For my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Frittata alle Erbe (Herb Frittata), to showcase all those fragrant springtime herbs. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.
Posts Tagged ‘food’
Posted in Travel in Friuli, tagged Carnia, cjarsons, cookbooks, food, Forni Avoltri, frico, Friuli, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italian food, Italy, potatoes, Prato Carnico, string beans, travel on March 26, 2014 | Leave a Comment »
On 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.
I 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.
After 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!
I 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.
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.
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.
I 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.
It was my final day in Forni di Sopra. With absolutely no agenda other than to take in the gorgeous scenery, I headed out after breakfast to explore the other side of the river. At this time of year, the Tagliamento River was merely a wide, nearly dry riverbed, with only a shallow trickle of water zigzagging through the gravel. Across the bridge was the Centro Sportivo, an immense recreational complex comprising a swimming pool, gym, spa, tennis courts, soccer fields, and so much more. Not being quite the height of the holiday season, there were no crowds yet. All this would change on the upcoming weekend, the last one in July, when families throughout Italy would be embarking on their lengthy summer vacations.
Crossing the bridge back into town, I then turned to head up into the hills, where the grassy meadows were strewn with yellow, purple, and white wildflowers. To the west, I could see the jagged, gray Dolomites peeking up over the softer peaks of forested mountain. The sky was a brilliant blue, a sea of tranquility stirred only by the giant puffballs of cloud drifting by. When I felt I had hiked far enough, I retraced my steps down to Forni di Sopra and back across the bridge. There, I found a bench on which to rest until noon.
For lunch, I returned to the restaurant that had caught my attention two nights prior but had been closed: Osteria Agli Sportivi. They were open this time, though I seemed to be the only customer. I ordered a plate of agnolotti, which were filled with Montasio cheese and served surrounding a mound of grated pear. Reminiscent of cjarsòns, the dish was topped with cinnamon and grated Montasio.
After lunch, I returned to Albergo Centrale for an afternoon of writing. Like I had done in other hotels, I set up my laptop computer in the bar downstairs. I worked without distraction for several hours, then returned to my room to rest and take a nap. As soon as I plugged my computer back in to charge, however, the electricity in my room suddenly went out. I had blown a fuse! Embarrassed and full of apologies, I found the owner, and he lackadaisically climbed the stairs to reset the circuit breaker in the hall.
I then collapsed onto my flimsy mattress, my body sagging deep into the spongy valley of foam, but soon I began to feel antsy and claustrophobic. Around 5:00pm, I decided to take another trip to Cella. Yesterday afternoon I had made the 15-minute walk there, but the Chiesa di San Floriano had been closed. This time the church was open, and the frescoes by Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo were as colorful as I had imagined.
From there, I returned to Forni di Sopra, crossed the bridge over the river once more, and walked to the Parco Giochi Comunale “Pineta.” Located directly across from Cella, this park featured several small lakes and a children’s playground. I took a long stroll around one of the lakes, watching as a couple of children were feeding some mallard ducks. While the sky to the north was still sunny and blue, dark storm clouds began to creep over the western Dolomites. A cool wind picked up, blowing ripples across the placid pond.
With a storm obviously brewing, I made my way back for one last meal at Osteria Al Tulat. For the first time that I could remember on this trip, I was actually starving at dinnertime. I arrived a little early, so that I could spend some extra time perusing Chef Rocky’s cookbook La Cucina Friulana by Emilia Valli. A wealth of information on Friulian cuisine, the book had been immensely useful in my research.
When it was time to eat, the waitress invited me to help myself from the antipasto buffet: a cart of vegetable dishes that included marinated bell peppers, eggplant, pearl onions, and string beans, as well as some delicious, briny anchovies. On my first evening, as there was no written menu, the waitress had given me a verbal list of choices. The second evening, I had agreed to let the chef determine my dinner. Tonight, I was wondering how exactly my meal might evolve when Chef Rocky stuck his head out from his tiny kitchen and asked if I would like some gnocchetti. I assented, although I actually misheard him to say due (two) rather than degli (some) gnocchetti—my mistake became clear when a small bowlful of dumplings arrived at my table. Prepared from the same green spinach-and-potato dough as last night’s cjarsòns, these diminuitive gnocchi were topped with melted butter and ricotta affumicata.
