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Dobos torteMy final trip to Friuli began in late September 2005. Rather than flying into Italy, I had decided to begin with three nights in Vienna and three more in Budapest. The history and culinary tradition of these two cities were closely tied to Friuli—and in particular, Trieste, where I would be spending the remainder of my five-week-long stay. I had hoped to sample classic Austro-Hungarian dishes at their source—dishes such as liptauer, gulasch, strudel, sachertorte, dobostorte, rigo jancsi, kugelhopf, and palatschinke—and compare them to the versions found in Friuli.

I arrived around 10:30pm at Hotel Austria, located in the historical center of Vienna. My room contained both a twin bed covered with a fluffy, yellow down comforter and a separate daybed/sofa. It was quite small, as I had opted for a private bath down the hall—shower and toilet were inconveniently located in separate rooms, though I did have them all to myself.

I awoke my first morning to find a bountiful buffet downstairs in the breakfast room. With crystal chandeliers overhead and Mozart playing in the background, I enjoyed a feast of muesli cereal, cantaloupe, tomato and cucumber slices, a bit of salami, and a banana. Then, under a cold, wet, drizzly sky, I set out to explore the city. I first walked to Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), then took the subway to the Danube River. There, I found the boat dock and purchased a ticket for my hydrofoil trip to Budapest two days later.

After taking the subway back to the city center, I visited Peterskirche (St. Peter’s Church) and strolled along the Graben, Vienna’s famous pedestrian shopping street. Midmorning, I stopped at the renowned café Demel, where I sat upstairs in the nearly empty non-smoking room and indulged in part one of what would turn out to be an exceedingly decadent lunch: a slice of dobostorte. Following the classic recipe, five thin layers of sponge cake were iced with a luscious chocolate buttercream and topped with a caramel-glazed wedge.

From there, I walked to the Hofburg Palace. It was by then too late to see the Lipizzaner stallions training at the Spanish Riding School, but I arrived just in time to watch the riders leading their white horses across the street to the stables. Next, I visited a few more churches—Michaelerkirche (St. Michael’s), Augustinerkirche (St. Augustine’s), and Minoritenkirche (Minorites’)—before walking by the Rathaus (city hall), through the Volksgarten park, and past the Vienna Staatsoper (opera house). On my way back, I conveniently passed by the Hotel Sacher, where in their elegant 19th-century café I enjoyed part two of my “lunch”: a slice of sachertorte and a cup of hot chocolate. While the demitasse was half-filled with whipped cream—too much for my taste—the cake was rich and chocolaty, filled with tangy apricot jam and enveloped in a smooth, dark ganache.

I continued my walking tour of the city by visiting a couple more churches: Dominikanerkirche (Dominican) and Jesuitkirche (Jesuit). The latter was a Baroque masterpiece with colorful marble columns and a trompe l’oeil ceiling gilded in gold. On the upstairs level, an organist and soprano were rehearsing the ethereal melody of “Ave Maria.”

At dinnertime, it was a welcome change to head out at the early hour of 6:00pm, rather than having to wait until 7:00pm or later, as was customary in Italy. I went straight to Gulaschmuseum, a restaurant that (quite obviously) specialized in gulasch. When asked for my seating preference, I requested the non-smoking section, although those tables were only about three feet from the bar, where the waiter would spend most of my meal lounging and smoking. Flipping through the illustrated menu, I scanned through photos of all their different variations of gulasch, including beef, roast beef, pork with sauerkraut, veal, turkey, chicken liver, fish, potato, bean, and mushroom. I went with the traditional beef gulasch, which came with a side of boiled potatoes. Needless to say, after my indulgent two-part lunch, I skipped dessert.

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Udine's Torre dell'OrologioFive weeks of intense travel had nearly come to a close. It was my second to last morning, and while at breakfast, I learned that the temperature in Udine had reached 41°C (106°F) the day before. Having weathered nearly a week of record heat, I was feeling utterly exhausted. Each day, I had taken a bus or train to a different town and walked until my legs gave out. For four evenings in a row, I had eschewed dinner out, choosing instead to have a light picnic in the cool of my hotel room. Today, I succumbed entirely, deciding to do absolutely nothing at all.

