One evening, more than a dozen years ago, I was invited to a life-changing dinner at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo in Udine, Italy. Read my story “A Culinary Tale of Seduction” at bloggingauthors.com.
Posts Tagged ‘cjalsons’
When I woke up the next morning, I turned on the news to hear reports of another heat wave sweeping Italy, with temperatures climbing once again into the upper 90s. I was glad to be in Carnia, cooled off by the refreshing breezes that swept effortlessly down from the mountaintops. For breakfast, I tried one of the crostate I had bought in Paularo. About three inches in diameter, the tart was made with a shortbread cookie crust and filled with raspberry jam. A thin glaze of gelatin glistened underneath the neatly woven lattice top.
My plan was to take the bus from Piano d’Arta into Tolmezzo for the day, but I had one errand I needed to do first. I wanted a photo of Albergo Ristorante Salon for my book Flavors of Friuli, but it was always too dark by the time I arrived there for dinner in the evening (I didn’t have a flash on my old SLR film camera). So I hiked up to the restaurant, where a group of older men sat lounging at the tables outside the entrance. I was relieved not to see the creepy guy who had tried to pick me up the previous night. The sun, however, was still low in the morning sky; the shadow cast across the front of the building meant that I would have to return for my photo later that afternoon.
With plenty of time to catch my bus, I ambled back down the hill to wait at the stop. Within minutes, a car drove by and parked across the street. It was the old sleazeball, stalking me again. He waved, got out of his car, and came to sit next to me on the bench. Had he spotted me at Salon and followed me? Or perhaps one of his cohorts had played the informer? This was starting to freak me out! Though he obviously didn’t speak any English—and I tried not to let on that I understood his Italian—he attempted to explain about the previous night, to make sure that I hadn’t misunderstood his intentions and that he hadn’t offended me. “Va bene,” I said, “non c’è problema. Arrivederci.” Instead of dropping the issue and moving on, he offered to drive me wherever I was going. Of course, I listened to my instincts and refused. But at the same time, I remembered overhearing him tell someone at dinner the night before that he was going to Tolmezzo today. With my luck, I would run into him there, too! Finally, my bus pulled up, giving me an excuse to flee.
When I arrived in Tolmezzo, I spent a long while wandering around the town center. Most of the shops were located on one main street, and it was here I spent most of my time. I found the arts and crafts galleries especially fun for window shopping. My favorite featured a display of fantastical characters, such as fairies, gnomes, and sbilfs (woodland elves in Carnian folklore). Other stores showcased locally made furniture, jewelry, and textiles. But it was at the bookstore that I felt most at home, browsing through the cookbook section and adding four Friulian cookbooks to my growing collection.
I was excited to see that the restaurant at Albergo Roma had finally reopened. Home to renowned Carnian chef Gianni Cosetti, it had closed for renovations after his death in 2001. But at lunchtime, I was the only guest in the massive banquet hall. With tables around me dressed in yellow and white linens and studded with crystal glasses and elegant china, I felt uncomfortably out of place in my casual shorts and hiking boots. When the menu arrived, I was disappointed not to find any of the traditional dishes that Cosetti was known for—little, in fact, that sounded even remotely Friulian. Apparently, the new chef had made significant changes to the menu. Feeling rather awkward, I tiptoed out before the waitress could return.
To this day, I still feel somewhat ashamed of myself, since the food at Roma was most likely very good. Nevertheless, it was my mission to scope out authentic Friulian cooking. There was not nearly enough time on my trip to visit every restaurant in each town—and therefore very little room for error—so I headed to a place where I knew I would find exactly what I was looking for: Antica Trattoria Cooperativa.
There, I started with the insalata di pere e Montasio, a salad of lightly dressed greens topped with pear slices and a pile of shredded fresh Montasio cheese. I didn’t recognize the spice that garnished the dish, but when I inquired, I learned it was, of all things, ground coriander. Next, I ordered the cjarsòns, which came in both savory and sweet varieties. I requested half a serving of each type. The savory cjarsòns were filled with herbs and ricotta, while the sweet ones contained ricotta, raisins, and cocoa. Both were prepared with a rather heavy potato-based dough and served in melted butter.
On the bus back to Piano d’Arta, I breathed a sigh of relief, as it occurred to me that I had managed to avoid running into that obnoxious guy in Tolmezzo. Whew! Before returning to my hotel to rest, I made another trip up to Ristorante Salon. The same group of old men was still sitting outside—and my “friend” had since joined them. Although the courtyard entrance was still somewhat shaded, the sun was in a better position, and I was able to get my photo within minutes. This time, I slipped away without being followed.
Several hours later, I returned to Salon for one final dinner. It was the busiest I had ever seen it there. A large tour group filled an adjacent dining area, everyone seated at one long table. Shortly after I sat down in my usual spot, the proprietor’s wife, Fides Salon, took a brief break from her duties in the kitchen to come greet me. We were cut short as the regular guests—all the families, couples, and singles that I had grown accustomed to seeing over the past several evenings—filed in, as if on cue. Being the only server, Matteo began bustling from table to table, rattling off the day’s specials. Despite the frenetic pace, he never lost his boyish ebullience.
