One 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.
Posts Tagged ‘Udine’
I had planned on an excursion to Lignano Sabbiadoro, but when I awoke, it was pouring rain—not ideal for a day at the beach. This was probably for the best, I concluded; the town was hosting the European Youth Olympic Festival that week, and it might be wise to avoid the crowds. Instead, I spent a couple hours doing errands in downtown Udine. I took some photos at my favorite cheese shop, La Baita, and then made the rounds of the city’s bakeries, inquiring about some of the desserts that I still had questions about.
Perhaps the greatest success of my morning was at the TIM store, where I needed to resolve once and for all the problems I’d been having with my cell phone. On my most recent trip to Italy—two weeks in Florence and Venice the past December with my mom—I was inexplicably unable to recharge my TIM card. I had tried several branches in both cities, and after hours of waiting in line and much frustration, my account still appeared to be frozen. While I could place and receive calls on my remaining credit, I knew the credit would eventually run out.
Here, in Udine, I was expecting to have to purchase a brand new TIM card. I had nearly completed the process of buying one, when I explained the problem I had had in December. The guy at the counter took a look at the old card; at first it read zero credit, but when he checked the computer, it showed the correct amount of 25 euros. I asked to add 5 euros to it, just to prove that it wouldn’t work—but to my astonishment, it did work this time! To this day, I still don’t know what the problem had been on my previous trip.
When I left the TIM store, rain was coming down in torrents. I stopped by Hotel Principe to pick up my jacket and then crossed the street to the train station. Plan B was to take the train to Codroipo and, hopefully, find my way to Villa Manin, which had been closed when Mike and I paid a visit the previous year. The villa is located in the town of Passariano, about 3 km outside Codroipo. There were supposed to be three buses per day running between the two towns, and with any luck, I’d be able to catch one of them.
First, though, I needed to find some lunch, and I had one restaurant in mind: Osteria Alle Risorgive. Thanks to the street maps that I had printed off the Internet, I was able to find my destination with no problem—and it was open! There was no menu posted outside, but a chalkboard in the entrance advertised salame all’aceto and frico. The waiter gave me a verbal run-down of the daily pastas, but I requested merely those two dishes from the chalkboard. Glancing at my petite figure, he politely warned me that the frico was grande, but I was not going to be intimidated by a large frico.
As I sat waiting for my meal to arrive, I surveyed the restaurant’s rustic interior: white stucco walls, arched doorways, dark wooden ceiling beams, and red-checkered tablecloths. A fogolâr (fireplace) occupied one corner, pots and cooking utensils of iron and copper hanging over the hearth. Around the dining room was an assortment of collectible items, including hand-carved wooden bowls, an old-fashioned wooden radio, and various straw baskets. Outside, the rain was beginning to taper off, though I could still hear the low rumble of thunder in the distance.
My salame all’aceto arrived first: two slices of cured sausage sautéed in vinegar and served atop two squares of crispy, grilled polenta. The frico came next—a better description would have been grandissimo! It was indeed huge, perhaps a pound or more of melted cheese, golden and crisp on the outside, oozing with grease on the inside, and no indication of potato whatsoever, which was very unusual for frico served in the style of a thick pancake like this. Typically, the cheese-only frico is lacy, wafer-thin, and crisp in its entirety (or else porous like a crunchy sea sponge, in the case of the less common frico friabile). I put forth a valiant effort but ultimately made only a dent in the mound of cheese—and even so, ended up with a monster of a stomachache later that afternoon!
On my way to the restaurant, I had not noticed any bus stops, but after my fat-filled lunch, I felt a nice, long walk would help burn off some calories. A bicycle/pedestrian path ran alongside the road, which was lined with nothing but cornfields. Although the rain had stopped completely by now, the air was moist and heavy, the sky filled with dark gray clouds.
The walk took just over a half hour from Alle Risorgive. Once I reached Villa Manin, I stopped first at the tourist office (at that time, the headquarters of the Agenzia Turismo FVG was located in Piazza Manin) to pick up some brochures. I had already collected so many that I would need to leave them at Hotel Principe until my return in three weeks, when I would ultimately mail them home.