Finally, Rocky brought out a plate holding two fried sardines—to be precise, as I later surmised, they were European anchovies, a type of “blue fish” caught in the waters off Friuli’s coast. The fish were only about three inches long, butterflied and flattened, then coated in very fine bread crumbs and fried.
It was a real treat for me to hand over the culinary decision-making to Chef Rocky. While the dishes were rustic and uncomplicated, there was a certain charm to their simplicity. Although Rocky is no longer cooking at Osteria Al Tulat, I have never forgotten his hospitality.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Luca Manfé, Friuli native and winner of MasterChef Season 4. Originally from Aviano in the province of Pordenone, Luca moved to the U.S. in his early 20s to follow the American dream. Having worked in a pub in his hometown from the age of 16, he continued in the restaurant business, working his way up from being a busboy to the position of restaurant manager. Luca currently resides in New York with his wife, Cate. Read on to learn about Luca’s favorite foods, his childhood, places he likes to visit in Friuli, his current culinary ventures, and so much more…
I’ve read that your mother was your biggest culinary inspiration. What were some of your favorite childhood foods?
I loved my mother’s meatballs! I could never stop eating them. Her tiramisu is fabulous, and all her pastas are fantastic.
My own son, David, won’t eat ham. Were there any foods you strongly disliked back then?
I never disliked anything! I really eat everything!
Some traditional dishes, such as musetto e brovada and jota, are an acquired taste to many foreigners, yet they are favorite comfort foods for some of my older friulani friends who grew up eating them. How do those foods rate for you?
I love them! I do not spend a holiday season without making muset and brovada at home. I don’t think it is just about being an acquired taste, but it is also because they are not very familiar and popular dishes here in the States.
In your words, how would you describe la cucina friulana?
La cucina friulana is a cuisine made from very poor ingredients. Back in the days everybody had fields, farms and gardens, so after selling the products, women had to use the leftovers from the production to feed the family. I think it’s a very creative cuisine, perhaps rich, but it’s not easy to make such delicious food from such simple ingredients!
Do you and/or your family speak Furlan?
Of course, everybody at home speaks Furlan!
Aside from spending time in the kitchen with your mother and grandmother, did you have any particular hobbies or interests growing up?
Soccer, soccer, soccer.
Is there a special place in Friuli–Venezia Giulia where your family would spend vacations?
We had a house up in Claut, in the mountains, so in summer I would always spend a month up there with my grandparents from my dad’s side, and then we would go another month in Lignano Sabbiadoro at the beach with my mother’s parents.
Where are your favorite places to visit in Friuli–Venezia Giulia?
Right now I really like to go where there is history: Palmanova, Cividale, Aquileia or Trieste. When I go back to Friuli now my visits are all food-related, so I do not necessarily go to the most beautiful town, but where the best restaurants are.
What are your favorite restaurants in Friuli–Venezia Giulia? What dishes do you like to order?
My favorite restaurants are always the hosterias. I always like to order classic dishes, especially frico.
What are your favorite Italian cities or towns outside of Friuli–Venezia Giulia?
I love Rome—there is really something magical in that city. I like Florence as well, and I think the Amalfi coast is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Since you moved to New York 10 years ago, you have been exposed to numerous ethnic cuisines. What are some of your favorites?
I absolutely love Asian flavors, from sushi to authentic Chinese.
Is there any particular ethnic cuisine that you dislike?
In the season finale, Gordon Ramsey complimented your short ribs, saying that it was the kind of dish he would want for his last supper. What would your last supper include?