I did briefly leave my room midmorning, so that housekeeping could come in. I strolled for about an hour, wandering around Udine’s centro. I was hoping to find an air-conditioned bookstore to browse in, but being Sunday, nearly all the shops were closed. Already, the temperature sign at Via Zanon read 30°C (86°F), and there seemed to be nowhere for me to go to find some shade. I found a bar at Piazza della Libertà and bought a panino made with bresaola, mozzarella, and fresh focaccia. That would end up serving as both my lunch and dinner.

I spent the entire afternoon in my room, writing sections of my book Flavors of Friuli. It was a productive day, though by dinnertime I was beginning to feel claustrophobic and disoriented. My room was on the ground floor of Hotel Principe, with windows facing out into the parking lot. For privacy, I kept the dark metal shutters closed at all times. Since I couldn’t see outside—and also because I hadn’t done anything physically tiring for a change—it didn’t seem conceivable that it was already evening. After eating the second half of my panino, I went out for another walk to reorient myself. Though not quite dusk, the sun was lower in the sky, casting a warm peach glow over the rooftops. It appeared that the whole city had come out for a pre-dinner passeggiata, reveling in the ever-so-slightly cooler evening air. After getting a gelato (cioccolato and stracciatella again), I melded with the crowd, savoring my last night in Udine.

The following morning, I took the train back to Milano, with the usual hectic 10-minute connection in Mestre. While I always traveled light—carrying only a rolling duffel and a small backpack—somehow I had acquired what felt like an extra 20 pounds of stuff. My bag was filled with cookbooks that I had purchased along the way (including one huge coffee table book), and I now had a third bag filled with miscellany that would no longer fit in the suitcase. Maneuvering all this up and down stairs in the stations, lugging it onto trains, and heaving the largest bag onto the overhead storage rack was no small feat. I was relieved to finally arrive in Milano.

Duomo di MilanoI was staying again at Hotel Speronari, just off Piazza del Duomo. My room was on the third floor, with no elevator. These are the last stairs I will have to climb, I consoled myself. After checking in, I paid a visit to the Duomo, then walked to Via Solferino and the gastronomia Più del Pane Callegaro. There, I picked up a picnic dinner of assorted mini quiche, with toppings of eggplant, tomato, zucchini, and potato. On the same street, I found a bakery and bought some treats to take with me: an American-style lemon bar, a mini apricot crostata, and two unusual-looking apple cookies. These would be my breakfast and snack at the airport the next morning.

I tried to go to bed early, but found myself tossing around all night. For once, the room had an electric fan, which I positioned next to the bed, but even with the window wide open, the fan could only recirculate the hot, suffocating air. I slept in 15- to 30-minute increments, afraid of missing my alarm, finally getting up at 4:30am to take a quick shower in the bathroom down the hall. Once I had dressed and repacked, I was on autopilot, a routine I had repeated so many times in previous years: awaken the receptionist on night duty, check out, walk 10 minutes in the eerie darkness to Piazza San Babila, and catch the shuttle bus to Linate Airport. Soon I would be back home in San Francisco.

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Do MoriWhenever I traveled to Friuli–Venezia Giulia, I could never bear to leave without visiting the neighboring Veneto region and my favorite city in the world: Venezia. My five-week-long trip of summer 2005 had almost come to a close, and I was taking the train from Udine into my beloved La Serenissima for the day. After three previous visits to Venezia during Carnevale (of which only one was intentionally planned to coincide with the event), I found myself desperately longing to encounter fewer crowds. The Biennale film festival was scheduled to begin the following day, however, so I was inevitably doomed to battle another sea of tourists.