I couldn’t resist ordering the cjarsòns one last time. In contrast to the doughy ones I had for lunch in Tolmezzo, these were prepared with regular pasta dough, delicate enough to allow all the flavors of the dish to shine through. The first element to register on my palate was the undercurrent of sweetness—not rich but rather ethereal from a light touch of sugar and crushed biscotti. Apples, pears, dried fruit, jam, and lemon peel balanced the sugar with just the right amount of tartness. Hints of salty and smoky savoriness peeked through from the butter and ricotta affumicata. Finally, the cinnamon, cocoa, and herbs proffered an exotic complexity of tastes and aromas that lingered on my tongue long after the last bite.
As usual, I ordered a salad to go with my meal. The array of choices on Matteo’s rolling cart was beyond compare. In addition to the usual fresh ingredients—greens, radicchio, tomato, shredded carrot—there was always a variety of cooked vegetables as well. This time, I selected a mix of string beans, yellow bell peppers, and tomato. Unexpectedly, Matteo also brought me a small side of purè (mashed potatoes), a complimentary gift from the kitchen.
Even though I was too full for dessert, I remained at my table long after most of the original diners had left. My stalker had finished his dinner and was now sipping an espresso at the bar. Six tables—guests that had arrived much later—were still being served. I was hoping to have one more opportunity to speak with Bepi Salon, so I waited and waited. Finally, when I had a chance to get Matteo’s attention, I learned that Bepi had had to leave early. Despite my disappointment, I felt gratified to have had the honor of meeting both Bepi and Fides on this trip.
When I left, the sleazeball was now outside in his usual spot, smoking and chatting with the same cluster of old men. This time, he jumped up and started to follow me on foot! He caught up with me at the base of the hill and asked if I wanted to accompany him to a Latin American dance somewhere in town. This was the third instance he had followed me from the restaurant, and once again, I vehemently declined the offer. Tomorrow I would be leaving for Ravascletto—while I knew I would seriously miss Salon’s cjarsòns, I was greatly relieved to get away from this guy once and for all.
During my three weeks in Carnia, I planned to visit at least one town in each of the area’s seven valleys. Today, I would be taking a bus to Paularo, in the Valle del Chiarsò, Carnia’s easternmost valley. But first, I wanted to revisit Zuglio. The town was within walking distance from Piano d’Arta, although the sharp turns and lack of shoulder along the highway made for a harrowing half-hour’s walk. Founded by the Romans between 58 and 49 BC, Zuglio still has a section of ancient ruins standing in the center of town. I stayed just long enough to take some photos before heading back.
This time, I walked only as far as Arta Terme (Piano d’Arta was another 20 minutes further up the hill), so that I could catch the bus to Tolmezzo, where I would then change buses for Paularo. As I boarded my first bus, I immediately recognized the driver I had met the previous day on my way back from Timau. Even though it was his regular route, he was not driving but sitting toward the rear. With the comfortable familiarity that one quickly develops in such remote areas as this, I joined him across the aisle so that we could chat for the brief 10-minute journey. It occurred to me, in that moment, that I was just beginning to feel at home here.
Once in Tolmezzo, I transferred to the bus headed for Paularo. For some mysterious reason, this bus took an unscheduled detour through, of all places, Zuglio and Arta Terme! It stopped at precisely the bus stop where I had caught the earlier bus to Tolmezzo. If only I had known, I would have saved myself one bus ticket and an entire hour.
I arrived in Paularo with a bit of time to wander around before lunch. After spotting a bakery, I bought two types of crostata that I would save for my next couple breakfasts: a round tart with raspberry jam on a shortbread crust and a rectangular slice with blueberry jam and a lattice top.
For lunch, I had one particular restaurant in mind, Ristorante Al Cavallino, and I was relieved to find it open. Given my current obsession with cjarsòns, I was excited to see the dish on the menu, but for the first time in my experience, it was listed as a dessert. So for my entrée, I ordered the gnocchi antichi sapori, which turned out to be tantamount to cjarsòns. Even though they were prepared with potato-based dough rather than regular pasta dough, the decorative pinched edges very closely resembled the shape of the cjarsòns at Ristorante Salon. The flavor, however, was not sweet but savory, with a complex filling of many ingredients. My palate detected pork, bread crumbs, and some herbs that I guessed might be oregano and mint. They were served in melted butter, with a topping of toasted cornmeal, dried herbs, and melted cheese. As I was enjoying my meal, trying to dissect the flavors, the waitress came by to check on me. As was my custom, I inquired about the recipe. Coyly, she replied that it was a secret. Pressing her further, I asked if I tasted pork. Sì. Mint? Sì. Oregano? No. Perhaps the dried herb on top was in fact mint, but her lips were sealed—I would never uncover the truth.
For dessert, I eagerly ordered the cjarsòns dolci. Also made with potato dough, they looked practically identical to the gnocchi, but with a topping of cinnamon, sugar, and ricotta affumicata. Letting my palate guide me, I searched for the flavors of the filling. It was smooth and dark and sweet—my first and only guess was chocolate. The waitress shook her head. The filling was in fact made with ricotta and pears—no chocolate! Even as I finished my plate, I could hardly believe that it was not chocolate I tasted. It seemed impossible for such richness to come from fruit alone.
By this point, I had explained to the waitress that I was writing a cookbook. With sudden enthusiasm, she brought me a glass of homemade raspberry grappa—which I politely tasted, even though I found it too strong—as well as the gift of a hand-painted plate bearing the name Al Cavallino.
