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Forni Avoltri's Chiesetta di Sant'AntonioOn 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.

Prato CarnicoI 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.

Prato CarnicoAfter 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!

Cucina della CarniaI 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.

pendalonsHere is the recipe for pendalons from Ristorante Ai Sette Nani:

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.

Topping:
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.

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Forni AvoltriI 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.

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Forni di SopraIt 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.

Forni di SopraCrossing 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.

Forni di SopraAfter 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.

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DolomitesAfter 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.

fogolar at Polenta e FricoAt 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.

Forni di Sopra's Chiesa di San FlorianoMy 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.

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Forni di SopraA 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.

Albergo CentraleI 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.)

Municipio Vecchio 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.

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Albergo Ristorante BellavistaOn 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.

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cheese at Mondo delle Malghe in OvaroIt soon became obvious to me that my absence at lunch and dinner the previous day had been a major faux pas. Around 9:00pm, I had received a phone call from the irritated owner of Albergo Bellavista, checking to see if I was coming to dinner. Feeling rather embarrassed, I was forced to admit that I had already eaten. Consequently, I was prepared to give notice today at breakfast that I would be skipping my meals there once again. The waitress, however, never even asked. When I saw that lavish platters of cheese, salami, and croissants had been laid out on all the other tables, while mine held only a single croissant, I felt as if I had been blacklisted for my failure to follow the proper protocol.

Pushing those defeatist thoughts aside, I hastened to finish my croissant, scurried upstairs to grab my backpack, and dashed outdoors into the warm July sunshine. I had arranged at the bar down the street for the owner’s husband to drive me to Ovaro today. Though billed as a taxi, in reality the service was nothing more than a man and his own personal car.

On the nerve-racking 15-minute drive, during which my elderly chauffeur seemed predisposed to pass every car along the endless blind, hairpin turns, I attempted to make small talk, though it was somewhat difficult to understand his toothless mumbling. Fortunately, when he dropped me off in Ovaro, he did seem to comprehend that I wished to be picked up at 3:00pm.

display at Mondo delle Malghe in OvaroThe Mondo delle Malghe festival, established to celebrate the “world of the malghe,” featured everything to do with the local art of cheese production. Since it was still early when I arrived, and many of the food stalls were still being set up, I took a long walk through the residential areas of town, looking for houses with the emerald green shingles that I had read were characteristic of the Val Degano.

Back on the stretch of highway running through town, I stopped at a small hay-filled enclosure across from the main piazza to watch a couple of gleeful children taking pony rides. A nearby exhibit of Carnian antiques caught my eye. Fully dressed figures made from straw had been carefully arranged among the furniture to recreate traditional household scenes from ancient times: a father and son chopping wood, a mother bathing a child, and a baby asleep in his cradle.

ricotta affumicataFresh produce abounded—everything from zucchini to peas to wild berries—although the variety of cheese on display surpassed all else. There was formaggio di malga, fresh ricotta, ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta), formaggio salato (salted cheese), formaggio alle erbe (herbed cheese), and formadi frant (a golden hued cheese made from mixing cheeses of varying stages of maturation), to name just a few.

By this time, the main piazza and adjoining side streets were filled with food stands. Scoping out my options for lunch, I found vendors dishing up plates of gnocchi di zucca (butternut squash dumplings), frico (cheese and potato pancake), and goulasch (Hungarian beef stew)—but as always, I was unable to resist the cjarsòns. These were dense and chewy with a filling of ricotta, raisins, bread crumbs, sugar, parsley, and lemon zest. Next, I sampled a plate of assorted cheeses: slices of formaggio di malga, formaggio salato, and ricotta affumicata, accompanied by a plain boiled potato. Finally, I found a seat at one of the crowded communal picnic tables in the piazza to try a fillet of smoked trout, served with salsa rosa, tartar sauce, and a hunk of bread.

cheese at Mondo delle Malghe in OvaroWhile waiting for my taxi driver to retrieve me that afternoon, I rested in a shady park to escape the sweltering heat. In the sky above, paragliders drifted down from the peaks of Monte Zoncolan. At the children’s playground, two brothers played on the seesaw, the older, heavier child having much difficulty getting off the ground. Another little boy kept toddling over to the fountain to wash his hands in the cool water, his exasperated mother provoking a tantrum of tears as she repeatedly whisked him away. With amusement, I observed this scene replay more than a dozen times, the child quickly recovering his happy, bubbly laughter with every escape.

