Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘travel’

torta RigojanciArriving in Budapest the previous afternoon turned out to be somewhat more of a culture shock than Vienna had been. After many years of traveling throughout Italy, I had begun to take for granted the fact that I spoke the language. Even though I didn’t speak German, I had learned a few key phrases to help me get by in Austria—plus I was so familiar with the exchange rate that I could convert euros to dollars in my sleep. Hungarian, however, proved to be a decidedly more challenging language—I had bought a phrasebook but only managed to learn a couple of words—and the national currency took me back to my pre-euro visits to Europe. Fortunately, I found the people in Hungary to be incredibly friendly, and if they didn’t speak any English themselves, they could often round up a young person who did.

On my first morning, I was delighted by the selection at Hotel Art’s breakfast buffet. Along with the yogurt and muesli that I had become accustomed to, there were scrambled eggs, an assortment of salami and sausages, cheese, bread, and a platter of tomato and cucumber slices. After I had my fill, I set out to find the Keleti train station, so that I could buy my ticket for Trieste, where I would be heading two days later.

The closest Metro station was two blocks from my hotel, but once underground I found the ticket options to be rather perplexing. The choices included tickets with unlimited stops, three or fewer stops, a transfer with unlimited stops, and a transfer with five or fewer stops. I knew I needed to transfer from the blue to the red line, and so counted out on the map how many stops that would make, but then I couldn’t find any place to purchase tickets. I asked at a nearby newsstand, and though the girl working there didn’t speak English, she got her friend to assist me. This young man, who had been hanging around outside her store smoking a cigarette, steered me to a ticket window—small and rather hidden off to the side—and conveyed to the clerk exactly what I needed.

Once at Keleti, I succeeded in purchasing my train ticket, although I was surprised to learn that seat reservations were not given here. From the station, I retraced my course via Metro and then set off on foot toward Buda, the section of Budapest on the western side of the Danube River.

At the river, I crossed the Chain Bridge and climbed the steep steps to the Royal Palace (a.k.a. Buda Castle). I had hoped to visit Mátyás Church, but they had just begun mass and weren’t letting in tourists until later in the afternoon. On my way to the castle, I passed Ruszwurm Cukrászda, one of the city’s oldest bakeries. There, I bought a slice of Rigó Jancsi, snagged a spoon from the gelato counter, and took my treat to a bench outside. The squares of chocolate sponge cake were thinner than I expected and rather stale. The chocolate cream filling, on the other hand, was piled about two inches thick, and the top layer of cake was glazed with a sinfully rich chocolate ganache. While I had read that this dessert was popular in Trieste—and I was therefore hoping to include it in my book Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy—this was the first time I had ever tasted it.

As I was polishing off the last crumbs of my decadent treat, I felt the mist of a light drizzle beginning. Nevertheless, I continued my exploration, strolling around the outside of the castle to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a viewing terrace built in the late 19th century, complete with towers and turrets straight out of a fairytale.

As it was nearing lunchtime, I descended the steps and headed to Horgásztanya Vendéglő, professed by some to be Budapest’s best fish restaurant. I ordered the fish stew with carp, which was served in a mini cauldron hanging from a hook on a small cast iron stand. The dish came with a fiery paprika sauce on the side, so that I could make my meal as spicy as I liked.

After lunch, I decided to make the climb up Castle Hill once again, in hopes that Mátyás Church would be open. It was—and well worth the effort, for the interior was as gorgeous as the church’s brilliantly tiled roof. The walls were painted floor to ceiling in colorful, though somewhat muted, patterns: stripes, swirls, dots, flourishes, leaves, and flowers, the intricate designs lending an exotic Byzantine character to the Gothic arches and stained-glass windows.

From there, I made the descent a second time, but instead of returning to the eastern Pest side of the river, I walked south, past the Chain Bridge and Elisabeth Bridge, all the way to Szabadság Bridge. I spotted Hotel Gellért, famous for its spa and thermal baths, but was more interested in seeking out the Cave Church, a tiny chapel built inside a grotto underneath Gellért Hill. The walls were made of nothing but bare, natural rock, its niches filled with Catholic statues and altars.