Do MoriWhen I got off the train, I headed directly for the Rialto. Instead of choosing a single restaurant at lunchtime, my plan was to nibble on cicchetti throughout the day at my favorite bacari. My first stop was one of the best in the city, Do Mori, where I savored crostini with baccalà mantecato (puréed salt cod), a crab claw, and a baby octopus, all washed down with a refreshing midmorning glass of prosecco.

scallopsAt the nearby fish market, I wandered through the crowded aisles, wishing I had an apartment where I could take some of the beautiful seafood home to cook (that dream would come true one December five years later). I did purchase some scallop shells, which I needed for my recipe capesante gratinate (scallops baked with a bread crumb topping). Even though the oven-safe shells that I had bought at a gourmet food store back home were usable, they had been bleached an unnatural shade of white, their enormous size dwarfing the scallops within. The ones I picked up in Venezia were the real thing, fresh from the sea, with all the markings in pink and mauve that a scallop should have.

Cantinone Gia SchiaviI crossed the Rialto Bridge and made my way through Piazza San Marco to the Accademia Bridge, which led to one of my favorite sestieri, Dorsoduro. I had stayed in this relatively quiet neighborhood twice before, and my heart was still brimming with wistful memories of hidden alleys, misty canals, and the most tantalizing cicchetti at Cantinone Già Schiavi. Their vast selection of crostini, for which they are best known, included toppings of baccalà (both mantecato and alla cappucina); tomato, brie, and anchovy; and fluffy herb-flecked ricotta with sun-dried tomato. Knowing that I had one more stop on my bar-hopping lunch, I settled for just one bite—tuna salad sprinkled with cocoa—and another glass of prosecco.

By early afternoon, the late July sun was becoming unbearably hot. Not a single breeze blew in from the lagoon to ease the scorching temperatures. In an effort to cool off, I treated myself to a gelato (cioccolato and stracciatella) on my way to the Chiesa di San Vidal, where I bought my mom another CD by her favorite string ensemble, Interpreti Veneziani.

Ai Promessi SposiThe throngs of tourists in San Marco proved to be too much for me, so I decided to wind my way back through the less populated calli of Dorsoduro and Santa Croce. By the time I reached the Cannaregio sestiere, it was already 3:00pm. My final cicchetti stop of the day, Ai Promessi Sposi, was still open, though empty. Seeing as I had been snacking on and off all day, I only wanted a few more bites. I requested a crab claw, a little eggplant, some baccalà, and one canocia (mantis shrimp). The man at the counter told me to find a table, and he would bring me my plate. When he did five minutes later, the plate was twice as large as I had expected, piled high with food, and heated in the microwave. He had given me four crab claws (these were deep-fried and not nearly as exquisite as Do Mori’s), a huge serving of marinated eggplant, and a mammoth portion of baccalà (this one prepared with potatoes, olives, and anchovies). He had forgotten the canocia, but I wasn’t about to point that out. I just ordered myself a third glass of prosecco and decided to call this meal an early dinner.

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Spilimbergo's Palazzo ErcoleThe 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.

Spilimbergo's Palazzo di SopraI 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.

Spilimbergo's DuomoI 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.

baloteHere 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.

Filling:
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.

Polenta:
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.

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Marano LagunareI awoke early to catch the 8:00am bus to Marano Lagunare, a small fishing village located along Friuli’s southern coast between Grado and Lignano. The trip took just over an hour from Udine, which gave me several hours to explore before lunchtime. The smell of salt air and freshly caught fish greeted me as I arrived at the harbor. Houses of robin’s egg blue, salmon pink, and sunflower yellow lined the narrow streets of the town’s old center, while boats of blue and white sat docked along the canals. As I ventured south along the water’s edge, however, the pastel colors vanished, revealing a less attractive, though perhaps more authentic, scene: fishing boats crusted with mud, rusty cranes, garbage-filled dumpsters, and backhoes hauling buckets of dirt.

Marano Lagunare Riserva NaturaleI circled back toward town, passing through a nondescript residential section on my way to the Riserva Naturale Valle Canal Novo, a protected nature reserve encompassing the marshy wetlands that surround Marano Lagunare. Unfortunately, the visitor’s center happened to be closed that day, so there were no guided tours. But it was possible to enter the park via a wooden footbridge that extended over the water into the dense thicket of reeds, home to countless forms of native wildlife.