This time Villa Manin was open, and while I knew that the palace was now a contemporary art museum with rotating special exhibits, deep down I somehow still expected a royal palace like Castello di Miramare. The only bit of true baroque grandeur was the Camera di Napoleone—the room Napoleon Bonaparte occupied during his brief stay at Villa Manin—complete with diminutive bed and furnishings. Throughout the rest of the palace, walls decorated in typical 17th-century trompe l’oeil made a sharp contrast to the expressionist and postmodernist works of art on display. It was an odd juxtaposition, to say the least.
Back in Udine that evening, I went straight to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo for dinner. Even though the dining room was empty—save for the elderly signora who was back in her usual corner spot—each table bore a placeholder marked Riservato. Since the reservations were never for any earlier than 8:00pm, and because the staff knew quite well by this point that I wasn’t one to linger over my meals, I was seated at a reserved table. I ordered the braciola di maiale (pork chop) with a side of zucchini trifolati (sautéed zucchini). The pork chop was gigantic, though dangerously pink in parts and so tough that I nearly sprained a finger trying to cut into it. The meal was redeemed, however, by the baby zucchini, which were thinly sliced and deliciously savory.
As I was leaving, I finally got to meet the mysterious third Mancini brother. So far, I had become well acquainted with two of the brothers: Mario (the chef) and Maurizio (who ran the cash register). I knew there was a third brother named Enzo, but I had never seen him until this evening, when he came to dine with his family. Enzo explained that the three brothers had owned Al Vecchio Stallo for about twenty years, although the restaurant’s history dated back more than a century. The brothers were excited to announce that a book was currently being published about the restaurant, and I was pleased to learn that it would be available in time for my fall trip, planned for October 2005.
My jet lag seemed to be subsiding, for I was finally able to get a decent night’s sleep. Perhaps it had been wise of me to keep the air conditioning on all night, to help mitigate the stifling July heat. I needed to get up early and was afraid of missing my alarm, so I had slept with the tiny clock on my pillow all night long. When it buzzed at 6:30am, I awoke to an overcast sky but was hopeful that the clouds would part by the time I arrived in Pordenone.
The train from Udine took just over a half hour, and I was thrilled to arrive under a cloudless, blue sky. When I was in Pordenone the previous year, my photos of the city’s main landmarks were backlit by the sun and therefore absolutely worthless for publication. I was counting on re-shooting those photos today. Unfortunately, I would have to wait until afternoon, since the sun was still rising behind the Municipio building.
My second objective today was to hunt for an obscure cheese called asìno, produced exclusively in the mountains of Pordenone province. Looking for any kind of market where I could inquire about it, I eventually found one that was open, a rosticceria that also sold a wide variety of salumi and cheese. The owner said he didn’t carry asìno and suggested I look for it in Maniago, a town to the north at the foot of the Dolomites, not far from the Parco Naturale Regionale delle Dolomiti Friulane.
When I left the store, empty-handed, I pondered his advice. A fairly small town, known primarily for its production of knives, Maniago had somehow escaped my radar. I didn’t know whether it would be possible to go there by bus. In fact, I didn’t even know where Pordenone’s bus station was located. I figured my best bet would be to head back to the train station for information. There, I found a large city map posted outside, indicating the bus terminal in Piazza Risorgimento—clear across the city. As it was already mid-morning, I wasted no time in getting there. I found the piazza, full of idling buses and with a hole-in-the-wall biglietteria on the far side. When I entered, I quickly read the monitor: the bus to Maniago was departing in one minute. I scrambled to buy tickets, andata e ritorno, not having a chance to confirm exactly when there would be a return bus that afternoon. I made it onto the large, blue coach just seconds before it pulled out of the terminal.
The ride took a full hour, through flat plains, over bumpy backroads, past the barbed-wire fence surrounding the Aviano Air Base. Now a NATO air base, Aviano has had an American presence since the end of WWII. This would explain why the chatter I overheard around me on the bus was as much in English as Italian.
When I arrived in Maniago, I immediately checked the schedule for the return bus times. Fortunately, the buses ran approximately once every hour, so I had plenty of flexibility. Since this was an unplanned trip, I had no map of the town, so I merely set out following the crowds. It happened to be market day in Maniago, and people had come from villages near and far to shop in the outdoor stalls that lined the streets of the town center. The enormous Piazza Italia was also filled with stalls, selling mostly clothing, shoes, and housewares.
Within minutes I had found myself a cheese shop, and sure enough, they carried asìno. It came in two varieties, classico (standard) and morbido (soft), and I bought an etto (100 grams) of each to take with me.