After lunch, I took a walk up into the hills above the town, admiring the rustic architecture typical of this part of Carnia: whitewashed masonry with dark wooden roofs and balconies. Outside each house, in row upon row of window boxes, bloomed a veritable rainbow of flowers. One 18th-century palazzo was now home to a museum called La Mozartina, featuring a collection of musical instruments and manuscripts. Unfortunately, the museum was open by appointment only, and I had not planned well enough in advance.
Back in Piano d’Arta that evening, I returned to Albergo Ristorante Salon for dinner. It was my third dinner there in a row, and I was beginning to recognize many of the same faces. It seemed that all the other diners were staying in the hotel, for they were ordering off the daily pensione menu, which Matteo recited at each table. Hearing only three choices of primi piatti and three choices of secondi piatti—all rather standard fare—made me feel grateful to be ordering off their regular, and more interesting, menu.
Tonight, I went with the capriolo in salmì, along with my usual insalata mista. The venison was stewed with juniper berries and served with polenta. My choice off Matteo’s rolling salad cart was a mix of roasted yellow peppers, potatoes, and string beans. When I finished eating, Matteo asked, with his characteristic boyish smile, if I might like something for dessert. I couldn’t resist the enticing manner in which he suggested, “Forse un po’ di sacherina?” So I indulged in “a little sachertorte,” although it was somewhat disappointing compared to the traditional Viennese version. Instead of the customary apricot jam, this cake was filled with cocoa-flavored whipped cream. On a positive note the chocolate cake was kept nice and moist by a generous dousing of grappa.
I lingered awhile afterward, in hopes that proprietor Bepi Salon would make an appearance. When he had finished eating his dinner in the kitchen, he finally came out to greet me and all the other guests. He did seem to be in a hurry, for he didn’t have the time to sit and chat as we had on my first evening. I did, however, manage to wrangle Matteo away from his duties long enough to snap a couple photos of him behind the bar.
It was getting late when I left the restaurant for the short walk back to Hotel Poldo. As I reached the bottom of the hill by the gray stone Latteria Cjarsòns building, I spotted one of the guests from dinner. An older man, perhaps in his late 50s or early 60s, he was leaning casually against his car—which was awkwardly parked in the intersection—and smoking a cigarette. Although I paid him no attention as I approached along the other side of the street, he called out to me in Italian, asking if I would like to go somewhere with him. As I pretended not to understand, it occurred to me that he had still been sitting at his table in the restaurant when I had left, just minutes earlier. Had he seen me leave and then jumped into his car to catch up to me? Was he actually stalking me? Aside from the fact that I was only 35—not to mention engaged with a ring conspicuously on my finger—this man struck me as sleazy and obnoxious. I said, “No,” with as much conviction and disdain as I could muster, and continued on my way.
The day I had been waiting for was finally here! I would be leaving Udine for a three-week stay in the mountains of Carnia. I had hotel reservations in five of the major villages and had worked the timing to coincide with several local food festivals. First on my agenda was Sauris. In May 2004, Mike and I had spent the night there, at a quaint hotel in the hamlet of Lateis. This time I would be staying in Sauris di Sotto, where the Festa del Prosciutto was being held over a period of two weekends.
From Udine, I needed to take three buses to get to Sauris. With fairly tight connections in Tolmezzo and Ampezzo, I left early so that I would have plenty of options in case one of my buses was running late. I would soon learn that Friulian buses are some of the most reliable in Italy; even connections that seemed too close for comfort ended up working out, since the connecting bus often waited for the first bus to arrive before departing. The schedule was like a well-oiled machine.
The first leg of my journey went off without a hitch. I boarded the double-decker bus, sitting on the upper level for the best views, and precisely 50 minutes later arrived in Tolmezzo. There, I had a comfortable 10-minute wait for the next bus to Ampezzo. This bus was a regular-sized coach, and we were required to put our luggage in the compartments underneath. This was a nerve-racking proposition, because now I not only had to watch the street signs vigilantly to make sure I didn’t miss my stop, but I also had to make sure the driver didn’t pull away before letting me retrieve my suitcase.
Along the way to Ampezzo, the bus picked up two large groups of children. The first was a group of at least forty grade-school kids; the second group was slightly older, likely a sports team as they were carrying bags of athletic gear. The bus was now packed beyond capacity. Boys were crammed into the aisle, laughing and shouting at the top of their lungs, as kids of that age will do. I could barely see out the window and was growing even more nervous that I’d miss my stop.
Presently, we came upon yet a third group of kids, just as large as the first two. There was obviously no room left, so the driver got out to do some negotiating with the chaperones. The minutes ticked by, and I became worried that I’d miss my connection. Without a clue what was happening, I then watched as one group of kids began filing off the bus, while the waiting group piled on. Just as jam-packed as before, the bus finally took off. Luckily, I managed to ring the bell in time, for I was the only one getting off the bus in Ampezzo. All the kids on the bus, it turned out, were continuing on to Forni di Sopra.
Right on schedule, the bus to Sauris pulled up, and to my suprise, it was already full. On the bus were the same kids that had gotten off the earlier bus to make room for the group going to Forni di Sopra. The first driver had called the driver of the Sauris bus and asked him to make an out-of-the-way trip to pick up this group. While this was far more accommodating than I would expect from any driver in the U.S., it meant that I had to squeeze myself onto a standing-room-only bus with my suitcase. This bus didn’t have a luggage compartment underneath, but luckily there was a free seat behind the driver—no one could sit there, because there were cases of water bottles stacked in front of it, but it was just the place for my bag—and one of the children generously gave me his seat next to it. In addition to the kids that had been on my original bus, there was yet another group, even larger than the first three, going to Lateis.