From under a nearby tree, the rollicking tunes of a small trio of musicians muffled the noise of the crowd around me. Joining the fiddle, bass, and accordion players, a small child posed adorably with an adult-sized guitar. They were soon interrupted by the appearance of a preteen marching band and drill team, the dancing girls outfitted in spandex and brandishing pom-poms.

My driver picked me up promptly, although I nearly missed him in the stream of cars going by. Luckily, I spotted him when he parked across the street and got out, clearly having just as much trouble locating me. The drive back to Ravascletto turned out to be even more terrifying than the ride there. As we were attempting to pass a slow-moving trailer, a car whizzed around the corner at us at breakneck speed. We barely escaped a possibly fatal accident by pulling back into our lane just in time. Later, after having successfully passed the trailer, we came upon a string of motorcycles speeding around the dangerously narrow curves. My anxious heart racing, I was immensely relieved when we finally pulled up outside Albergo Bellavista.

For dinner that evening, I returned to Hotel La Perla, whose dining room was now considerably subdued in comparison to the prior evening, when a wedding reception had been in full swing. To start, I was served a complimentary antipasto of three crostini topped with fresh ricotta and mushrooms. Next, I ordered the blècs: rustic triangles of buckwheat pasta served in a cream sauce with prosciutto, mushrooms, and shavings of cheese. Since I hadn’t had many veggies lately, I also ordered the verdure miste, which was offered as a self-service buffet. Delighted with the variety, I helped myself to a generous plate of string beans, carrots, spinach, cauliflower, bell peppers, zucchini, and olives. Everything tasted fresh and was prepared with great care—precisely what I would expect from a traditional Carnian meal.

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Albergo Ristorante BellavistaI awoke early on Saturday morning with complete uncertainty as to my plans for the day. The prior evening’s storm had passed through, leaving the valley glistening as the first rays of sunshine reflected off the dewy grass. Downstairs in the dining room at Albergo Bellavista, I chose some yogurt topped with granola from the breakfast buffet and seated myself near the front windows. The waitress was making the rounds, taking all the guests’ orders for lunch and dinner. Since I wasn’t sure where I would be going, I clumsily confessed that I hadn’t yet decided if I’d even be eating my meals there. While I recognized the restaurant’s need to plan ahead, I couldn’t help feeling inconvenienced. For me, part of the fun of traveling invariably involved having some modicum of spontaneity, especially where food was concerned. On this trip, it was more essential than ever. My chief objective was to explore the region’s cuisine, and seeing as I had not yet had time to check out Ravascletto’s other restaurant, I wanted to keep my options open. Feeling a bit guilty about my indecision, I returned to my room before the waitress had a chance to press me for an answer.

My two goals for that weekend were to attend the Mondo delle Malghe festival in nearby Ovaro and visit Malga Pozôf on the peak of Monte Zoncolan. Upon arriving in Ravascletto, I had learned that the festival’s street markets were taking place only on Sunday, not running the entire weekend as I had originally believed. This was a problem, since there was no bus service out of Ravascletto on Sundays. Suddenly, I remembered reading in one of my brochures that taxis were available in a couple of Carnia’s towns, including Ravascletto. After inquiring at the tourist office, I was directed to a bar across the street, where the owner’s husband—a friendly but toothless old gentleman—provided an informal taxi service. I arranged for him to drive me to Ovaro the next day.

Now that Sunday was settled, I turned my attention to Malga Pozôf. Yesterday, I had seen a flyer posted outside the tourist office announcing that the ski lift would reopen today. This morning, however, I learned that the funivia was going to be closed for repairs all summer. My heart sank, knowing that my only alternative was to undertake another grueling mountain hike. The woman at the tourist office convinced me that it was entirely doable and provided me with a map of the trail. Down in the valley, I found the entrance to the path. Here, I also ran into an older British couple, whom I recognized from the breakfast room at Bellavista. They intended to walk partway up the trail, so we agreed to set out together.

RavasclettoAlmost immediately, we came upon a fork, with one path leading directly ahead, up the wide clearing used as a ski run in winter, and the other branching off to the left through the forest. The couple claimed they knew the way, so I followed them into the woods. We trudged along for a half hour, although I had a nagging suspicion that we were going in the wrong direction. The trail was not progressing up the mountain so much as winding eastward. Twice our path was blocked by a house-sized pile of timber—this should have been an obvious clue. Still, my new friends insisted that this was the way, even as they struggled to circumnavigate the massive obstacles.

Finally, I decided to say goodbye and turn around. Another half hour later, I found myself at the original fork, where I began climbing up the steep, grassy carpet of wildflowers. Within moments, I glimpsed the sign designating the proper trail, clearly marked Malga Pozôf. If I had been alone, I might have trusted my instincts and saved some time. Instead, my misguided detour turned what should have been a strenuous two-hour hike into an utterly exhausting three-hour trek.