Though it was only 11:00am, the intense July heat was beginning to tire me out. I returned to the central piazza and found a shady bench in full view of the Torre Millenaria. For over an hour I sat there, watching the comings and goings of village life—elderly couples out for a stroll, women pulling shopping carts of groceries, children frolicking around the tower steps.

Trattoria alla LagunaFor lunch, I headed to Trattoria Alla Laguna (a.k.a. Vedova Raddi), located in a three-story building of rust red stucco overlooking the harbor. I started with the frutti di mare gratinati, a plate of mussels and scallops baked in their shells with a bread crumb topping. Next, I was excited to try their signature dish, risotto alla Maranese, but was disappointed to read on the menu that they required a minimum of two persons for the order. From past experience, I knew that this was not uncommon. Nevertheless, I explained that I was writing a cookbook on Friulian cuisine and asked politely if it might be possible to have a single portion of the dish. The owner graciously acquiesced—and the risotto was delicious! Served with calamari, shrimp, mussels, and local wedge shell clams called telline, the risotto was prepared al dente in a perfectly soupy fish stock that tasted of the ocean.

Between courses, the owner came over to chat. He explained that all his seafood was locally caught in the lagoon and, strangely, that many Americans would come to visit each year around Easter. I imagined that “many” may have been a relative term, given the few Americans I had ever encountered in Friuli—and since Marano Lagunare was not at the time listed in any of my English-language guidebooks.

Shortly, the owner returned with a huge guestbook for me to sign. He revealed that the book was for his “famous” guests and pointed to one signature in particular by a dignitary from Iran (I never quite caught exactly who he was). The owner went on to boast that when he was a child, and his father ran the restaurant, Ernest Hemingway dined there quite often. I felt honored, though somewhat baffled, that he had requested my autograph, too.

Marano LagunareAfter lunch, my plan was to take the boat to Lignano Sabbiadoro, the region’s largest beach resort. It was a pleasant 40-minute ride across the lagoon, sunny but with a cool breeze floating over the water. In the distance, scattered amid the marshes, were tiny, thatched fisherman’s huts called casoni.

Lignano SabbiadoroCompared to Marano Lagunare, Lignano was huge. I only had an hour before my return bus to Udine, so I didn’t get to explore the resort town as fully as I would have liked. The beach itself was approximately five miles long and serviced by more than forty bathing houses, all renting umbrellas and lounge chairs to vacationing sunbathers. It was now peak season, and thousands of those colorful umbrellas dotted the soft, golden sand, all lined up in flawless rows. I walked partway down the beach to an enclosed jetty that extended out over the sea. The sapphire blue water was shallow and calm, and I wished that I could go for a swim myself.

Lignano SabbiadoroStanding there alone, surrounded by families, couples, groups of friends—everyone attached to someone else—a certain melancholy began to set in. I was, for the most part, quite comfortable traveling alone and rarely felt awkward even going into restaurants by myself. As an only child, I had grown accustomed to keeping myself company and generally enjoyed the solitude. But every so often, as on that day in Lignano, I wished that Mike (my now husband) had been able to come on the trip, so that I would have someone to lounge on the beach and splash in the sea with.

I walked back past highrise hotels, tacky gift shops, and gelaterie, most of which were closed at that late hour of the afternoon. Near the bus station, I did find one gelateria that was open, and I treated myself to a double scoop of limone (lemon) and yogurt. The sun was beating down, and I was glad to finally board the air-conditioned bus.

Before returning to Hotel Principe, I took a walk into Udine’s centro. It was so swelteringly hot that I knew I wouldn’t feel like having a big dinner that evening. Deciding to eat in again, I picked up some apricots, strawberries, and a tomato at the produce market. Then, I found a bar that sold tramezzini and bought a sandwich with turkey to go. I ate my picnic dinner early, in the cool of my hotel room, watching the news on TV and trying to figure out my plans for my final three days in Friuli.