The road to Sauris was long and steep, with nearly continuous hairpin turns the entire way. As we began the winding ascent, the schoolkids began getting carsick left and right. The chaperone nearest me handed out plastic bags and guided the sickest kids toward the front of the bus. One poor child threw up right next to me; he partially missed the bag and got vomit all over himself. It was a relief when we arrived at Lateis and the carsick group could get off.
It was then just a short ride back down the hill from Lateis and up again toward Sauris di Sotto. Although I immediately recognized the town when we arrived, I still needed to ask someone on the street to point me in the direction of my hotel, Albergo Morgenleit. My room there turned out to be fairly spacious and comfortable, with a large bed and a desk where I could work. I was to stay here five nights and would have plenty of extra time for writing. The only view was through a couple of small windows, looking out toward the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris. When I checked in, the hotel was fully booked with yet another group of kids; I was told they were leaving in a few days and that I could move to a terrace room across the hall if I wanted. Looking back, I wish I had taken the hotel up on its offer, but once I got settled in, I felt it was a chore to have to move.
After unpacking my bags and organizing my notes on Sauris, I headed out to find some lunch. The mountain air was cool and a little breezy—much nicer than I had expected and a huge relief to get away from the sweltering heat of Udine. The pace of life seemed much more tranquil, too, despite the incessant hammering as tents for the weekend’s festival were being erected.
There were only two restaurants on my list for Sauris di Sotto, and since one of them was closed that day, I ended up at Ristorante Kursaal, where chef Daniele Cortiula—protégé of the late Carnian chef Gianni Cosetti—had made it his mission to continue the legacy of Carnian cuisine. The restaurant was split into two levels, with a casual osteria downstairs and a more elegant dining room with a prix fixe menu upstairs. Both rooms were empty, and so I seated myself at a table downstairs.
I began my meal with the cialzòns (alternate spellings include cjarsòns and cjalsòns), which were filled with fresh ricotta, raisins, and herbs. Drowning in a pool of melted butter, they were topped not with the usual ricotta affumicata but with shavings of aged Montasio cheese.
It was here that I began to question the pronunciation of this dish. Until this point, I had always heard it pronounced with an English “ch” sound, as in chawl-ZOHNZ or chahr-ZOHNZ. At Kursaal, however, the waitress pronounced the word with a hard “k”: kee-awl-ZOHNZ. Over the next several years, I continued to be perplexed over the true pronunciation of the word, having heard as many disparate pronunciations as there are spellings. I finally concluded that the true Furlan pronunciation begins with a “k” sound, despite several variations in endings (-ZOHNZ; -CHOHNZ; -SHOHNZ), and that the “ch” variation that I had previously heard may in fact be simply an Italianization; since there is no letter “j” in the Italian alphabet, it may be that the letters “cja” were spoken as “cia,” which are pronounced in English as cha.
Next, I ordered the frico, which was quite possibly the best I had ever had. Served with grilled polenta, the frico was formed into a six-inch pancake. The outside was crisp and golden, while the inside had the velvety softness of mashed potatoes, with just enough cheese to melt in your mouth but not so much that it oozed grease. Cortiula also tossed bits of diced speck into the mix for added flavor.
For dessert, I indulged in a slice of torta di pere e noci: a light, crumbly square of yellow cake, baked with chopped walnuts and a slice of pear set into the top. The cake was served with a sprinkle of powdered sugar and a drizzle of chocolate sauce.
After lunch, I mustered enough courage to go meet Cortiula. I was a tad nervous, for I had made an embarrassing blunder in an email to him earlier that year. I was writing to inform him of my cookbook project and upcoming visit; somehow I got my vowels mixed up and addressed him as the female “Daniela” rather than the male “Daniele.” I made no mention of my error and couldn’t tell if he remembered, but still I felt that his reception was a bit chilly. Nevertheless, he agreed to prepare a couple of Carnian dishes for me that evening.
In the meantime, I took a long stroll to explore the village. First, I headed to the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris, a barn-like factory that has been producing its special brand of smoked prosciutto since 1862. A tour bus sat outside waiting for a group of older folk to finish their guided visit. Upon inquiring, I was told that they only offer guided tours to large groups; however, there was a group scheduled for Friday at 3:30pm, and I was invited to tag along.
Next, I discovered the Tessitura Artigiana di Sauris, a shop specializing in traditional Carnian textiles. I selected and purchased four handwoven placemats—which I would later use as props when photographing my recipes—and then paid a visit to the onion-domed Chiesa di Sant’Osvaldo.
At the tourist office, I saw a flyer advertising an excursion to two local malghe, or “dairy farms,” high up in the mountains above Sauris di Sopra. The hike was scheduled for Saturday and would take six hours round-trip, with the closest malga being about an hour and a half away. I wasn’t sure I’d be up for a six-hour hike, but I thought perhaps, one of these days, I could undertake the hike to the first malga on my own.