Raw scampi, sea urchin, truffles, foie gras.
Tell me about your current venture, Dinner with Luca.
“Dinner with Luca” is a great intimate service. I go to people’s kitchens and cook a great dinner with them and for them. It’s been a great journey so far. I get to travel the States a lot because people are booking parties from all over, even in Canada. The particularity of this service is that who books the parties are people who followed my journey on the show and cheered for me all season. I like it because these people know my story.
You’ve talked a lot about your dream of opening a restaurant in New York. Can you describe your vision?
The restaurant is my final project. I am working on it right now and trying to find a location. It will be in Brooklyn. It will be a modern tavern with food inspired, of course, by the region of Friuli.
Luca’s cookbook, My Italian Kitchen: Favorite Family Recipes, will be released in May 2014.
After a tasty breakfast of yogurt and granola, I left my hotel, Albergo Centrale, to explore the town of Forni di Sopra. The sky was clear, except for a few pillowy clouds drifting past the craggy peaks in the distance. It was now late July, and though much of Europe was suffocating under a stifling heat wave, cool Alpine breezes served to temper that warmth here in the Carnia mountains.
Anxious to get going toward my destination for lunch—a restaurant aptly named Polenta e Frico—I decided to begin my hike to the hamlet of Nuoitas a bit early. The journey took me northwestward, along the highway toward the Veneto. Since I had so much extra time, I walked slowly, admiring the view of the Dolomites, a massive, gray ridge poking up behind the green, forested slopes. When I reached the turnoff to Nuoitas, I idled awhile at the small bridge over the Tagliamento River, merely a trickle of a creek at this crossing. By the time I reached the hotel and restaurant, it was only 11:00am, so I found a seat outside to wait, savoring the quietude and brisk freshness of the sunny mountain air.
At noon I went inside, passing an unlit traditional fogolâr (hearth) as I followed the waiter into the dining room. Naturally, I felt obliged to order the polenta and frico (cheese and potato pancake), but there were still quite a few choices, including full and half portions for each dish. I settled on a half portion of polenta, frico, and sausage, although the serving was so generous, I could only imagine how enormous the full portion would have been! On the plate sat a thin wedge of frico atop a slice of polenta, with a small sausage on the side—and in what many would consider overkill, more than half the plate was smothered in a gooey layer of melted cheese. In an attempt to bring an ounce of healthfulness to my meal, I also ordered an insalata mista, which consisted of some rather bitter greens, cabbage, and tomato.
My return to Forni di Sopra took only 50 minutes, as I was hiking back at a swifter pace. After a brief rest in my room, I set out again, this time in the opposite direction toward the hamlet of Cella and the Chiesa di San Floriano. Located alongside the Tagliamento River, this 15th-century church had been deemed a national monument, famous for its fresco cycle by Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo and altarpiece by Andrea Bellunello. The church was closed, however, so I hung around outside, thinking I might wait until it reopened at 5:00pm.
As in much of Carnia this time of year, the wide, gravelly riverbed of the Tagliamento was practically dry, with only a shallow stream flowing through its center. Someone had built a crossing out of rocks, and I watched as several young couples stepped carefully across the slick stones. On the far side was a park, where I could see a lake, fountain, and children’s playground. As the afternoon wore on, the sky began to darken, ominous rainclouds forming over the western mountain range. I took that as a sign I should head back. Tomorrow there would be plenty of time to visit the church.
For dinner, I returned to Osteria Al Tulat for more of Chef Rocky’s cooking. The tiny dining room was much busier than last time, one large table being occupied by what appeared to be the chef’s family. As previously agreed, I let Rocky take full charge of my meal. First, he sent out a taste of marinated eggplant, a recipe he said was from Puglia. Next, he fixed me a plate of cjarsòns—not a traditional version, he explained, but his own original rendition. The greenish dumplings were made with a spinach-and-potato dough, stuffed with a mixture of game meat and radicchio, and topped with melted butter and grated cheese. A little on the heavy side, they lacked the sweetness and complexity of flavors that cjarsòns typically offer. Already quite full but not wanting to turn down his baccalà, I requested just a half portion. The salt cod was prepared alla Vicentina: a soupy stew cooked with potatoes, onion, and milk.