As it was now precisely 12:00 noon, I began thinking about lunch. Without a map or list of restaurants like I usually come equipped with, I had no choice but to simply wander around the town center. Strangely, I found only one restaurant that was open. It was actually more of a wine bar with a lunch menu posted outside listing nothing but grilled meats. The bar was packed with rowdy, drunk old men, and so I pushed myself past them toward the dining area. When I asked if they were serving lunch, a rather surly woman informed me that they were but not until 12:30pm and that I should wait in the bar and have a drink. The wait was only 15 minutes, but I felt so uncomfortable that I left to explore the town some more. Surely, I thought, there must be someplace else to eat.
I ventured further away from the center of town but still didn’t stumble upon any restaurants. I ended up all the way across town, where there happened to be a food market—several stands selling fruits and vegetables, a few more selling cheese, a fish market, and a rather large rosticceria truck. It was nearly 1:00pm by now, and the vendors were beginning to close up shop. I was starving and realized I needed to grab something soon before I missed my chance altogether. The rosticceria didn’t have much left to offer, but I was able to buy a small container of sarde in saor (marinated sardines).
I took my picnic to a park bench near the Duomo di San Mauro Martire. Here, I devoured the sardines (using toothpicks, as the rosticceria had no plastic utensils to give me), which were cooked in the Venetian style, marinated with vinegar and onions. I also tasted my two types of asìno. Both were quite salty, though the morbido was softer and more delicate in flavor, rather like a salty cream cheese, while the classico might be compared to a soft ricotta salata.
After my picnic lunch, I caught the next bus back to Pordenone, where the sun was positioned perfectly for me to get my “blue sky” shots of the Municipio and Duomo. Now that I was no longer searching for cheese, I was able to focus my attention on the many painted palazzi along Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The façades of these buildings featured colorful frescoes, some faded and peeling, others having been restored to their original brilliance.
When I arrived at Pordenone’s train station, I had just missed a train to Udine, but fortunately another one was due to arrive in a half hour. I made myself comfortable in the tiny, stark sala d’attesa, pulled out my journal, and began to recount the events of the day. The room was nearly empty, save for the hard, plastic seats that lined the walls and a guy who must have been in his early 20s, slumped back in his chair, feet spread wide, arms crossed. Even though I was 35 at the time and generally didn’t expect the kind of unwanted male attention that I had received on my solo trips to Rome and Florence at the age of 24, I still kept my focus on my journal-writing. In fact, I barely noticed him until he tried to strike up a conversation with me. I responded politely, though with pronounced indifference. When he asked if I was alone, however, my alarm bells began to sound. Remembering an uncomfortable evening in Rome when a young, persistent Romeo had followed me into a restaurant, ate dinner with me despite my best efforts to decline, and pressured me relentlessly—though in vain—to let him drive me to the Fiumicino airport later that night (I had a super early flight the next morning and was going to spend the night at the airport), I decided the best course of action would be to lie. With an engagement ring on my finger as backup, I concocted a story about being on vacation with my fiancé, explaining adroitly that he was under the weather and resting back at our hotel. To my great relief, this fabrication thwarted his obvious efforts to hit on me, although he may still have had some misguided delusion of hope, for he persevered in his attempts at chit-chat. He was in the middle of showing me photos of himself—with his girlfriend, no less—at Villa Manin, when my train pulled up and provided me with a timely escape.
For dinner that evening, I returned to Osteria Alle Volte, located just off Piazza della Libertà, down a set of steps from Via Mercatovecchio into a cave-like dining room with stone walls and a vaulted ceiling. I had eaten here several times in the past, and while no meal truly blew me away, there were always interesting renditions of Friulian classics on the menu. Tonight, I ordered only one dish: spaghetti alle chele di granzoporo alla busara (spaghetti with crab claws in tomato sauce). I had hoped to try the scampi alla busara (langoustines in tomato sauce), but the restaurant would only prepare the dish for two or more people. Spaghetti seemed to be a satisfactory alternative, given that the sauce (tomatoes cooked with garlic, white wine, bread crumbs, and parsley) would be identical. The pasta, however, was garnished with just two crab claws—a measly portion, in my opintion. I was even more disappointed to discover that one of the claws was merely an empty shell. I’ll never know if this was an intentional act—to shortchange the American girl on her crab claws—but it would be a couple more weeks before I had built up enough confidence to complain about a substandard meal.
As scorching as the weather had been the past few days, it was growing hotter and hotter still. RAI news was reporting a heat wave throughout much of Europe, with some of the worst areas being in Italy. It was a combination of the stifling heat and my seemingly never-ending jet lag that kept me awake until the early morning hours. After only a few restless hours of sleep, I awoke just before my alarm was set to go off. I took a cool shower, ate a hasty breakfast of yogurt, orange juice, and a banana, and departed for Udine’s autostazione (bus terminal), which was located practically next door to Hotel Principe.
I was headed for Grado, a former fishing village and now a popular beach resort. The bus was filled to capacity with locals, everyone off to spend a Sunday at the beach. The ride took about an hour, passing through vineyards and fields of corn and sunflowers, as well as the towns Palmanova and Aquileia.
As I expected, Grado’s beaches were packed. A rainbow of umbrellas dotted the longest sandy strip, while wooden piers extended far out into the sapphire blue sea. Along the numerous rocky areas that lined the island, families spread out their beach towels for sunbathing, the water beyond filled with bronze-skinned children splashing and bobbing in the calm waves. I wished desperately that I could have gone swimming myself, but not only did I not bring a swimsuit but I was always paranoid about leaving my valuables unattended on the shore. This was one of the downsides I often encountered traveling alone.
I consoled myself with a reminder that I was not on vacation but had a very specific purpose. My goal in Grado was to find another restaurant in which to try the town’s signature dish, boreto alla Gradese. I even had a particular restaurant in mind, one that was listed in a brochure of the region’s top 20 restaurants: Tavernetta All’Androna. But despite my typical over-preparedness, I had forgotten to put the address in my backpack. I wandered through the narrow, winding alleys of the town’s centro storico, searching up and down every single street, but simply couldn’t find it. I had finally resigned myself to choosing someplace else, when I suddenly, unexpectedly stumbled upon All’Androna.
For three generations, the Tarlao family has run All’Androna, serving local seafood in an elegant dining room with dark wooden banquettes and white linens. The prices were fairly high, so I ordered only one dish, the boreto alla Gradese. A selection of fish steaks—today they served orata (sea bream), anguilla (eel), and asià (dogfish)—was cooked with garlic and vinegar, the sauce reduced to a thick broth, and served with two slices of grilled white polenta. The orata was bony, but the eel was especially moist and flavorful.
When traveling, I mainly spoke Italian, even though it was often apparent that English was my native language. It must have been obvious to the waiter at All’Androna, because he spoke only in English to me. My engagement ring must not have been as obvious, however, since he flirted with me the entire time, elaborating on how I had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen.
After lunch, I caught my return bus, deciding to make a brief stop on the way back in Palmanova. The town’s unusual layout may be best appreciated in aerial photos: originally a military fortress, it is bordered by a massive stone wall and moat in the shape of a nine-pointed star. In the central, hexagonal Piazza Grande, palm trees allude to the town’s name. From there, streets branch out like spokes on a wheel, while other streets surround the piazza in concentric rings. Houses—plain and square, some colorful but most brown and beige—resemble barracks and add to the town’s military character.
As it was mid-afternoon, the streets were deserted, save for a swarm of flies that seemed to follow me everywhere I went. The pavement was dry and dusty, the air oppressive from the sweltering heat. I longed for shade but was determined to see as much of the town as possible before the next bus arrived.
Palmanova is home to a military museum, but of course it was closed like everything else at that time of day. I was hoping to pay a visit, not so much to see the museum itself but to have access to the fortress walls, where there was a path that encircled the entire town. At the entrance to the museum, there was a locked gate that led to the walls beyond. Inspecting it a little closer, I found a small gap next to the fence. Glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching, I sneaked through the opening and crept up the steep slope to a lookout area that was presumably on museum property. I walked a short ways along the path, but the view out over the flat countryside was uninspiring. I didn’t dare trespass too far, so before long I snuck back down the hill and out onto the street again, just in time before I saw a group of official-looking men turn the corner in my direction.
