During my three weeks in Carnia, I planned to visit at least one town in each of the area’s seven valleys. Today, I would be taking a bus to Paularo, in the Valle del Chiarsò, Carnia’s easternmost valley. But first, I wanted to revisit Zuglio. The town was within walking distance from Piano d’Arta, although the sharp turns and lack of shoulder along the highway made for a harrowing half-hour’s walk. Founded by the Romans between 58 and 49 BC, Zuglio still has a section of ancient ruins standing in the center of town. I stayed just long enough to take some photos before heading back.
This time, I walked only as far as Arta Terme (Piano d’Arta was another 20 minutes further up the hill), so that I could catch the bus to Tolmezzo, where I would then change buses for Paularo. As I boarded my first bus, I immediately recognized the driver I had met the previous day on my way back from Timau. Even though it was his regular route, he was not driving but sitting toward the rear. With the comfortable familiarity that one quickly develops in such remote areas as this, I joined him across the aisle so that we could chat for the brief 10-minute journey. It occurred to me, in that moment, that I was just beginning to feel at home here.
Once in Tolmezzo, I transferred to the bus headed for Paularo. For some mysterious reason, this bus took an unscheduled detour through, of all places, Zuglio and Arta Terme! It stopped at precisely the bus stop where I had caught the earlier bus to Tolmezzo. If only I had known, I would have saved myself one bus ticket and an entire hour.
I arrived in Paularo with a bit of time to wander around before lunch. After spotting a bakery, I bought two types of crostata that I would save for my next couple breakfasts: a round tart with raspberry jam on a shortbread crust and a rectangular slice with blueberry jam and a lattice top.
For lunch, I had one particular restaurant in mind, Ristorante Al Cavallino, and I was relieved to find it open. Given my current obsession with cjarsòns, I was excited to see the dish on the menu, but for the first time in my experience, it was listed as a dessert. So for my entrée, I ordered the gnocchi antichi sapori, which turned out to be tantamount to cjarsòns. Even though they were prepared with potato-based dough rather than regular pasta dough, the decorative pinched edges very closely resembled the shape of the cjarsòns at Ristorante Salon. The flavor, however, was not sweet but savory, with a complex filling of many ingredients. My palate detected pork, bread crumbs, and some herbs that I guessed might be oregano and mint. They were served in melted butter, with a topping of toasted cornmeal, dried herbs, and melted cheese. As I was enjoying my meal, trying to dissect the flavors, the waitress came by to check on me. As was my custom, I inquired about the recipe. Coyly, she replied that it was a secret. Pressing her further, I asked if I tasted pork. Sì. Mint? Sì. Oregano? No. Perhaps the dried herb on top was in fact mint, but her lips were sealed—I would never uncover the truth.
For dessert, I eagerly ordered the cjarsòns dolci. Also made with potato dough, they looked practically identical to the gnocchi, but with a topping of cinnamon, sugar, and ricotta affumicata. Letting my palate guide me, I searched for the flavors of the filling. It was smooth and dark and sweet—my first and only guess was chocolate. The waitress shook her head. The filling was in fact made with ricotta and pears—no chocolate! Even as I finished my plate, I could hardly believe that it was not chocolate I tasted. It seemed impossible for such richness to come from fruit alone.
By this point, I had explained to the waitress that I was writing a cookbook. With sudden enthusiasm, she brought me a glass of homemade raspberry grappa—which I politely tasted, even though I found it too strong—as well as the gift of a hand-painted plate bearing the name Al Cavallino.
After lunch, I took a walk up into the hills above the town, admiring the rustic architecture typical of this part of Carnia: whitewashed masonry with dark wooden roofs and balconies. Outside each house, in row upon row of window boxes, bloomed a veritable rainbow of flowers. One 18th-century palazzo was now home to a museum called La Mozartina, featuring a collection of musical instruments and manuscripts. Unfortunately, the museum was open by appointment only, and I had not planned well enough in advance.
Back in Piano d’Arta that evening, I returned to Albergo Ristorante Salon for dinner. It was my third dinner there in a row, and I was beginning to recognize many of the same faces. It seemed that all the other diners were staying in the hotel, for they were ordering off the daily pensione menu, which Matteo recited at each table. Hearing only three choices of primi piatti and three choices of secondi piatti—all rather standard fare—made me feel grateful to be ordering off their regular, and more interesting, menu.
Tonight, I went with the capriolo in salmì, along with my usual insalata mista. The venison was stewed with juniper berries and served with polenta. My choice off Matteo’s rolling salad cart was a mix of roasted yellow peppers, potatoes, and string beans. When I finished eating, Matteo asked, with his characteristic boyish smile, if I might like something for dessert. I couldn’t resist the enticing manner in which he suggested, “Forse un po’ di sacherina?” So I indulged in “a little sachertorte,” although it was somewhat disappointing compared to the traditional Viennese version. Instead of the customary apricot jam, this cake was filled with cocoa-flavored whipped cream. On a positive note the chocolate cake was kept nice and moist by a generous dousing of grappa.
I lingered awhile afterward, in hopes that proprietor Bepi Salon would make an appearance. When he had finished eating his dinner in the kitchen, he finally came out to greet me and all the other guests. He did seem to be in a hurry, for he didn’t have the time to sit and chat as we had on my first evening. I did, however, manage to wrangle Matteo away from his duties long enough to snap a couple photos of him behind the bar.
It was getting late when I left the restaurant for the short walk back to Hotel Poldo. As I reached the bottom of the hill by the gray stone Latteria Cjarsòns building, I spotted one of the guests from dinner. An older man, perhaps in his late 50s or early 60s, he was leaning casually against his car—which was awkwardly parked in the intersection—and smoking a cigarette. Although I paid him no attention as I approached along the other side of the street, he called out to me in Italian, asking if I would like to go somewhere with him. As I pretended not to understand, it occurred to me that he had still been sitting at his table in the restaurant when I had left, just minutes earlier. Had he seen me leave and then jumped into his car to catch up to me? Was he actually stalking me? Aside from the fact that I was only 35—not to mention engaged with a ring conspicuously on my finger—this man struck me as sleazy and obnoxious. I said, “No,” with as much conviction and disdain as I could muster, and continued on my way.