Having taken the train from Trieste back to Udine and dropped our bags off at Hotel Principe, Mike and I set out for our very first Italian rental car adventure. Mike was to be the designated driver for this trip, since I don’t drive (at least not anymore, though I did learn as a teenager). A few weeks earlier, Mike “learned” how to drive a stick-shift using his aunt’s truck, so we thought we were well-prepared.
The plan was to pick up our car—it was a tiny Fiat Punto—and drive to Cormòns for lunch. Mike’s driving lessons, however, proved to be far less than adequate. After finally getting the car going, with countless jerks and starts and to the tune of a dozen locals honking at us, we managed to make it a couple of blocks before stalling in a rotary. As Mike was desperately gunning the engine, a polizia car passed us and paused briefly, the officers turning their heads to stare at us in utter disgust.
We finally made it out of Udine but realized that Mike needed somewhere to practice before battling the urban traffic again—someplace like a large, empty parking lot. We found just the place behind a massive warehouse on the side of the highway. Here, Mike could practice using the clutch without feeling any pressure. As he was getting the hang of it, the Fiat advanced forward a few feet at a time, until the wheels hit the curb and we could go no further. Then the trouble really began: we couldn’t figure out how to shift into reverse! This was certainly problematic, I thought, panic beginning to set in. I had learned to drive on a stick, so I was familiar with where reverse should be, but it simply wasn’t there. After a half hour of feeling dumbfounded, I had the brilliant idea of pulling the owner’s manual out of the glove compartment. Reading in Italian, I learned that in order to shift into reverse, you needed to pull up on the stick’s collare (collar). Finally, it all made sense, and we both felt like complete idiots.
With a great sense of accomplishment, we then drove the rest of the way to Cormòns. After a quick visit to the Duomo di Sant’Adalberto and the Chiesa di Santa Caterina (better known as Rosa Mistica), we stopped for lunch at Trattoria Al Giardinetto. To begin, we were served several complimentary antipasti: lardo (cured fatback), pâté of oca affumicata (smoked goose), and a gnoccho di ricotta (ricotta dumpling) with tomato and zucchini purée (plated for a patriotic red, white, and green effect). For my first course, I had the cjalsòns, which were filled with potatoes, speck, and sage, and served in melted butter with pancetta and aged Montasio. Mike ordered the orzotto (barley cooked “risotto-style”) with shrimp and artichokes. Next, I had the goulasch (again, there was no tomato in the sauce, though I did detect some spicy paprika and fennel) served with späetzle verde (tiny German-style spinach dumplings), while Mike had asparagus wrapped in smoked pork with a potato tortino and horseradish sauce. After finishing our meal, we stayed at our table for a long time, delaying the inevitable drive back to Udine.
Once we had returned to Udine, we stopped by several other car agencies, but as I had expected, automatic transmission was simply not available. A period of moodiness followed, as we lay in our hotel room, contemplating whether we should cancel all our plans for the next few days. Finally, Mike got up the nerve to take the car out for another spin. We drove around the block at least a dozen times before returning to the hotel with a bit more confidence.
On our way out to dinner, we joined our friends Steno and Liviana at a bar in Piazza della Libertà. Over glasses of prosecco, we chatted and exchanged gifts. I had brought them a batch of homemade cookies with white chocolate chips and dried cranberries—flavors I thought they would find to be rather exotic. Liviana gave me two books: the cookbook Le Ricette Tradizionali di Trieste by Maria Frausin, which I had just seen in a bookstore in Trieste and fortuitously passed over, as well as Guida di Udine by Maurizio Buora, a guide to the city’s history, art, and architecture.
Afterward, Mike and I returned to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo for dinner. I had the tortellini al ragù (looking back, I’m not sure why I ordered something so un-Friulian—perhaps I just needed a break from my research) and sarde in saor with polenta, while Mike had spaghetti alle vongole and frico con polenta. When we left the restaurant, the sky had darkened, warning us of an impending storm. As lightning flashed to the north and thunder rumbled threateningly, we hurried to make it back to our hotel before the rain started.