My second meeting with cooking instructor Gianna Modotti was scheduled for mid-afternoon, so I had the entire morning free. As I pondered my options over a late breakfast, I considered going to Tavagnacco, a town not too far from Udine and known for its white asparagus crops; however, after consulting the schedule, I found I had just missed the bus and would have to wait an hour for the next one. So I decided instead to make another quick visit to Cividale—the town was familiar, it had plenty of medieval character, and the train was leaving in 15 minutes. That gave me just enough time to grab my bag and head across the street to the train station.
Every so often over the years, I would occasionally have an “off” day, when plans don’t run smoothly and decision making is virtually impossible. Well, this would turn out to be one of those days. I arrived in Cividale, and after wandering past the town’s main landmarks—the Duomo, the Tempietto Longobardo, and Piazza Paolo Diacono—I discovered a path leading down to the bank of the Natisone River. At the emerald green water’s edge, there was a small, pebbly beach, and I sat here until lunchtime, listening to the rushing of the currents and feeling myself being pulled into a state of inertia.
I was hoping to have lunch at Osteria Alla Terrazza, because not only do they serve a number of traditional Friulian dishes, but the atmosphere is friendly and casual—an important consideration when dining alone. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that they were closed on Wednesdays. What followed was a routine that I repeated all too often in my travels: pacing a town’s streets, searching for the “perfect” restaurant. In this case, it was critical that I taste at least one Friulian dish; otherwise, from a research standpoint, it would be a wasted meal. With just over a week left on my trip and still a long list of recipes I needed to sample, my restaurant selection was more important than ever.
To my disappointment, quite a few restaurants in Cividale were closed that day. Of the ones that were open, I couldn’t find a single menu that featured traditional Friulian cuisine. In frustration, I headed back to Udine. Once there, I circled the city center for nearly an hour, unable to settle on anything—every restaurant I passed was either closed or filled with smoke. At long last, I happened upon Osteria Alla Ghiacciaia and was seated at a shady outdoor table overlooking one of Udine’s ancient canals. Able to finally relax, I ordered the herb-filled ravioli, which was topped with melted butter and ricotta affumicata. Next, I enjoyed a plate of white asparagus, abundant this time of year, served with an egg salad dressed lightly with oil and vinegar.
Following my late lunch, I had no time to spare before meeting Signora Modotti. On the way, I grabbed a gelato (cioccolato and stracciatella—two of my favorite flavors) to savor on the long walk to her house. She greeted me with the same irresistible smile and, just like the previous afternoon, welcomed me into her home with the warmth and hospitality that I encountered so often in Friuli.
I was prepared with a list of questions that had come up in my efforts to translate recipes from Italian into English—mundane details such as how many grams of baking powder were in a bustina di lievito, and if it was in fact baking powder and not baking soda. I also came prepared with the list of recipes that I intended to include in my book and was relieved to know that it met with her approval.
I began by asking about her childhood growing up in Pontebba, and she responded by giving me her hometown’s recipe for cjalsòns. Each town in northern Friuli has their own version of this filled pasta, and most contain a combination of savory and sweet ingredients. These, however, were unquestionably sweet, with a filling of dried fruit, ricotta, and cinnamon. (Mike and I were planning on attending Pontebba’s Sagra dei Cjalsòns the following week, and I was looking forward to trying those cjalsòns for myself.)
As we discussed each recipe, many points were clarified. For example, I had apparently mistranslated the instructions for the Triestine dish patate in tecia and ended up having disastrous results trying to flip it like a pancake. Signora Modotti explained that the dish was meant to be stirred rather than flipped—a fact I realized for myself later that week, when Mike and I would be spending several days in Trieste.
While I appreciated learning her opinions about certain recipes—for instance, she never used pancetta in frico con patate and only used fresh plums in gnocchi di susine—at times it only served to confuse rather than clarify. A good example was the continuing debate over whether Friulian goulasch contained any tomato. I could have sworn I tasted tomato in my very first plate of goulasch and had read several local cookbook recipes that listed either tomato sauce or paste. But ever since then, I had been asking each and every restaurant, only to hear the same answer: never tomato, only paprika. Signora Modotti gave the same response, and so my quest for the truth continued. (By the end of my research process, I did finally receive a satisfactory answer from a small buffet in Trieste. More on this later…)
Another burning dilemma was the preparation of baccalà alla Triestina. Some versions were baked while others were cooked on the stovetop. Some recipes called for potatoes, others tomatoes, and still others included olives, anchovies, and/or raisins. To confuse me even further, the term baccalà alla Triestina was also sometimes used for what Venetians call baccalà mantecato. Signora Modotti gave me her recipe, which contained potatoes, anchovies, parsley, parmesan, and tomato paste. (Like the goulasch quandary, it would be some time before I settled upon a recipe that best exemplified the dish. In fact, I decided not to even title it baccalà alla Triestina. Following the lead of Cesare Fonda’s Cucina Triestina, I compromised by using both tomatoes and potatoes and naming it baccalà in rosso, while calling my salt cod purée baccalà in bianco.)
Our meeting lasted four straight hours, and I left with a massive headache. As usual, my concentration was extremely intense as I struggled to follow Signora Modotti’s Italian. Although she spoke the language quite properly—unlike other regions that have distinct dialects, Friulians historically spoke Furlan and learned Italian only while attending school—my fluency was still somewhat lacking, and it took great effort on my part to understand thoroughly all she said.
Being Wednesday, my old stand-by, Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo, was closed, so I ate a quick dinner in the subterranean Osteria Alle Volte: grilled scallops followed by duck breast with asparagus in a balsamic sauce. Perhaps it was the anticipation of Mike’s arrival, but I suddenly realized that for once I was feeling lonely. Most of my trips to Italy had been solo ones, and I genuinely loved the freedom of traveling alone. This time, however, I was truly looking forward to having some company—especially at the dinner table.