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Prosciuttificio ProlongoToday’s destination was San Daniele del Friuli, where I had appointments to visit two prosciuttifici (prosciutto factories): Prolongo and Il Camarin. I took the bus from Udine and luckily had the foresight to get off while still in the outskirts of San Daniele, before the bus headed up the hill into the old section of town. Otherwise, it would have been a long walk back down.

At first, I was quite disoriented. I had no idea where I was in relation to the address I was looking for, but after walking up and down the street a few blocks, I got my bearings. Once I found the correct street, I spent another few minutes puzzling over the fact that the odd numbers on one side of the street didn’t correspond to the even numbers on the other side. About five minutes later, I arrived at Prosciuttificio Prolongo.

Alessio ProlongoI was greeted by siblings Alessio and Arianna, whose grandfather started the business. They took me on a tour of the factory, a fairly small operation, producing only 7,000 to 8,000 hams per year. Alessio spoke no English, so Arianna helped translate—though I actually understood most of his Italian. We visited the refrigeration room, where the hams were kept during the salting phase, and then the curing room, where rows of hams hung from wooden beams. They explained that the entire curing process takes a minimum of twelve months. Alessio demonstrated how to test for readiness—by inserting a horse-bone needle into the meat and judging its quality by the aroma released.

After a sample of their product, we said goodbye. It was only 10:00am, and my next appointment wasn’t until 2:00pm. Checking my map, I saw that it wasn’t too far away, so I decided to take a chance and head over there early. I had a little trouble finding my way—they had given me the wrong street number in their email—but after asking a passerby for directions, I arrived at Prosciuttificio Il Camarin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis factory was much larger than Prolongo. Their website advertised guided visits, and picnic tables were set up outside, waiting for the throngs of tourists to arrive for a day of prosciutto tasting. Since he wasn’t expecting me until the afternoon, owner Sergio was busy taking an inventory count. He did, however, take time out to show me through the various rooms, where thousands of hams lined the walls and rafters. In contrast to Prolongo, Il Camarin produces 15,000 hams annually.

I was finished by 11:00am and headed up the steep hill into San Daniele proper. For the next hour, I sat inside the Duomo, organizing my notes from the morning.

Ristorante Alle Vecchie CarceriFor lunch, I headed straight to Ristorante Alle Vecchie Carceri—my third time eating there. To start, they brought their usual complimentary small plate of polenta topped with ricotta affumicata and poppy seeds. I ordered an appetizer of smoked duck breast, sliced thin like prosciutto, served over a bed of mixed greens and cubes of salted cheese. The menu had said that the salad also contained apple, but there didn’t seem to be any in mine. Then, as always, I couldn’t resist ordering the cjalsòns. Up until I had tasted the amazing ones at Ristorante Salon in Arta Terme, Alle Vecchie Carceri’s had been my top favorite. They were now my second favorite, still better than most, the delicate disks of dough plump with a sweet-savory filling of potato, caramelized onion, sugar, cinnamon, and raisins. At least, they used to contain raisins—today, the fruit was conspicuously absent. Nevertheless, the cjalsòns tasted divine, swimming in melted butter and topped with cinnamon, sugar, and smoky ricotta affumicata.

After arriving back in Udine that afternoon, lethargy began to set in. It had been exactly a month since I had left San Francisco, and the constant exertion and extreme heat were taking a toll. I decided to forgo dinner out and have a picnic in my hotel room—something that I would end up doing for the remaining few days of my trip. At the rosticceria around the corner, I picked up a piece of cold, dry chicken and some marinated artichoke hearts, sour and oily. It was not an especially good meal, but all I wanted to do was go to bed and sleep.

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BordanoAfter three weeks in Carnia, it was a shock to be back in the stifling summer heat of Udine. The night was a restless one, what with my tossing and turning and constant fiddling with the air conditioner. Nevertheless, I had to rise early in order to catch the 7:30am train to Venzone.