Back in Udine, I tried unsuccessfully to stay awake. This was always my most difficult time of day, when I was exhausted from a full day of exploring, and all I wanted to do was to crawl into bed and go to sleep. But after a brief yet refreshing nap, I was ready to head out for dinner. I was armed with my list of restaurants I hadn’t yet tried, but the first one I passed was closed, as was my second choice. And my third. And fourth. As much as I loved Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo, I didn’t want to eat there every night—so I settled on a place I’d been to only a couple of times before: Osteria Alla Ghiacciaia. The restaurant is situated on a canal, with an outdoor seating area shaded by willow trees. Just like the previous evening, however, I chose to sit indoors. There would be air conditioning, fewer mosquitoes, and no smoke to contend with. (Italy had passed an anti-smoking law earlier that year, which made my dining experiences infinitely more pleasurable. There was, unfortunately for me, no law prohibiting smoking at outdoor tables.)
Of course, the downside to sitting alone indoors was that I might easily be forgotten. It should have been a signal when no one noticed me waiting to be seated; after several minutes of being ignored, I approached the counter and asked if I could have a table. It took another ten minutes to be handed a menu, then another ten minutes for the waitress to take my order. I was surprised when my meal arrived quickly: a plate of frico con polenta and a mixed salad. The frico was a thin pancake of potato and cheese, crispy on the outside and soft like mashed potatoes on the inside. Though it needed a little salt, I liked the sweetness from the addition of caramelized onions. The polenta was grilled, which I much prefer over the standard mush. (Creamy polenta can be delicious when fresh—steaming hot, comfortingly soft, sweet with corn flavor—but it congeals when cool, and this is how many restaurants serve it.)
After dinner, I took a long, circuitous stroll back to Hotel Principe. If it weren’t for the dark, indigo sky and closed storefronts, I might have thought it was daytime. The streets were overflowing with people—groups of teenagers laughing and shouting, elderly couples walking arm-in-arm, even parents with children whose bedtime it was long past—all out enjoying the relative coolness of the night air. I wondered how many of them had spent the day at the beach—even Grado perhaps.
2 pounds assorted fish steaks (such as eel, turbot, bass, or monkfish), cut 1 to 1-1/2 inches thick
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, peeled and slightly crushed
1/2 cup fish stock or clam juice
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Sprinkle the fish steaks with salt and black pepper.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic cloves; cook until golden brown, about 5–6 minutes. Remove and discard the garlic. Place the fish steaks in the skillet; cook until golden brown, about 4–5 minutes on each side. Add the fish stock and vinegar; cook until the fish flakes easily when tested with a fork, about 8–12 minutes longer. Divide the fish steaks among serving plates.
3. Increase heat to medium-high; cook the sauce until thick and reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Spoon the sauce over the fish steaks; sprinkle liberally with freshly ground black pepper.
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.
It was July 2005, and although Mike and I were now engaged, this was to be yet another of my many solo trips. I had just arrived in the sweltering, early evening heat of Milano and, after checking into Hotel Speronari, was preparing to meet up with Mike’s cousin Pam, who was in the city for her job with Bulgari. We decided to meet at the Duomo and then go somewhere for dinner. I left my room dressed in the most elegant clothes I had brought with me: a light, cotton mini-skirt, fitted t-shirt, and sandals. As I reached the edge of the piazza, the sky opened up and began pelting me with raindrops, so I sprinted across to take shelter in the giant doorway of the Duomo. Pam was nowhere to be seen. After a few anxious phone calls, I finally spotted her—an adorable, petite Asian in her mid-20s, with a pierced tongue and a flair for high fashion—waving to me from the south side of the piazza. I felt entirely under-dressed next to Pam’s chic Prada dress and 5-inch heels.
The brief downpour had ceased but threatened to begin again any moment; therefore, I suggested we eat at the nearby Pizzeria Dogana. After my pizza margherita and Pam’s quattro stagioni (actually a “due” stagioni pizza, since she ordered hers minus the mushrooms and olives), we said good-bye. Pam caught a taxi back to her hotel, while I walked the couple blocks back to mine. Around 10:00pm, the thunder and lightning kicked in with a vengeance. Despite the rain, I threw my window wide open, in hopes of getting some relief from the heat. The temperature gauge on the bedside alarm clock read 91°F! Between the heat and my jet lag, I remained awake until around 5:30am, when I finally dozed off, only to be awakened two hours later by the resonant tolling of church bells.
