The early morning air was already hot and muggy, without even the slightest breeze to temper the oppressive heat. With only a couple more days left in Udine before the end of my five-week-long trip, I decided to revisit the town of Spilimbergo.
My hope was to find a restaurant that served balote: cheese-filled polenta balls, native to the mountains north of Pordenone. According to local tradition, when a young man wanted to propose marriage, he would present an offering of balote to the potential bride’s family; if the balote were immediately placed on the fogolâr (fireplace) to roast, it was understood that he had the family’s approval.
I took the train to Pordenone and then caught a bus to Spilimbergo. Mike and I had driven through the town in May of the previous year, but since we were on our way to Carnia, with several stops to make en route, we didn’t have long to explore. This trip, I had plenty of time to visit the main sights. First, I set out to locate some of Spilimbergo’s famous painted palazzi. One of the most well-known was the Palazzo Ercole (a.k.a. Casa Dipinta), whose frescoes illustrated scenes from the mythical life of Hercules. Then, after a bit of an uphill hike, I found the brilliantly painted Palazzo di Sopra, home to Spilimbergo’s town hall. Set amid a neatly manicured lawn and framed by two tall palm trees, its white façade was decorated with intricate yellow designs and a Venetian winged lion of Saint Mark.
I was especially looking forward to seeing the frescoes on the exterior of the 15th-century Palazzo Dipinto, but when I reached the courtyard of the Castello di Spilimbergo where they were located, I was dismayed to find all the frescoes shrouded in scaffolding. My disappointment, however, was short-lived—my spirits soon lifted as I came upon the sunny Duomo di Santa Maria Maggiore, whose yellow Romanesque Gothic façade featured a pattern of circular cutout windows.
At lunchtime, I headed to Osteria Da Afro, as it was on my list of places specializing in Friulian cooking. Although it was past noon when I arrived, the restaurant was not yet open. I was told to wait in the lobby, where I spotted, through a crack in a partially open door, the staff gathered around a table eating their meal. Finally, I was shown to a table in the empty dining room. Despite my expectations, there were few Friulian dishes on the menu. The waiter explained that la cucina friulana was more of a winter cuisine and that they tended to serve lighter dishes in the hot summer months. Feeling inclined to agree with him on that point, I was quite content ordering the melanzane alla parmigiana and an insalata mista.
Since there were no other customers, the waiter was able to spend a good deal of time at my table answering some of my lingering questions. We talked about the restaurant’s preparation of baccalà (salt cod) and trout—and most importantly, balote, which they frequently serve in wintertime. He described their size (larger than a golf ball, smaller than a tennis ball), the type of cheese they are filled with (traditionally the local salted cheese called asìno, but cubes of fresh Montasio may be used instead), and how they are served (no sauce but frequently with sautéed mushrooms on the side).
After lunch, I took the next bus back to Pordenone, where I caught the train back to Udine. For the third day in a row, I decided not to go out for dinner but to eat in my room instead. At the COOP supermarket, I bought some bananas, kiwis, and yogurt (happily, my room at Hotel Principe had a mini fridge). Then, at the nearby rosticceria, I picked up some sautéed zucchini and a slice of frittata. It was a light picnic, which my body was really craving after a full month of rich, heavy meals.
Here is my interpretation of balote, as described to me at Osteria Da Afro. Since asìno cheese is not easily available outside Pordenone province, I have substituted a mixture of cream cheese (for the creaminess) and ricotta salata (for the saltiness). The texture is not as soft and creamy as asìno, but it holds its shape nicely when being wrapped inside the polenta. Consider serving the balote with some sautéed mushrooms.
4 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces ricotta salata, grated (about 1-1/4 cups)
In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese and ricotta salata. Divide the mixture into twelve equal parts, rolling each into a small ball. Refrigerate until ready to use.
4 cups water
1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a medium pot over high heat. Stir in the cornmeal and salt. When the water returns to a boil, reduce heat to low; cook and stir until soft, about 25 minutes. Pour immediately into a 9- by 13-inch baking dish; spread evenly. Let cool for 15 minutes, or until just cool enough to handle.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Slice the polenta into twelve equal portions. Scoop out a portion of polenta and roll into a rough ball. Flatten slightly, place one cheese ball in the center, and smooth the polenta over to enclose the cheese. (The polenta will be very sticky, so work gently.) Place the finished polenta balls in a greased baking dish. Bake until heated through, about 25 minutes.