Malga PozofI continued the ascent to the top of the ski slope, where the trail diverged and began meandering through a patch of tall grass. My black clothes were soon covered with yellow pollen from the bushes that pressed in on either side of me. After stepping across a shallow stream, I entered the woods again. This final leg of the hike took a full hour and was almost entirely uphill. Panting for air, I emerged at the summit and was instantly confronted by the foul stench of manure. Up ahead, cows roamed freely, grazing alongside the dirt road. I was elated with the thrill of my success. After three arduous hikes, I had finally found the cows I had been seeking for my photographs!

Malga Pozof cowsFollowing the path a short distance further, I reached Malga Pozôf. Settling in at a long, wooden table, I was welcomed with an assortment of cheeses, which included both fresh and aged varieties, as well as ones with herbs and spicy red pepper flakes. The plate also held a few slices of salami and polenta. As I savored each bite, I introduced myself to the trio at my communal table. A portly bunch, they explained that they were on a mushroom foraging expedition, and the wife guided my eyes to a table nearby where another forager was showing off his specimen of the day—a giant porcini the size of a soccer ball.

fogolar at Malga PozofAfter indulging in a slice of blackberry crostata for dessert, I gave myself a tour of the malga. A ring of stables encircled us, many cows wandering outside the enclosure, some lounging inside the pens. The main room of the malga was lined with small wheels of aging cheese. Following the aroma of smoke, I entered the adjacent fogolâr room, where balls of ricotta rested above the fire, on their way to becoming ricotta affumicata.

On my way out, I conveniently bumped into my lunch companions. They kindly offered me a ride—if I didn’t mind the occasional stop for mushrooms. The four of us crammed into their miniscule Fiat, which instantly whizzed into gear along its harrowing course, careening down the narrow, hairpin turns of the mountain.

Suddenly, the stout woman wedged into the backseat next to me shouted “Ferma! Ferma!” Her brother slammed on the brakes, while his wife jumped nimbly out of the passenger door and disappeared into the forest. A moment later she returned clutching a fistful of freshly picked porcini mushrooms.

We were barely on our way when the husband jerked to a halt once more. This time, both women skipped around to the back to retrieve some refreshments from a cooler, and we all enjoyed an impromptu snack of homemade custard and fresh raspberries. To drink, the threesome was well-prepared with both iced coffee and mint tea. Finally, we reached the foot of the mountain, where I was dropped off in the closest town, Ovaro.

As I waited for the bus, it was clear that there was nothing happening at the Mondo delle Malghe festival—I had made the right choice to wait until Sunday. My first bus soon dropped me off in Comeglians, where I made the connection to Ravascletto. Before returning to my hotel, I stopped at the market for some bananas. I also peeked into the shop where I had seen linens and dishes in the window. There, I selected a couple of embroidered dishtowels that I would someday use as props in my food photos.

I had just made it back to Bellavista when the rain started. By the time I had climbed the stairs to the top floor, it was hailing. I collapsed on my bed, thoroughly spent, listening to the pellets of ice pelt the windows, the thunder quickly developing from a low rumble into a resonating boom. I felt fortunate not to have been caught in the storm while on Monte Zoncolan. As the lightning flashed outside, the power inside flickered off a few times. A fast-moving storm, it was all over within what seemed like only minutes.

Since the storm appeared to have passed, I took my chances walking down the hill to eat dinner at Hotel La Perla. It began raining again, however, just as soon as I arrived. The restaurant was hosting a wedding reception, and though I was seated at one of the few empty tables at the edge of the dining room, I had a clear view of the festivities.

To start, I was served a complimentary antipasto of frico croccante. The crispy fried cheese was shaped into a bowl and filled with marinated radicchio di montagna, a wild green native to Carnia. My first course, the cjarsòns di Monaj, would have been equally suitable as a dessert: dumplings made from thick, gnocchi-like dough were stuffed with a rich, sweet filling of fresh ricotta, walnuts, and raisins. The dish was made even more decadent by a topping of melted butter, cinnamon sugar, and ricotta affumicata. Next, I ordered the toç in braide, a bowl of hearty polenta topped with a sauce of fresh ricotta, drizzled with browned butter and toasted cornmeal, and encircled with a garnish of sautéed mushrooms. Although I was quite stuffed, I felt no guilt, having burned more than enough calories on my hike!