Once I finally dragged myself out of bed, I went out for a walk, leaving my suitcase at the front desk. With an appointment later that afternoon, I still had several hours to kill. First, I headed to Via Solferino to pick up some lunch at Più del Pane Callegaro. I came away with an assortment of mini quiche and polpettine di riso (rice balls), and after a picnic of sorts in Piazza della Scala, I returned to Hotel Speronari to collect my bag.
Since my appointment was in the direction of the train station, I decided to check my bag at the station, so that I could go straight there afterward. I was just leaving the deposito bagagli when I realized that I had left some important items inside my suitcase: magazines that I had promised to bring to my interview. The baggage handler was extremely annoyed with me, but I eventually persuaded him to retrieve the suitcase.
I was still 90 minutes early, so I treated myself to a triple cup of gelato to help beat the heat—limone, fragola, and pompelmo rosa. I sat for the remainder of the time in the shade of the Giardini Pubblici outside the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale, looking over my notes and rehearsing my questions in Italian.
My appointment was an interview with Anna Maria Cova at her flagship Studio Pilates Milano. At the time, she was Italy’s number one Pilates instructor and had opened numerous studios throughout the country. 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 and another on a studio in Budapest that I would be visiting in October.*
When it came time for my appointment, I had a bit of a panic trying to find the studio. Italian buildings are notorious for their illogical numbering system; however, I was able to locate the correct address without much difficulty. The problem was that number 4 at this address simply did not exist, nor was there anything that indicated the presence of a Pilates studio. Frantically, I strode around the entire block and, by some miracle, stumbled upon the studio—on a completely different street from the address that I was given!
The interview went superbly well. I stayed for over two hours, chatting with Anna and observing a session with one of her clients—and yes, I did remember to give her the stack of Pilates Style magazines from my suitcase. It was 4:30pm when I finally left; I would now have to hustle to make it to the station in time for my train to Udine.
I reached the station with only five minutes to spare. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough time to buy a ticket, collect my bag, and pick up something to eat for dinner on the train, so I had no choice but to wait and get the next one that was leaving two hours later. The bad news: now I wouldn’t arrive in Udine until 11:30pm. The good news: this was one of the few direct trains, eliminating the usual change in Venezia Mestre. At the station’s market, I picked up a panino with mozzarella and bresaola, along with a cup of kiwi chunks, to eat while biding my time in the grand, high-ceilinged sala d’attesa. As it turned out, the 5:00pm train I had planned on taking was delayed by more than an hour. If I had caught that train as planned, I would have missed my connection in Mestre—and since the direct train I was forced to take didn’t stop in Mestre, I then would have had to catch an even later train into Udine. Sometimes things just have a way of working out!
* 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 unfortunately never published.
Posted in Travel in Friuli, tagged Arta Terme, Bordano, Carnia, Cividale, Cormons, food, Forni Avoltri, Forni di Sopra, Friuli, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italian food, Italy, Maniago, Marano Lagunare, Ravascletto, San Daniele, Sauris, travel, Udine, Venzone on July 22, 2013 | Leave a Comment »
It was June 2004 when Mike and I returned to San Francisco. I had over a year to prepare for my next trip, which would take me once again throughout Friuli–Venezia Giulia. Since Udine made a convenient home base for me to explore the region, I planned two separate weeks there, bookending a three-week journey through Carnia. Two of my main objectives were to visit at least one malga and to attend several more food festivals, so I arranged to travel to Carnia’s major villages—Sauris, Arta Terme, Ravascletto, Forni di Sopra, and Forni Avoltri—all by bus. During my time in Udine, I would take day trips to now-familiar towns such as Cormòns, Cividale, and San Daniele, as well as new ones like Marano Lagunare, Bordano, and Maniago. I would tour three prosciutto factories, climb two mountains, and panic during one very frustrating train strike that stranded me in Venzone. Please join me in the weeks and months to come, as I continue chronicling my Friulian adventures.
After a restless night on an uncomfortably hard bed in an overheated room, breakfast at Hotel Valle Verde offered little comfort: just the average spread of rolls and croissants with an unusual, neon orange–colored juice that turned out to be a mixture of carrot, orange, and lemon. At least the rain clouds had finally moved on, leaving the spring skies a brilliant azure blue.