For dinner, I returned to Ristorante Kursaal, which was still surprisingly empty. The first dish Cortiula prepared for me was toç in braide: a bowl of soupy polenta topped with a sauce of thinned ricotta, a pile of sautéed mushrooms, and a drizzle of toasted cornmeal in browned butter. Next came a plate of blècs: buckwheat pasta cut into triangles and topped with sautéed mushrooms and grated Montasio. Depending on the season, the thick, chewy pasta can be served with any number of toppings, from meat to vegetables to cheese.
As I ate, the waitresses intermittently passed through the dining room but seemed to avoid making eye contact with me. All of our exchanges were short and terse, even though I expressed a genuine interest in the preparation of the two dishes. Were the women merely tired and bored, or were they being intentionally brusque? This was quite unlike my typical experience here; most of the time, I had found Friulians to be exceptionally gracious. While the meal more than satisfied my hunger—it helped me to further appreciate the region’s history by experiencing its traditional cucina povera (cooking of the poor)—I was beginning to feel a dissatisfaction creep up on me. With the staff treating me so coldly and the room still devoid of other diners, I felt lonelier than I had in many years.
Back at Hotel Morgenleit, instead of retiring directly to my room as usual, I wandered around the halls and stumbled by chance upon a game room. While browsing the bookshelves—being particularly intrigued by a cookbook entitled Cucina & Vini Friulani nel Mondo—the room was suddenly stormed by a couple dozen screaming young boys. Although I yearned for company, this was not the company I desired, so I borrowed the book and fled to my room for the night.
After a restless night on an uncomfortably hard bed in an overheated room, breakfast at Hotel Valle Verde offered little comfort: just the average spread of rolls and croissants with an unusual, neon orange–colored juice that turned out to be a mixture of carrot, orange, and lemon. At least the rain clouds had finally moved on, leaving the spring skies a brilliant azure blue.
Our goal for the day was to attend the Sagra dei Cjalsòns, a festival celebrating my favorite Friulian dish. From Tarvisio, Mike and I drove the short distance to Pontebba, where we turned off the highway to follow a narrow gravel road to the hamlet of Studena Bassa. Having arrived 30 minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, we took a stroll along the shallow stream that ran through the village toward Pontebba. All around us towered tall, granite peaks, the only sound being the trickle of water over pebbles and the swoosh as it flowed over a small dam.
Back at the festival, we sat and waited, finally watching the clock tick 11:00am. Where were all the visitors? The makeshift parking lot was empty, as was the small tent filled with wooden picnic tables and bordered by a cement dance floor. I expected that many more people would show up around lunchtime; however, since we were anxious to get back on the road, we ordered two servings of cjalsòns and one frico con polenta to take with us in the car.
On the hour-long drive back to Udine, we nibbled first on the frico, a cheese and potato pancake, soft and cheesy on the inside with a crisp, golden crust. Then came the cjalsòns—the recipe seemed identical to the one given to me by cooking instructor Gianna Modotti, who had grown up in Pontebba. Often, cjalsòns combine both sweet and savory flavors, but this version was entirely sweet: sizeable pouches of dough were stuffed with dried fruit and fresh ricotta and served with melted butter, sugar, and cinnamon.
Upon arriving in Udine, we spent a full half hour searching, unsuccessfully, for a gas station. Being Sunday, I expected that most would be closed, but even the self-service stations were lacking a working bank-card machine. So we gave up and returned to Hotel Principe to check in for our final night. (The next morning, before our departure, Mike and I got up early to fill the tank and return the car. We were pleasantly amused to find the cutest little, old lady pumping gas at the nearby Shell station.)
As this was our last day in Udine, we took one final wander through the city—past the Duomo, through Piazza della Libertà, up the hill to the castello. The mid-afternoon sun was sweltering, so we each indulged in a cup of gelato—I had yogurt, fragola, and limone; Mike had melone, ananas, and frutti di bosco—which we savored in the shade of Piazzale del Castello. There we sat for the rest of the afternoon, watching the world come and go—elderly signori out for a stroll, young couples sunbathing, children kicking around a ball.
For dinner, we returned one last time to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. By now, the waiter recognized us and knew our drink order without having to ask—un mezzo rosso. I ordered my beloved frico con polenta (that’s twice in one day!) with a side of zucchini alla scapece (zucchini sautéed with vinegar, herbs, and spicy pepper). Mike also had the frico, along with a plate of his equally beloved prosciutto di San Daniele. The meal was simple but enormously satisfying. It was with a heavy heart that I left the restaurant that evening. Al Vecchio Stallo had become a great source of comfort to me in this corner of Italy. On all my solo trips up to this point, it was the only place where I had felt thoroughly at ease when dining alone. I was already looking forward to my next trip the following summer!
1 cup semolina flour
1/4 cup boiling water, plus extra as needed
1 tablespoon olive oil
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, boiling water, and olive oil. Transfer the dough to a clean surface; knead until the flour is fully incorporated and the mixture becomes smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. (If the dough is too dry or crumbly, lightly moisten your fingers with water during kneading until you reach the desired texture.) Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.
8 dried figs
8 dried plums
1/4 cup golden raisins
1 cup medium-bodied red wine (such as Merlot)
1 cup fresh ricotta
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Place the dried figs, plums, and raisins in a small saucepan; pour in the red wine. (The fruit should be mostly submerged; if it is not, slice any large figs and plums in half.) Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low; simmer until the liquid has evaporated and the fruit is soft, about 20–25 minutes. Remove from heat; cool to room temperature.
2. Purée the fruit in a food processor. Transfer to a medium bowl; stir in the ricotta and cinnamon. Refrigerate for 1 hour, or until ready to use.
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Working in batches, feed the dough through the rollers of a pasta machine until very thin (setting #7 on most machines). Cut out 3-1/2 inch circles from the dough. Place 1 tablespoon filling on each circle. Moisten the edges with water and fold in half to make a semi-circle, sealing the edges tightly. Place filled-side down, pressing slightly so it will stand on end like a purse. Pinch the seal to form a scalloped edge (like a fluted pie crust).
2. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Working in batches, place the cjalsòns in the water; cook until they rise to the surface, about 3–4 minutes. Drain.
3. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat; remove from heat. Stir in the sugar and cinnamon; add the cjalsòns and toss to coat with butter.
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.
Posted in Travel in Friuli, tagged bakery, Cividale, cjalsons, cookbooks, dessert, food, Friuli, Friuli Venezia Giulia, gubana, Italian food, Italy, travel, Udine on January 29, 2013 | Leave a Comment »
When traveling, there is almost no feeling worse than that of waking up sick. This was my fate one chilly winter morning in Udine. Always being prepared for the worst, I was well stocked with cold meds. I grabbed a lozenge for my sore throat, rolled over in my hotel bed, and went back to sleep. When I awoke several hours later, I determined that I didn’t have the flu, just a cold, and so decided to venture out anyway. I chose the easiest, quickest day trip from Udine: Cividale del Friuli, a delightful medieval town on the banks of the Natisone River.
I took the 10:30 train and arrived within 20 minutes. A short walk from the station brought me to Piazza Alberto Picco and the town’s most revered bakery, Pasticceria Ducale. The display counters were brimming with chocolate-glazed, fruit-filled, and sugar-dusted pastries, but I chose instead to buy the town’s signature dessert, gubana—a large, spiral cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices. (I should say, to be more accurate, “gubana delle Valli del Natisone,” since there are two types of gubana, the other being “gubana Cividalese.”) While much gubana is nowadays mass-produced, such as the popular Vogrig brand, Pasticceria Ducale is one of the few bakeries still baking it the old-fashioned way.
While making my purchase, I explained my project to the signora and asked one of my most nagging questions: Is there any difference between gubana and the similar-looking pastries from Trieste, putizza and presnitz, or are they simply regional names for the same dessert? She explained that Trieste’s putizza contains chocolate, while gubana delle Valli del Natisone does not; otherwise they are very much the same. She also believed that gubana Cividalese and presnitz were identical, being made with puff pastry instead of yeast dough. (Since then I have learned that, while this may be true for modern versions of the pastries, historically there is one important difference. Because Trieste’s wealth during the Hapsburg era brought an increased availability of exotic imports such as spices, nuts, and liqueurs, presnitz was considered a more refined pastry and typically comprised a significantly longer ingredient list than gubana.)
When I timidly made my standard request for a recipe, she stepped into the back room and brought out a beautiful cookbook that featured their bakery’s version of gubana. Called Dulcis in Fundo (a play on words that means literally “sweet at the bottom” and figuratively “to save the best for last”), the book was a compilation of recipes from Friuli’s most prestigious bakeries. Divided into four sections corresponding to the region’s four provinces, it was filled with gorgeous color photos and thorough information on the culinary history of Friuli’s desserts. To my surprise, she proceeded to give me the book as a gift! So far, this was one of the nicest gestures anyone had shown me and truly demonstrates the inherent kindness of the Friulian people. To this day, I treasure this cookbook as one of my favorites.
Since I had previously been to many of the town’s main sights—Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Tempietto Longobardo, Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta, Ipogeo Celtico—this visit I was more interested in the town’s bakeries. I next strolled to Panificio Cattarossi, located near the entrance to the Ponte del Diavolo. There I sampled a tiny gubanetta Cividalese, a palm-sized spiral of puff pastry prepared with the same ingredients as the larger, snake-like gubana Cividalese.
The sky was overcast and threatened snow. I shivered inside my down-filled jacket, longing for something to warm me up—perhaps a hearty stew. Just as the clock struck noon, I turned into Ristorante Al Monastero. Instantly, I was warmed by the fire in the fogolâr (fireplace) in one of the cozy back rooms. A chubby Bacchus peered down from a fresco set amid wooden panels in the ceiling. Grape-motif plates and yellow tablecloths completed the elegantly rustic picture.
To start, I ordered cjalsòns, which had become a must-have for me in any restaurant. I was determined to try as many varieties as possible. These were three rather large half-moons, made with potato-based dough and stuffed with spinach, raisins, and pinenuts. Instead of the usual butter, these were served in a cream sauce, but did come with the typical topping of cinnamon and ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta cheese). Overall, they were a bit heavy and not as flavorful as the cjalsòns that had enchanted me several years earlier. I was learning that I prefer a lighter pasta dough to this doughy, gnocchi-like version.