While Rocky’s creations deviated slightly from the region’s more traditional recipes, the essence of the cuisine was still there, and I left looking forward to one more meal at Al Tulat the following evening.
A deafening crash of thunder, followed by a stampede of raindrops against the window, startled me out of my restless dreams at 4:30am. It was still dark outside, yet every few moments the valley was illuminated, just for a split second, by an electric purple-yellow sky. After the storm had subsided, I curled back up under the bedsheets and turned on the TV to watch the early morning news. The top story was the heat wave that continued to ravage southern Europe—Rome had hit 95°F, and parts of southern Italy had topped 100°F. There was also another transportation strike, this time affecting the airports; Alitalia had cancelled over 90 flights throughout the country.
It was my last morning in Ravascletto. After breakfast, I took a walk to the nearby market to buy a roll and a piece of latteria cheese for my on-the-go lunch. Though no longer raining, the sky was dark and overcast, a clue that another storm was brewing. I checked out of Albergo Bellavista and found a spot on their veranda to sit and relax until my departure time. Just like my last two travel days, the bus wouldn’t come until around noon.
I was headed to Forni di Sopra and would need to change buses twice—in Comeglians and Villa Santina. Both connections were extremely tight, and since my ticket only took me as far as Villa Santina, I had to purchase another bus ticket there. To my relief, each of my three buses was on time, the entire schedule running like clockwork.
I arrived in Forni di Sopra and within minutes found my hotel, Albergo Centrale, just steps from the main highway in a quaint piazza, much of which was under construction and boarded off. The hotel had no elevator, so the chivalrous owner insisted on lugging my bag—which was growing heavier with my expanding cookbook collection—up the three flights of stairs to my room.
Compared to the last few rooms I had stayed in, this one was rather dingy and cramped, the only window being small and too high to see out of comfortably. If I stood on tiptoes and craned my neck at just the right angle, I could make out some rooftops and a sliver of mountain and sky. To say that the bed was soft would have been an understatement. Instead of a mattress, there were two sheets of foam resting atop the springs. When I lay down, the middle of the bed sagged dreadfully, as if I were being swallowed up by a spongy taco shell. To make matters worse, something in the room—perhaps a trace of cat or dog hair on the bedspread or floor—soon began to trigger my allergies. (I continued to sniffle and sneeze for the three days I spent in Forni di Sopra.)
In the afternoon, I took a walk to explore the town. It seemed larger than any of the Carnian villages I had visited so far, though not by much. My hotel occupied the central piazza, along with the starkly whitewashed Vecchio Municipio (old town hall), used for temporary art exhibits during tourist season but closed at the time of my midweek visit. Everywhere, wooden balconies were lined with row upon row of red and pink geraniums. In the distance, I could see a jagged ridge of grayish peaks: the edge of the Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti Friulane.
When it was dinnertime, I headed first to the restaurant in my hotel. Having grown tired of the mundane pensione meals at my hotel in Ravascletto and desiring a more authentic experience, I asked the waitress if I could take a look at the menu before being seated. She gaped at me like I was crazy—I suppose no one had ever asked her that before—but dug around and found a list for me to peruse. I was glad I asked, because it consisted entirely of run-of-the-mill Italian dishes—nothing particularly Friulian. My second stop was an osteria around the corner. They had a menu board propped outside listing some intriguing choices, but inside I was told that the kitchen was closed for the evening.