Budapest's Pilates Balance StudioBy this time, fatigue was beginning to set in, so I returned to my hotel to rest for an hour. I wanted to feel refreshed for my late-afternoon appointment with Zsuzsanna Bokor, owner of Hungary’s first Pilates studio. As a Pilates instructor myself (and author of Balance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates), I had recently written for the new Pilates Style magazine. I was now planning on submitting two articles for their “International” section: one on the Pilates studio in Milano, which I had visited in July, and another on this studio in Budapest.*

Budapest's Pilates Balance StudioMy plan was to walk all the way to Oktogon Square, where Zsuzsanna had arranged to meet me outside a Burger King. It was quite a distance to cover by foot, but I left my hotel extra early and even found time to stop and peek inside the magnificent Hungarian State Opera House on the way. When I arrived at Oktogon, it appeared that Burger King was a popular meeting spot for all sorts of people converging in this busy octagonal crossroads. Girls, boys, women, men—some alone, others in groups—all loitered casually in front of the American fast food icon, only to vanish once their companions arrived.

Budapest's Pilates Balance StudioI had seen Zsuzsanna’s picture on her website, so I knew who to be on the lookout for: an attractive brunette in her early 30s. I was startled, then, to be approached by a man, tentatively addressing me by name. It turned out to be Zsuzsanna’s husband, Gabor, whom she had sent to fetch me. We went directly to the Pilates Balance Studio, where Zsuzsanna and two of her instructors, Krisztián Mélykúti and Czech-born Vladka Mala, were waiting. Like me, they all had a background in dance—except Gabor, who was an orthopedic surgeon. Zsuzsanna and Krisztián were professional ballet dancers, and Vladka was a contemporary dancer. They all spoke English, and the interview flowed seamlessly. Even my camera, which had begun to malfunction in Vienna, managed to remain on long enough for me to snap a few photos of the instructors demonstrating Pilates moves.

After the interview, Zsuzsanna and Gabor invited me to dinner. I followed them to a nearby restaurant called Karma. The daylong showers had stopped by now, so we sat at one of the outdoor tables, a relief for me after having put up with far too many smoky dining rooms in the past few days. The menu was an ecclectic mix of international cuisines: Hungarian, Italian, Asian, Mexican, and Indian. I wasn’t terribly hungry, so I ordered a plate of grilled mozzarella and vegetables. Zsuzsanna had a quesadilla, and Gabor had tandoori chicken. To drink, they ordered sparkling lemonade for us all, though by the time the sun went down, the icy beverage had me shivering with cold.

We lingered at the restaurant until after 8:30pm, talking about our lives, our hopes and dreams. It was especially interesting to hear their take on the fall of Communism and how things in Hungary had changed over the past fifteen years. Having lived in Ohio for several years—Zsuzsanna once danced for the Cincinnati Ballet—their English was flawless. I felt overjoyed to have made friends who were not only close in age but also shared a similar background and values. Although we have since lost touch, I will never forget our friendship that chilly October evening.

* Shortly after I sent in my articles, Pilates Style hired a new editor. In fact, their entire editorial staff seemed to have turned over in a very short period of time. Although I submitted my pieces several times during the following year, they were never published.

torta RigojanciHere is my version of Rigó Jancsi (torta Rigojanci in Italian). The cake was named after the Hungarian gypsy violinist Jancsi Rigó, whose passionate affair with a beautiful American millionairess caused a worldwide scandal in the late 19th century. For picture-perfect slices, trim the cake edges before assembling.

Cake:
6 eggs, separated
1-1/4 cups sugar
2/3 cup cake or pastry flour, sifted
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted
Pinch salt

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar to the “ribbon stage,” about 5 minutes. (The batter will be pale in color and will leave a ribbon-like trail when drizzled over the surface of the batter.) Stir in the flour and cocoa powder.

2. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks. Soften the batter by stirring in a little egg white; fold in the remaining egg whites. Pour the batter into a greased and floured 11- by 17-inch jelly-roll pan. Bake until a wooden pick inserted near the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool completely before removing from the pan. Slice the cake into two 8-1/2- by 11-inch sheets.

Chocolate Ganache:
6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream

Melt the chocolate with the cream in a double boiler, stirring until smooth. Pour the ganache over one sheet of cake. Refrigerate until the ganache has set; slice into twelve squares.

Cream Filling:
8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
3 cups heavy whipping cream, chilled

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler, stirring until smooth; remove from heat. Pour the cream into a large bowl. (For best results, chill the bowl in advance.) Beat until the cream forms stiff peaks. Stir about 1 cup whipped cream into the melted chocolate. Pour the chocolate mixture into the bowl of whipped cream; whisk vigorously until the chocolate is thoroughly incorporated. Spread the chocolate cream over the remaining sheet of cake. Place the twelve glazed squares on top of the cream layer. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Read Full Post »

apple strudelAfter only two short days, it was time to leave Vienna. I arrived at the hydrofoil dock just before 8:00am, ready to cruise along the Danube River to Budapest. The only seating on the boat was indoors, and I felt lucky to grab a single seat by the window. The remaining seats filled up quickly. Most passengers appeared to be Austrian, though there were quite a few speaking English—from the U.S., Britain, Canada, and Australia—as well as a trio from Japan.

Shortly after we departed Vienna, the boat spent a full hour passing through the first of two locks. While waiting, I ate the first part of my snack, which I had purchased the day before: a slice of topfenstrudel, the dough moist and rolled paper-thin with a sweet cheese and raisin filling.

After a stop in Bratislava, Slovakia, the hydrofoil continued on to Budapest. Just prior to arriving, we hit our second lock. Once again, it seemed to take forever to pass through. As the sun streamed through the window to my right, hitting me squarely in the eyes, I came to regret my choice of seat. Some passengers had escaped the claustrophobic heat of the cabin to light cigarettes on the narrow walkway outside, and their smoke kept wafting unpleasantly through the open door (which another woman insisted on opening each time I got up to shut it).

I found solace during this second delay by partaking in my remaining snack: a slice of apfelstrudel, packed with apples and cinnamon, sweet but with just the right amount of tartness.

We arrived in Budapest an hour and a half late. Gray clouds had gathered, obscuring the sun, though it was still a beautiful sight passing under all of the city’s magnificent bridges, the Gothic-style Parliament building on the left and the Buda Castle on the hilltop to the right.

I had chosen my hotel, Hotel Art, mainly for its proximity to the boat dock, Metro stops, and famous pedestrian street Váci Utca. After checking in, I changed some money into Hungarian forints and then walked along Váci Utca to St. Stephen’s Basilica. Although the church was closed to visitors due to a wedding in progress, I was able to peek inside and listen to the strains of “Ave Maria” coming from the altar.

For dinner, I headed to one of the restaurants that seemed to make all of the “Best Of” lists in my guidebooks: Csarnok Vendéglő. I entered with some degree of trepidation, having read that Budapest restaurants were notorious for ripping off customers—even locals—but to my relief, the staff were very friendly and accommodating. As a woman dining alone in a foreign country, I did not feel the least bit uncomfortable there.

My meal was exceptional. I started with the hortobágyi palacsinta, a meat-filled crêpe served in a cream sauce laced with lots of paprika. This was followed by töltött káposzta: cabbage rolls stuffed with rice and ground meat, topped with sour cream, and served on a bed of sauerkraut. Even though I didn’t possess a palate discriminating enough to tell precisely what types of meat were used, I nevertheless determined that the dishes were seasoned to perfection.