Next, I satisfied my craving for stew with a generous plate of goulasch. Tender chunks of beef were simmered in a rich, spicy sauce redolent of red wine and paprika and served with grilled polenta, roasted potatoes, and veggies. Although goulasch, or “gulyas,” is Hungarian by origin, it has become a staple in restaurants throughout Friuli-Venezia Giulia, since the region was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
After my leisurely lunch, the weather had turned even nippier. Seeing as all the shops were closed for the afternoon, I took the train back to Udine right away. Once there, I embarked on a two-hour passeggiata that circled past Udine’s main sights in the Venetian-styled Piazza della Libertà, over the hill to the vast, round Piazza Primo Maggio, along the murky canal on Via Zanon, and winding up in Piazza XX Settembre to see the stately Casa Veneziana. Originally built several blocks away on Via Rialto, this immense, stone palazzo was reconstructed here in 1929 to make way for a new municipal building. Its dull, grayish-pink façade is marked by arched Gothic-style windows, Udine’s coat of arms, and a crest of the winged lion. (Having served as a parking lot for many years, Piazza XX Settembre was renovated in 2010 as a pedestrian area with farmers’ markets, free Wi-Fi, and a book-exchange program.)
By this time, my cold was progressing, and I couldn’t face the thought of braving the elements later that evening. So instead of planning a dinner out, I stopped by a market on Via Roma for some prosciutto di Sauris, Montasio cheese and grilled zucchini. After a light picnic in my room—and a slice of that gubana for dessert—I was fast asleep by 8:30pm. Dulcis in fundo!
Following another satisfying breakfast buffet at Udine’s Hotel Principe, I set out for the bus station, conveniently located just a few steps down the street, and caught an early bus to San Daniele del Friuli. After we passed a string of roadside factories in suburban Udine, the views became more scenic, at least in a barren, wintry sort of way. An outline of towering, rocky mountains—barely visible through the haze—served as a backdrop to russet-gray fields and distant church spires. Hilltop towns speckled the landscape, and homes with cream-colored stucco walls and red-tiled roofs lined the narrow streets as we rode through. The countryside seemed to echo the muted colors of an early Renaissance painting: rust red, terracotta orange, polenta yellow, olive green, peachy pink, and chocolate brown.
Forty minutes later, the bus climbed its final hill and pulled into San Daniele’s Piazza IV Novembre. From there I followed the main road upward until I reached Piazza del Duomo. It was Christmastime, and a giant tree graced the center of the square. Angels adorned the façade of the pristine, white Duomo di San Michele Arcangelo, which had been renovated in the Palladian style during the 18th century. Inside were some fresco models that the artist Tiepolo designed (although never painted) for the Chiesa della Fratta.
Circling behind the Duomo and its campanile, I followed a sign to the castello and ended up in a shady park on the site of a former medieval (and possibly late Roman) fortress. The Chiesa di San Daniele in Castello contains some archeological excavations of the castle, but that morning the church was closed, so I sat for awhile on a bench overlooking the countryside, everything still gray in the morning mist.
From the park, stairs led down the hillside, but instead I backtracked and found my way to the Portone di Tramontana—better known as Il Portonàt. Built in 1579 by Palladio, it is the only gateway into this once fortified town that remains undamaged. From there I visited my favorite church in San Daniele, Chiesa di Sant’Antonio Abate. A rose window shone from the Venetian Gothic façade, and the inside walls and ceiling were painted with vividly colored frescoes by Pellegrino da San Daniele.
It was getting close to lunchtime, so I headed toward my restaurant of choice, Ristorante Alle Vecchie Carceri. Having perused the menu outside the door, I was, as usual, enticed by the offering of cjalsòns. Inside, the simple yet sophisticated décor—white damask linens and emerald green accents throughout—belied the building’s history as an old Austrian prison.
A complimentary appetizer consisted of a small mound of polenta topped by two wafers of frico croccante (Montasio cheese crisps), a pile of ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta cheese), and a sprinkling of poppy seeds. Next, I ordered a plate of mixed salumi, which included prosciutto di San Daniele, several types of salami, and an assortment of pickled vegetables served over baby spinach. I must mention the bread basket, which was one of the most varied and interesting I’ve ever experienced. Everything was freshly baked: soft rosemary rolls, a whole wheat twist with walnuts and currants, an herb roll flecked with green, and thick homemade grissini.
Their cjalsòns were the best I had tasted up to that point. (My absolute favorite cjalsòns are from Ristorante Salon in Arta Terme!) These were round and plump, shaped rather like a flying saucer. The filling was made with mashed potatoes, caramelized onion, and raisins. The cjalsòns were served in a generous pool of melted butter and topped with cinnamon, sugar, and ricotta affumicata. Cinnamon sticks and piles of raisins garnished the plate.
For dessert, I ordered the “sformato al cioccolato con cuore fondente e composta al pompelmo rosa.” Inside this mini chocolate cake was a molten center that oozed out when pricked with my fork. The cake was served with two thin wafer cookies, a dollop of whipped cream, a sauce of bitter pink grapefruit peel, some red currants, and a dusting of cocoa and powdered sugar. Like all their presentations, this plate looked as artfully designed as it was delicious—a perfect end to my first day in San Daniele!
1 cup semolina flour
1/4 cup boiling water, plus extra as needed
1 tablespoon olive oil
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, boiling water, and olive oil. Transfer the dough to a clean surface; knead until the flour is fully incorporated and the mixture becomes smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. (If the dough is too dry or crumbly, lightly moisten your fingers with water during kneading until you reach the desired texture.) Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.
1/4 cup raisins
12 ounces white potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel
1/4 teaspoon salt
1. Place the raisins in a small bowl and cover with water. Let soak for 30 minutes; drain. Place the potatoes in a medium pot filled with water; bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes and place in a medium bowl; mash well. Cool to room temperature.
2. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion; cook and stir until golden brown and caramelized, about 30–40 minutes. Purée the onion in a food processor; stir into the mashed potatoes.
3. Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the parsley; cook and stir until wilted and beginning to brown, about 2 minutes. Stir into the potato mixture, along with the drained raisins, sugar, lemon peel, and salt. Refrigerate for 1 hour, or until ready to use.
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup grated ricotta affumicata
Cinnamon sticks (optional)
1. Working in batches, feed the dough through the rollers of a pasta machine until very thin (setting #7 on most machines). Cut out 3-inch circles from the dough. Place 1 heaping tablespoon filling on half the circles. Moisten the edges with water; cover each with another circle of dough, sealing the edges tightly.
2. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Working in batches, place the cjalsòns in the water; cook until they rise to the surface, about 1–2 minutes. Drain.
3. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat; remove from heat. Add the cjalsòns and toss to coat with butter. Divide the cjalsòns among serving plates; drizzle with any excess butter from the skillet. Top with grated ricotta affumicata; sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Garnish with extra raisins and cinnamon sticks, if desired.
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!
Welcome to my blog! One of the most difficult aspects of writing my book Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy was choosing which pieces to include. Obviously, there were many, many details of my travels (specific meals, days spent sightseeing, characters I met along the way) that never made it into the book. Well, I’ve decided to share these personal stories with you now.
I’ll begin with my story of how it all began. I was a full-time Pilates instructor, preparing to self-publish my first book, Balance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates. Having been obsessed with Italy for as long as I can remember, I was always looking for an excuse to travel there. So when it occurred to me that the Gymnastik Balls I had been using for the exercises in my book were made in Italy, I immediately contacted the company and set up a meeting with the owner. It just so happened that the company, called Ledragomma, was located in a small town outside Udine, right in the heart of Friuli.
So it was in February 2000 that I made that first trip to Friuli. I flew into Milano Malpensa and took a train the next morning to Udine. The owner of Ledragomma, Steno Dondè, had recommended a hotel on the outskirts of town called Hotel President. It was quite adequate in all aspects except for the fact that it was so far away from the city’s center—and any decent restaurants. But that didn’t matter so much at the time—I was just thrilled because it was the first time I had splurged on a room with its own bathroom!
Steno (or Signor Dondè, as I called him then) picked me up the following morning and drove me to the Ledragomma factory in Osoppo where I watched vats of oily, green liquid transform into large, rubber balls. A giant cage held hundreds of variously colored balls piled high to the ceiling. We had our business meeting, formal and brief, getting by with a mix of both Italian and English. The outcome of the meeting was an arrangement with their U.S. distributor to help subsidize the first printing of my book (it’s now on its third printing) in exchange for displaying their logo on the cover.
Italians seem to have a very personal approach when it comes to doing business, and so after our meeting, Steno invited me to join him for lunch. He drove me to a town called San Daniele, where they make what I now know to be the world-famous prosciutto. We stopped at a small place called Prosciutto Al Paradiso and enjoyed a huge platter of prosciutto, accompanied by bread and olives and glasses of Merlot.
As we talked, Steno discovered that cooking was one of my favorite hobbies and that I was especially interested in Italian food. When I had described the uninspiring meal of spaghetti al ragù at Pizzeria Da Carmine that I had endured the previous evening, he determined to introduce me to true Friulian cuisine. We made plans to meet later that week for dinner. Although I didn’t know it yet, this dinner would turn out to be a turning point in my life.
The restaurant Steno took me to is one of the oldest in Udine, called Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. Occupying a 17th-century building that used to be a horse stable, the osteria has been serving food for at least a hundred years. It was a rainy winter evening, and the osteria was packed with people coming in out of the cold. I let Steno order for me. I began with cialcions (also commonly spelled cjalsòns), a filled pasta from the mountainous area in northern Friuli called Carnia. While there are countless recipes for cjalsons, most are either sweet or a combination of sweet and savory. The version at Al Vecchio Stallo was on the savory side, filled with herbs and providing only a hint of sweetness from the cinnamon and butter. They were topped with ricotta affumicata, a smoked ricotta cheese that is one of Friuli’s specialties.
Next, I had frico con polenta, a fried cheese and potato pancake served with polenta. Cut from a skillet-sized pancake, the wedge of frico was crispy on the outside and oozing with melted cheese and mashed potato goodness on the inside. Being a sucker for melted cheese, I was instantly captivated.
The next dish, however, was not love-at-first-bite. As a side dish, or contorno, Steno ordered one of his favorite comfort foods—brovada. At the time my limited language skills didn’t help me understand what I was eating, but it was sour and vinegary and I didn’t like it at all. Later, when I was able to consult my dictionary, I figured out that the dish was made of turnips. Further research taught me how they were fermented for a month in the residue leftover from pressing grapes for wine. I’ve since developed an appreciation for brovada, the same way I’ve developed an appreciation for getting up at 6:00am every day—not so bad once I’m used to it but definitely not something I would choose willingly.
Our meal ended with sorbetto di limone—a rather runny lemon sorbet in a glass that I suspected was spiked with something along the lines of grappa. (Looking back, I believe it may have been the Venetian cocktail sgroppino, or at least a variation on it.) And so concluded my first Friulian dinner. It would be another four years before I would start working on Flavors of Friuli, but the seeds were planted and I was hooked.