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!