After dinner, I returned to my hotel via the waterfront, about a 40-minute walk. The whole river was aglow with sparkling lights—luxury hotels on the eastern bank, the hilltop castle rising to the west, bridges spanning the two sides, and riverboats leisurely cruising beneath—the water alive in a magical, reflective, glittering dance. In an odd juxtaposition of Disneyland fantasy and ancient history, Budapest seemed a fairytale come to life.

Read Full Post »

kugelhopfI began my second morning in Vienna with a visit to the famous Café Central, an opulent room lined with rows of cream-colored pillars supporting an elegant vaulted ceiling. After perusing the dessert offerings on display, I seated myself at a small, round table of reddish marble and ordered a slice of chocolate marble kugelhopf. This Bundt cake was practically identical to the one I had baked at home from the cookbook Dulcis in Fundo.

After a little more exploring, I happened upon a tiny sandwich shop just off the Graben: the century-old Buffet Trzesniewski. Behind the glass counter were close to twenty different varieties of finger sandwiches, most prepared with egg salad and various toppings. I chose three: egg with shrimp, egg with bacon, and egg with smoked herring and pickles.

Next, I headed to the Spanish Riding School to see the morning training of the Lipizzaner stallions. I had read that the line to get into this free event, which lasted from 10:00am to noon, would start forming at the early hour of 8:30am. Not wanting to spend all morning waiting in line, I heeded my guidebook’s advice to arrive late, as most people would be coming and going, not staying for the full two hours. Even though it took a few minutes to locate an available seat, I finally found a spot on the uppermost level, where I sat to watch the horses prance around to the rousing melodies of Mozart and Strauss.

I left before the practice session was over and walked to the outdoor market called the Naschmarkt, where I marveled at the vast array of food items for sale. I soon noticed that much of it was either Greek or Middle Eastern in origin—loads of olives, feta, hummus, and baklava. I also found a cheese market selling small tubs of liptauer, one of the Austro-Hungarian specialties on my list to scope out. Unlike the white liptauer I had eaten in Trieste, this one was pinkish orange from the addition of paprika. I balked at spending the money on a full container when all I wanted was just a taste, but I did get a look at the list of ingredients for future reference.

While at the Naschmarkt, I experienced the first inauspicious incident of my trip. I had pulled out my husband’s point-and-shoot digital camera to take some photos of a display of bright orange and green gourds when the camera suddenly started to malfunction. Each time I pressed the button to turn it on, the power would instantly shut down again. The battery was fully charged, but the power would not remain on. Finally, it stayed on long enough to snap a couple shots, but the camera would continue to prove troublesome for the remainder of my trip. By the end of my five weeks, the display screen would start going black as well. At least I had my trusty old Pentax SLR film camera, which I still used for most of my outdoor shots.

On my way back to Hotel Austria, I paid a quick visit to the enormous baroque Karlskirche (St. Charles’s Church). I also stopped in at the bakery and café Gerstner, where I bought two pieces of strudel to take on the hydrofoil the next day—in case I got hungry on my way to Hungary. One was filled with apple and the other with topfen (also called quark, a cheese similar to fromage blanc).

Back in my room, exhausted from my lingering jet lag as well as from the day’s long walk, I napped for a couple of hours before dinner. At around 6:00pm, I reluctantly ventured out again. Not being able to muster enough energy to scope out just the perfect place, I settled on the convenience of Café Vienne, adjacent to my hotel. When I arrived, the restaurant was nearly empty, but it soon started to fill with patrons. Not seeing any of my “to-try list” dishes on the menu, I ordered the salmon with spinach and potatoes. The fish was pan-fried in a light coating of flour and served with a creamy sauce flavored with white wine and thyme. The spinach was garlicky, though not particularly memorable. The real star of the plate was the rösti, a savory, crisp potato cake. I had planned on staying to order the palatschinke (crêpe) for dessert, but as the restaurant had no non-smoking section—and it was becoming increasingly more difficult to breathe—I was rather anxious to leave. The palatschinke would have to wait until another time.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 156 other followers

%d bloggers like this: