the list, my heart jumped when I saw cjarsòns and frico, my two favorite dishes. Unfortunately, she informed me that neither was being served that day for lunch, but that I could return and order them for dinner.

With only a few choices available, I opted to start with the ravioli alle erbe (herb ravioli). Dull and bland, they tasted like prepackaged ravioli from the refrigerator section of my supermarket back home. My second course was a huge portion of capriolo (venison), served with more polenta than I could eat. For dessert, the two selections were a crostata ai frutti di bosco (mixed berry tart) and a bowl of fresh berries with gelato. Feeling already pretty stuffed, I requested just the fruit, no ice cream. A taste of what was yet to come at the festival, the bowl contained plump blackberries, sweet strawberries, and the tiniest wild blueberries I’d ever seen.

After lunch, I took some time to unpack and settle into my room. Of all the hotels I’d stayed in that summer, this one was, on the whole, the most comfortable. Though the bed was a little firm, I found the bathroom to be unusually spacious, impeccably clean, and obviously newly renovated with its shiny pink tiles and dish of fragrant rose potpourri.

As was my custom upon landing in a new town, I took a walk to get my bearings. Across the Degano River, I found Albergo Al Sole and went in to check out the menu. At the counter, I met owner Tiziana Romanin and made a dinner reservation for the following evening. Then, I continued up the hill a ways, where I found a splendid lookout point. As I stood there surveying the valley, dismal, gray clouds began encroaching on the pale blue sky, and a few drops of rain began to fall. This was my cue to head back to my hotel, where I spent the rest of the afternoon in my room working on my laptop—and repairing a broken hinge on my umbrella (rather ingeniously, I thought) with the stripped-down wire from a twist tie.

For dinner, I returned to Hotel Scarpone’s restaurant with high hopes of trying their cjarsòns and frico. Initially, the waitress offered me the same primi choices as at lunchtime. When I asked about the cjarsòns and frico, she said that there would be no frico until tomorrow, but that they did have the cjarsòns. Enthusiastically, I ordered them, along with the petto d’anatra (duck breast)—the only second course available. Within minutes, however, the waitress returned with the news that the cjarsòns were not available after all. Disappointed, I ordered only an insalata mista to go with my meal.

As I ate, my chagrin deepened when I overheard the table behind me being offered a set of completely different menu items. Not that anything they ordered would have furthered my research any more than what I was currently having, but the disparate choices perplexed me. Later, the waitress did offer an apology for not having the cjarsòns and frico as earlier promised and assured me that they would have them tomorrow. (Since I had just made those reservations at Al Sole, I wouldn’t be able to dine at Scarpone tomorrow, though perhaps I could my final evening.)

For dessert, I had the crostata ai frutti di bosco. The tart was filled with pastry cream and topped with blackberries, blueberries, and red currants. Then, I figured that since I was already paying the pensione price for a full multicourse meal, but hadn’t ordered anything for my first course, it would not be out of line to request some fruit (one of the choices offered for dessert). The grapes on the sideboard behind me had caught my eye, and the waitress graciously brought me the entire bowl—along with, curiously, a knife and fork.

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