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Piano d'ArtaPassing through Tolmezzo earlier in the week, I had noticed a sign at the bus station announcing a transportation strike that was scheduled, most inconveniently, for today, the day I was leaving Piano d’Arta for Ravascletto. To my great relief, as I read the fine print, I learned that service was guaranteed between noon and 3:00pm—so it looked like I would make it to my destination after all.

I ate breakfast in my room again—another of those crostate from Paularo, this one a rectangular slice with blueberry jam and a lattice crust. After checking out of Hotel Poldo and leaving my bag at the reception desk, I strolled down the hill to a market, where I bought a small roll and a hunk of fresh Montasio cheese. Back at my hotel, I parked myself outside at a patio table in the shade and spent the rest of the morning nibbling on my meager picnic and waiting restlessly for my departure time.

At 12:30pm, I caught the bus heading north. My schedule, printed from the Internet, showed a connection in Sutrio, but the friendly driver urged me to continue on to Paluzza. It turned out that my bus to Ravascletto originated in Paluzza, and sure enough, it was sitting there waiting for me.

I arrived in Ravascletto and checked into Albergo Bellavista, where Mike and I had eaten lunch the previous year. Perched high in the hills, the hotel truly lived up to its name with a “beautiful view” out over the entire Valcalda valley. My room was quite spacious, with a slanted chalet-style ceiling, a large but rather firm bed, and a wooden writing desk. The bathroom had recently been renovated, although a few quirks left me somewhat nonplussed: the toilet had one of those uncomfortable square seats, the overhead light had burned out, and the door could barely open halfway before bumping into the sink. These slight imperfections melted away, however, when I glanced out the picture window at the imposing peak of Monte Zoncolan directly ahead.

Albergo Ristorante BellavistaShortly after settling in, I took a walk to orient myself. There was one small piazza with a market, an ATM, a tourist office, and a shop selling dishes, linens, and various craft items. Even though everything was closed at this hour, I did see a flyer that put a wrench into my schedule. One of my main reasons for visiting Ravascletto was to attend the Mondo delle Malghe festival in nearby Ovaro. The information mailed to me by the tourist office prior to my trip listed the dates as both Saturday and Sunday. Now, according to this flyer, it looked like the main events of the festival were taking place only on Sunday, when there was no bus service between the two towns.

My other goal in Ravascletto was to visit Malga Pozôf atop Monte Zoncolan. At least it looked like this might be possible—the sign in the window of the tourist office announced that the funivia (ski lift) would reopen tomorrow. I really didn’t want to have to tackle another hike like the one I undertook a few days ago to Malga Pramosio!

Despite the overcast sky, the air was warm and muggy. On my way back, I passed the tiny bar adjacent to the hotel. The door was open, though I found no one working inside. In the corner sat a freezer of packaged ice cream treats, and I took out a lemon Popsicle. I then seated myself on a bar stool at the counter to cool off and enjoy my snack. The cashier returned shortly, at which time I promptly paid my Euro. As I finished eating, we chatted—about the weather, my travels, the local cuisine—but when I stepped down to leave, she abruptly demanded that I pay for the Popsicle. To my polite reminder that I had in fact already paid, she let fly a flurry of impassioned Italian that I could scarcely keep up with. It was only when I pulled the receipt out of my purse that she grudgingly acquiesced.

Back at the hotel, I ran into the owner in the lobby. Surprisingly, he remembered me from over a year ago. He even recalled with remarkable specificity where Mike and I had eaten our lunch: at a corner table in the informal dining area on the ground floor. Upon his inquiry, I agreed to have dinner in the hotel that evening. As far as I could see, there was only one other restaurant in town, and it was located all the way down the hill in the valley.

By early evening, rain had begun to fall. Dark gray thunderclouds loomed in the distance, casting shadows across the mountains and valley. It was a relief not to have to go out in the storm in search of dinner. The drawback to dining as a hotel guest, though, was that I was restricted to the limited pensione menu. There were only a couple of choices for each course, with nothing sounding particularly Friulian. I started with the cannelloni filled with spinach and ricotta, served in a cream sauce. Next, I had a whole grilled trout with a side of baby carrots sautéed in butter. Dessert was a simple bowl of fresh raspberries.

All throughout my meal, as the thunderstorm raged outside, I felt a secure sense of coziness in the refuge of the dining room. Later, back in my top floor room, I sat glued to the window, staring out into the darkness, lulled by the sound of heavy rain pounding against the glass panes and mesmerized by the occasional flashes of lightning that illuminated the Valcalda.

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Udine's Osteria Al Vecchio StalloOne evening, more than a dozen years ago, I was invited to a life-changing dinner at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo in Udine, Italy. Read my story “A Culinary Tale of Seduction” at bloggingauthors.com.

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