Finally, I stumbled upon the cozy Osteria Al Tulat at Albergo Tarandan. Just after I was seated, a sizable party rose to exit, leaving me alone in the empty dining room. I began with the antipasto buffet, a decadent table of goodies that included sausage-stuffed pomodori gratinati (tomatoes gratin), spinach quiche topped with ham and cheese, roasted bell peppers, mixed olives, and marinated anchovies. For my main course, I ordered the goulasch (Hungarian beef stew), which deviated from tradition in that potatoes were cooked within the stew rather than being served as a side dish. As I was tucking in, the chef peeked his head out of the closet-sized kitchen and asked, “Signora, conosce la polenta?” Do I know polenta? I had to laugh out loud at that—if he only knew how much polenta I had eaten in the past few weeks!
At this point, I divulged that I was writing a cookbook, Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy. The chef disappeared momentarily, then brought out not only a small plate of polenta for me but also a hefty cookbook. Titled La Cucina Friulana by Emilia Valli, the tome was a comprehensive guide to the region’s cuisine. I stayed there quite late, taking notes and copying recipes for such dishes as cjalzòns di Pontebba (pasta filled with ricotta, prunes, and dried figs), cialzòns di Ovaro (pasta filled with ricotta, bread crumbs, and raisins), risotto alla Maranese (Marano-style seafood risotto), paparòt (spinach and cornmeal soup), gnocchi di susine (plum-filled gnocchi), costolette al latte (pork ribs cooked in milk), toç de purcìt (Carnian pork stew), and zucca in purea (butternut squash purée). I also elicited a good deal of information from the chef, such as his favorite way to cook trout (with butter and sage) and his preferred method of cooking baccalà (in the oven).
Before I left, the chef introduced himself as Giuseppe, although he said everyone called him Rocky on account of his black belt in karate. Chef Rocky then invited me to return the following evening, offering to prepare some traditional Friulian dishes especially for me.
On my last day in Ravascletto, I chose to stay in for most of the day. After breakfast, I stationed myself on the veranda of Albergo Bellavista, setting up my laptop on a table overlooking the expansive Valcalda valley. The deck was lined with window boxes of red geraniums, and a couple of birdcages stood close-by. The dismal, gray clouds that had greeted me upon awakening cleared away by mid-morning to reveal a sparkling, blue sky. I was entirely content sitting there in the cool breeze, with nothing to distract me from my writing, except perhaps the intermittent canary song. At one point, the owner came over to chat. He showed great interest in my cookbook project and didn’t seem the least bit offended at my repeated failure to show up at mealtimes.
At noon, I packed up my computer and headed down the hill to eat at Hotel La Perla for the third time in as many days. This time, I ordered the gnocchi di mele. Along the lines of the more prevalent gnocchi di susine (plum gnocchi), these dumplings were made with a light and tender potato-based dough, filled with apples and raisins, and topped with melted butter, toasted bread crumbs, and cinnamon. I also took advantage of the mixed vegetable buffet, having been so impressed with it the prior evening. Today’s plate included string beans, potatoes, cauliflower, carrots, bell peppers, and spinach. For dessert, I continued the apple theme with a slice of apple strudel. Prepared in the traditional Viennese style, the dough was paper thin and stuffed with apples, raisins, and lots of cinnamon.
My afternoon was spent much like my morning, transcribing notes and working on the first draft of Flavors of Friuli. By late afternoon, another band of dark clouds had gloomily crept into the valley. This storm brought with it more thunder and lightning, and even a burst of hail.
As the rain was still pouring at dinnertime, I decided to stay indoors and have one more meal at Bellavista. The choices were just as dull as my first dinner there, and I ended up having a bowl of vegetable soup, a plate of prosciutto e melone, and a side of potatoes that were described as arrostite (roasted) but turned out to be disc-shaped tater tots instead. Dessert was a tart filled with pastry cream, strawberries, and blueberries. As I was eating, I noticed a nearby table being served an order of frico—and yet another table a plate of cjarsòns. If only I had had the gumption to insist on the regular menu! Still, I had learned a valuable lesson about the workings of Italian pensioni and vowed not to make the same mistake again.