Once there, I set out immediately across the bridge spanning the wide Tagliamento River. My destination was Bordano, home to the Casa delle Farfalle, Europe’s largest tropical butterfly garden. Since Bordano was not reachable by bus or train, I had no choice but to make the journey on foot. It was a peaceful hike along the shady highway—very few cars and no hills, the river on one side, dense woodland on the other.

Casa delle FarfalleI arrived in Bordano after about an hour, weary but delighted by the kaleidoscope of color that greeted me. The town’s tranquil streets were adorned with brilliant murals of butterflies—on houses, shops, office buildings. Even the post office had a butterfly painted above its sign.

The Casa delle Farfalle itself comprised three greenhouses, containing over 400 species of butterflies from Africa, the Amazon, and Indo-Australia. The butterflies were free to fly, surrounded by exotic vegetation in a miniature rainforest setting of vines, rare palms, and colorful orchids. The air was damp, filled with the echoes of mist and fluttering wings. Indigenous birds, reptiles, fish, and other insects completed the realistic ecosystem.

I made it back to Venzone by noon and settled down at an al fresco table at Locanda Al Municipio for lunch. I ordered the stinco di vitello: two thin slices of rather fatty veal, served with gravy and slices of tomato and cucumber. Since I still had over two hours before my return train, I lingered awhile at the restaurant and then even longer at the Duomo di Sant’Andrea. In the quiet afternoon shade outside the church, I phoned my contacts at two prosciuttifici in San Daniele and made appointments to visit the following day.

Venzone's Duomo di Sant'AndreaFinally, it was time to head back across the highway to catch my train to Udine. The station had no biglietteria, no WC, no waiting area—just a platform on either side of the tracks and a small shelter where the train schedule was posted. Given the small size of the town, I was not surprised to find only one other person waiting, a young guy over on the other side of the tracks.

Three o’clock came and went, and my train still had not come. I crossed to the opposite platform to double-check the schedule. The young guy was still there, pacing back and forth, making calls on his cell phone. He had learned that a transportation strike was in effect, and there was no way to predict whether any of the afternoon trains would be arriving. A little worried but still optimistic, I waited a bit longer to see if the next scheduled train would come. It didn’t.

Trying to fend off the panic that was starting to set in, I headed back across the highway and inside the stone walls of Venzone. I found only one business to be open at that hour, a bar in the piazza by the Duomo, and I went in to inquire about the strike. They had no information about it, nor did they know whether any buses would be running either. At least I was able to find out where the bus stop was situated along the highway and that my train ticket, which I had already purchased, was also valid on the bus.

There was one last train scheduled that afternoon, and seeing that the station was on the way to the bus stop, I thought I’d give it another chance. But my waiting was in vain—that train didn’t show up either. My last hope was the bus, but I had no clue as to its schedule until I arrived at the stop. As it turned out, the last bus of the day would be arriving within a half hour. My stomach was tied in knots as I waited, seated on the curb, not knowing if the buses were also on strike—not knowing what I would do if I were truly stranded there. The air was hot and muggy, and sweat trickled down my forehead as the minutes ticked by. Then, precisely at 5:40pm, I spotted the blue SAF bus heading my direction. Once on board, I collapsed into a window seat, closed my eyes, and breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Udine's Osteria Al Vecchio StalloBy the time I reached my hotel, it was practically time to head out for dinner. I had planned to go to Hostaria Alla Tavernetta, but the sign posted in their window said they would be closed for the next two weeks. So, without a second thought, I continued on to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo, my consistently reliable fallback. As a treat after my harrowing ordeal, I ordered my favorite dish, frico con polenta. The cheese and potato pancake was freshly made and cut into a huge wedge. It came with a rectangle of grilled white polenta, a welcome change from the soft, yellow cornmeal that Chef Mario usually served. To complete my meal, I also had my favorite of his side dishes, zucchini alla scapece (zucchini sautéed with vinegar, herbs, and spicy pepper).

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