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.