Our goal for the day was to attend the Sagra dei Cjalsòns, a festival celebrating my favorite Friulian dish. From Tarvisio, Mike and I drove the short distance to Pontebba, where we turned off the highway to follow a narrow gravel road to the hamlet of Studena Bassa. Having arrived 30 minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, we took a stroll along the shallow stream that ran through the village toward Pontebba. All around us towered tall, granite peaks, the only sound being the trickle of water over pebbles and the swoosh as it flowed over a small dam.
Back at the festival, we sat and waited, finally watching the clock tick 11:00am. Where were all the visitors? The makeshift parking lot was empty, as was the small tent filled with wooden picnic tables and bordered by a cement dance floor. I expected that many more people would show up around lunchtime; however, since we were anxious to get back on the road, we ordered two servings of cjalsòns and one frico con polenta to take with us in the car.
On the hour-long drive back to Udine, we nibbled first on the frico, a cheese and potato pancake, soft and cheesy on the inside with a crisp, golden crust. Then came the cjalsòns—the recipe seemed identical to the one given to me by cooking instructor Gianna Modotti, who had grown up in Pontebba. Often, cjalsòns combine both sweet and savory flavors, but this version was entirely sweet: sizeable pouches of dough were stuffed with dried fruit and fresh ricotta and served with melted butter, sugar, and cinnamon.
Upon arriving in Udine, we spent a full half hour searching, unsuccessfully, for a gas station. Being Sunday, I expected that most would be closed, but even the self-service stations were lacking a working bank-card machine. So we gave up and returned to Hotel Principe to check in for our final night. (The next morning, before our departure, Mike and I got up early to fill the tank and return the car. We were pleasantly amused to find the cutest little, old lady pumping gas at the nearby Shell station.)
As this was our last day in Udine, we took one final wander through the city—past the Duomo, through Piazza della Libertà, up the hill to the castello. The mid-afternoon sun was sweltering, so we each indulged in a cup of gelato—I had yogurt, fragola, and limone; Mike had melone, ananas, and frutti di bosco—which we savored in the shade of Piazzale del Castello. There we sat for the rest of the afternoon, watching the world come and go—elderly signori out for a stroll, young couples sunbathing, children kicking around a ball.
For dinner, we returned one last time to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. By now, the waiter recognized us and knew our drink order without having to ask—un mezzo rosso. I ordered my beloved frico con polenta (that’s twice in one day!) with a side of zucchini alla scapece (zucchini sautéed with vinegar, herbs, and spicy pepper). Mike also had the frico, along with a plate of his equally beloved prosciutto di San Daniele. The meal was simple but enormously satisfying. It was with a heavy heart that I left the restaurant that evening. Al Vecchio Stallo had become a great source of comfort to me in this corner of Italy. On all my solo trips up to this point, it was the only place where I had felt thoroughly at ease when dining alone. I was already looking forward to my next trip the following summer!
1 cup semolina flour
1/4 cup boiling water, plus extra as needed
1 tablespoon olive oil
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, boiling water, and olive oil. Transfer the dough to a clean surface; knead until the flour is fully incorporated and the mixture becomes smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. (If the dough is too dry or crumbly, lightly moisten your fingers with water during kneading until you reach the desired texture.) Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.
8 dried figs
8 dried plums
1/4 cup golden raisins
1 cup medium-bodied red wine (such as Merlot)
1 cup fresh ricotta
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Place the dried figs, plums, and raisins in a small saucepan; pour in the red wine. (The fruit should be mostly submerged; if it is not, slice any large figs and plums in half.) Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low; simmer until the liquid has evaporated and the fruit is soft, about 20–25 minutes. Remove from heat; cool to room temperature.
2. Purée the fruit in a food processor. Transfer to a medium bowl; stir in the ricotta and cinnamon. Refrigerate for 1 hour, or until ready to use.
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Working in batches, feed the dough through the rollers of a pasta machine until very thin (setting #7 on most machines). Cut out 3-1/2 inch circles from the dough. Place 1 tablespoon filling on each circle. Moisten the edges with water and fold in half to make a semi-circle, sealing the edges tightly. Place filled-side down, pressing slightly so it will stand on end like a purse. Pinch the seal to form a scalloped edge (like a fluted pie crust).
2. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Working in batches, place the cjalsòns in the water; cook until they rise to the surface, about 3–4 minutes. Drain.
3. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat; remove from heat. Stir in the sugar and cinnamon; add the cjalsòns and toss to coat with butter.
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.