Jet lag kept me awake most of the night again, so it wasn’t surprising that I didn’t hear my alarm go off at 7:30am. When I finally woke up, I had to rush to catch the 9:25 train to Cormòns. Yesterday, when I was on my way to Cividale, I had barely made it to the platform on time; due to construction work, the biglietteria had been temporarily relocated to the far end of the station, which meant I now had to allow a bit of extra time.
Cormòns is only a 15- or 20-minute ride from Udine, depending on whether or not you catch the veloce, or “fast,” train. On the way into town from the station, I passed a COOP supermercato, where I stocked up on Band-Aids—I had worn a new pair of sandals on my first couple evenings out and was already starting to get blisters.
Shortly before reaching the town center, I passed the Chiesa di Santa Caterina, a pale pink church topped by a pair of blue onion-domed steeples. The church is also known as Rosa Mistica for its altar statue of the Madonna and Child holding a rose made of precious stones (the stones were stolen by raiding French troops in 1812).
The hub of Cormòns is Piazza XXIV Maggio, the central focus of which is the Enoteca di Cormòns, a squat building of yellow stucco, home to the Collio’s wine-producing consortium. Without hesitation, I parked myself at the bar for some wine tasting. Lining up five glasses along the counter, Signora Elena poured me tastes of Tocai, Malvasia, two labels of Schiopettino, and Verduzzo. As I was sipping the wine, she took a long, sharp knife and deftly carved off a pile of paper-thin slices of prosciutto D’Osvaldo. This locally-made ham was sweet and smoky, albeit a bit gristly. I took my time—swirling, sniffing, sipping, and taking copious notes.
When it was nearing noon, I set off for what has become my favorite restaurant in all of Friuli: Trattoria Al Cacciatore de La Subida. From the enoteca, it was a substantial trek into the hilly outskirts of town. Clearly, this is the heart of the Collio wine zone, I thought, as I hiked along a stretch of highway lined with vineyards as far as the eye could see. When I arrived at La Subida, I was greeted by Loredana Sirk and seated at a table on the veranda overlooking the vineyards. Opened in 1960 by Joško Sirk and his wife, Loredana, La Subida was originally a small osteria and inn. Today, the Sirks run a Michelin-starred restaurant and complex of apartments, complete with tennis courts, children’s playground, horse stables, and swimming pool.
La Subida appeared nothing short of a bucolic utopia. As I took in my surroundings, a shaggy, white dog with floppy, brown ears emerged from underneath one of the tables to chase a dragonfly buzzing overhead; after sniffing the legs of all the guests, he lazily returned to his resting spot in the shade. Shortly, Loredana returned with a complimentary glass of prosecco, some frico croccante (crispy fried cheese), and a taste of ricotta salata over polenta with a garnish of arugula and black pepper. When I explained to Loredana that I was researching a book on Friulian cuisine, she suggested that, instead of my choosing from the menu, she might bring an assortment of small plates for me to sample.
First came a bocconcino di zucchini: a purse of phyllo dough stuffed with shredded zucchini, served with a fried sage leaf and a warm sauce of sambuco syrup. Next, there was another phyllo antipasto, this time a large single sheet accompanied by sautéed zucchini blossoms and red bell peppers, served on a mound of grated apple. The antipasti were followed by a couple of Slovenian pastas: zlikrofi (pasta filled with potato, pancetta, onion, and marjoram, served in a meat broth, and topped with shavings of cheese) and mlinci (thick, wide noodles served in a phyllo bowl with a sauce of minced goose and tomatoes). The final primo piatto, a strudel di ciliege (cherry strudel), was my favorite. A filling of chopped fresh cherries was rolled jellyroll-style in a sheet of gnocchi dough; it was then boiled, sliced, and served with a drizzle of melted butter and a topping of toasted bread crumbs, sugar, and cinnamon.
After those five small plates (not to mention the amuse-bouches and my plate of prosciutto at the enoteca), I was quite full—too full for any of the secondi piatti. This was a shame, because I had been looking forward to trying their famous stinco di vitello (veal shank). Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist a slice of apple strudel. Along with my dessert, Loredana brought a plate of six homemade biscotti and a bowl of fresh cherries. As I savored these, wishing I could somehow pocket them for later, Joško joined me at my table. He was very interested in hearing about my experiences in Friuli and, in what felt somewhat like a pop quiz, asked me to name three recipes from my cookbook-in-progress. Between my continuing jet lag and subsequent sleep deprivation, I had to rack my brain to come up with anything. Fortunately, my notes were at the ready in my backpack, and I was able to rattle off several dozen traditional Friulian dishes. Before he got up to leave, Joško presented me with a small book about La Subida, a chronicle of the restaurant’s history.
Later, on my way back from the restroom, I ran into Joško again. As I was giving him my business card, I noticed a waiter wheeling a cart of stinco di vitello from the dining room toward the kitchen. Excitedly, I spoke up, and Josko carved a little off for me, along with a spoonful of patate in tecia. The veal was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the potatoes had a sweet, caramelized flavor from the onions.
It was now mid-afternoon, and I decided to burn some calories by exploring the Collio on foot. Armed with an adequate map that pointed me in the general direction of the ruins of a medieval castle, I set off along a winding road, climbing high up into the hills above the town. Vineyards blanketed the rolling hillside as far as I could see. The castle looked closer on the map than it actually was, and I hiked for nearly an hour before reaching the entrance. As luck would have it, the castle and its surrounding park were closed for renovation. There was, however, a sweeping view from Monte Quarin across Cormòns and the plains below.
At this point, I didn’t particularly want to backtrack all the way to La Subida. Since my map showed another winding road that led directly back to Cormòns, I headed in that direction. After ten minutes, however, I concluded that I was going the wrong way. According to the map, the road should have zigzagged back on itself, but the farther I got, the clearer it became that the road was heading straight out of town. I must have passed a turn-off somewhere, so I returned to my lookout point, a parking lot below the Chiesetta della Beata Vergine del Soccorso, where I had seen a trail map posted for hikers. It turned out that the winding road on my map was actually an overgrown stone footpath cutting through the woods. The entrance, a narrow gap between the hill and a stone wall, was easily missed. There was a sign, but its writing was so faded, it’s no wonder I passed by it the first time.
I then headed down the wooded trail toward town. It was a full 90 minutes from the time I left La Subida that I finally reached the train station, with some sore muscles, a few bug bites, and a rash from fighting the brambles on the path to show for my troubles. To my dismay, I had just missed the train by 15 minutes, and the next one wouldn’t arrive for over an hour—actually, it turned out to be a two-hour wait, since the train was running late. By the time I got back to my hotel in Udine, it was 7:00pm. I dropped off my backpack and headed right back out to dinner.
Since I was exhausted from my hike, I didn’t feel like wandering the city in search of a new restaurant. As I so often did, I returned to the familiar and comforting Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. For a change, I was seated in the corner that used to be reserved for the old signora. Where could she be? Then I realized that except for myself the dining room was completely empty. While I had preferred the coolness and quiet of the indoors, the rest of the diners were outside in the courtyard. I nearly was forgotten, but chef Mario eventually came over to give me a menu. His portly stature and graying beard reminded me of Luciano Pavarotti, although his dark ponytail and bandanna were more suggestive of a pirate. After my indulgent multi-course lunch, I opted for a light frittata, thick and green with herbs, served with polenta and a side of marinated zucchini. I made it a quick meal and headed back to my room for some much-needed sleep.
Read Full Post »