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Piazza della Libertà, Udine

The original winged lion was an ancient bronze sculpture brought to Venice in the 12th century. Sitting atop one of two columns in Piazza San Marco, the lion eventually came to represent Saint Mark, the city’s patron saint, and has been the symbol of Venice ever since.

As the Middle Ages drew to an end, two competing powers were emerging, the Venetian Republic and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This brought forth yet another period of unrest in Friuli, when cities were forced to align with one of the two sides. In 1382, when Venetian forces threatened to occupy the entire coastline, Trieste turned to Hapsburg Austria for protection. Nevertheless, Venice went on a vast conquering spree, taking control of Udine, Pordenone, and Gorizia, as well as considerable territory beyond.

To demonstrate allegiance to their new rulers, cities often erected statues of the winged lion of Saint Mark. The following are four notable locations in Friuli where the lion makes an appearance.

Piazza della Libertà, Udine

It is no coincidence that Udine’s Piazza della Libertà bears a striking resemblance to Piazza San Marco in Venice. Along with most of Friuli and parts of Venezia Giulia, Udine was conquered by the Venetians in 1420 and remained under their rule for over 300 years. In the center of the square, the winged lion perches atop one of two columns, similar to those that defend the seaward rim of Piazza San Marco.

On one side, the Loggia del Lionello appears at first glance to be a small-scale version of Venice’s Palazzo Ducale, with its pink and white stripes and trilobed, arched windows. Lining the elevated portion of the piazza is the Porticato di San Giovanni, a long stretch of arcades in the center of which nestles Udine’s most recognizable monument, the Torre dell’Orologio (clock tower). Inspired by the zodiac signs on Venice’s famous clock, a golden sun radiates from a brilliant blue clock face. Two bronze moors strike the hour above the clock, while the winged lion makes another appearance below.

Yet a third winged lion stands guard over the Arco Bollani. Designed by the architect Palladio, this arch leads to a neat cobblestone path that winds up the hill to Udine’s castello, now a massive museum complex.

Palazzo Comunale, Venzone

The charming medieval-walled town of Venzone, situated at the base of the Carnian Alps, was one of many to be occupied by the Venetians in 1420. The Palazzo Comunale (town hall) had just finished construction a decade earlier, and its corner tower was soon adorned with the winged lion of Saint Mark. It should be noted as well that the tower bears a 24-hour clock similar to the one in Venice’s Piazza San Marco and with a central sun like the Torre dell’Orologio in Udine. The building also features several Venetian-Gothic trilobed, arched windows. Like most buildings in Venzone, the town hall was badly damaged in the earthquakes of 1976, but it was eventually reconstructed in its original style.

Palazzo dei Rettori, Muggia

The only town on the Istrian peninsula to remain within the Italian border, Muggia sports a distinct Venetian style that is punctuated by a quirky character all of its own. The central focus of town is Piazza Marconi and its two architectural landmarks: the Duomo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, with its striking Venetian-Gothic trilobed façade, and the Palazzo dei Rettori, currently home to Muggia’s town hall. On the orange and yellow palazzo, a stone relief of the winged lion of Saint Mark reveals a clue to Muggia’s long tradition of humor and satire. Look closely at the lion’s face—the sense of disgust is apparent as he sticks out his tongue at the town’s former rulers.

Castello di Gorizia

For four centuries, beginning in the Middle Ages, Gorizia was home to a powerful dynasty. From their hilltop castle, the Counts of Gorizia ruled a territory that extended from Tyrol to Croatia. In the early 16th century, the city was one of many occupied by the Republic of Venice. Although Gorizia was acquired by Austria’s Hapsburg monarchy after only a couple of years, a winged lion stands guard at the entrance to the fortified castle as a reminder of Venice’s brief rule.

balote (cheese-filled polenta balls)For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Balote (Cheese-Filled Polenta Balls), a dish that originated in the town of Clauzetto, located in the mountains north of Pordenone. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

When traveling in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, I typically made either Udine or Trieste my home base for much of the time. And whenever I was staying in these cities, I always made a point to take a day trip into Venezia. Several of my trips took place in February, and each time they just happened to coincide with Carnevale. Then there was the year my husband and I planned a few days in Venezia specifically for Carnevale. Since we had found a quaint hotel on a quiet canal in the Dorsoduro, we were able to avoid much of the chaos. These are some of my favorite photos from those trips.

For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Brovada (Pickled Turnips). Traditionally, whole turnips are fermented for at least one month in grape “marc” (the solid matter that remains after grapes are pressed). In my shortcut version, sliced turnips are marinated for just a couple of days in a mixture of red wine and vinegar. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

In centuries past, the people of central and northern Friuli-Venezia Giulia were typically poor and often plagued by famine. This was especially true during the long, brutal winters in the Carnia mountains, when snow would barricade the few existing roads, leaving families to fend for themselves. Until modern times, most Friulians were farmers. Their cuisine was a diet of poverty, consisting primarily of hearty grains and vegetables, particularly those with a long shelf life like potatoes. Beans, barley, and corn could easily be dried for lengthy storage. Turnips and cabbage were preserved through fermentation to make, respectively, brovada and sauerkraut. All of these foods are still an important part of the region’s cuisine today.

In contrast, Trieste, having long been the chief port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was an exotic crossroads of culture, with influences from around the world helping to shape its cuisine. While the foods of poverty remain dietary staples for many families here, it is the abundance of fresh seafood that best defines Triestine cooking.

The following are five of FVG’s most well-known soups:

Jota (also spelled “iota”) is considered to be one of Trieste’s native dishes. The main ingredients are beans, potatoes, and sauerkraut. A similar soup is made in Carnia using brovada (pickled turnips) in place of the sauerkraut.

 

 

 

Minestra di Bobici is prepared with beans, potatoes, and corn. Originally a specialty of the Istrian peninsula, this tasty soup is now popular in Trieste (where “bobici” is dialect for corn) as well as in the villages of the Carso. The sweet corn and salty pancetta provide lots of flavor, making this one of my all-time favorite soups.

 

 

Orzo e Fagioli is a hearty soup made with barley and beans. You’ll find the dish throughout Friuli, where it is perfect for a cold winter’s evening.

 

 

 

 

Paparòt is made with spinach and cornmeal. It is typical of central Friuli’s home cooking, especially in the province of Pordenone.

 

 

 

 

Brodeto alla Triestina is virtually indistinguishable from the numerous varieties of zuppa di pesce (fish soup) found throughout the Mediterranean, including Livorno’s cacciucco, Ancona’s brodetto, and Marseille’s bouillabaisse.

 

 

 

Recipes for all five of these soups can be found in my cookbook Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy.

For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Orzo e Fagioli (Barley and Bean Soup), a hearty soup perfect for a cold winter’s evening in Friuli—or practically anywhere you happen to live. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

1. Ski the slopes of Monte Santo di Lussari

Among the towering, snow-capped peaks of Italy’s Giulian Alps, Monte Santo di Lussari stands out like a precious gem. Near the 5,870-foot summit, a pristine 14th-century sanctuary looks out over the forested valleys below. Legend says that in 1360 a shepherd knelt to pray atop this mountain and discovered hidden in the brush a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. The patriarch of Aquileia soon ordered a small chapel built on that very spot. For centuries, vast numbers of pilgrims from neighboring countries have journeyed to this religious site. Today, the telecabina, or “ski lift,” carries passengers from the village of Camporosso at its base to Borgo Lussari at the summit.

2. Enjoy a plate of hot, steaming goulasch at Albergo Ristorante Rododendro

During ski season, the few taverns and restaurants on Monte Santo di Lussari are always teeming with guests. Even if you’re not a skier, take the telecabina to the top, where you can tuck into a warm meal at one of the village’s rustic taverns or simply admire the snowy panoramic views across the Valcanale and Tarvisio basin. If you can get a table in the rustic dining room of Albergo Ristorante Rododendro, you’ll have a wide selection of traditional Friulian dishes, including orzo e fagioli (bean and barley soup), gnocchi di pane (bread dumplings), frico con polenta (cheese and potato pancake with polenta), cervo in salmì (venison stew), and goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew). Dessert offerings include strudel di mele (apple strudel), torta ai frutti di bosco (wild berry cake), and sachertorte (chocolate cake with apricot jam and ganache).

3. Attend the Krampus festivities in Tarvisio

In Central European folklore, the Krampus is a half-goat, half-demon character that is something of an anti-Santa Claus, in that he punishes children who have misbehaved rather than giving them presents. Many regions, including the Alpine towns of northern Italy, hold festivities dedicated to both Krampus and St. Nicholas.

Tarvisio is the site of one of these events. Every year on December 5, people dress up as Krampus—a costume consisting of goat or sheep fur and a wooden devil mask with horns—and roam the streets carrying torches, ringing cowbells, and searching for “bad” children. They are accompanied by St. Nicholas, who rides in a cart pulled by several Krampus. The parade concludes with St. Nicholas subduing the Krampus (representing the triumph of good over evil) and handing out small gifts and candies to the children.

4. Browse the stalls at Udine’s Mercatino di Natale

Every December, Udine’s Piazza della Libertà gets decked out for the holidays, as the Torre dell’Orologio (clock tower), Tempietto di San Giovanni, and arches of the Porticato are all strung with glistening lights. Underneath the pink- and white-striped Loggia del Lionello, a brass band plays Christmas carols, the festive notes luring shoppers to the city’s annual Christmas market.

In the center of the raised piazza towers a giant Christmas tree surrounded by several dozen market stands. These red, white-roofed stalls sit in rows along a grid of green carpet and display a variety of trinkets and edible treats. Here, you may browse homemade jams and honey, as well as handcrafted items such as candles, tree ornaments, and soaps. Local bakeries showcase regional desserts alongside stalls featuring foods imported from other regions. As the sun sets, shoppers can nibble on roasted chestnuts or samples of crostini with prosciutto di San Daniele, accompanied by a warm cup of vin brulé (mulled wine).

5. While in Udine, enjoy a traditional Friulian meal at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo

It was at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo that I fell in love with the cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. One of the Udine’s oldest, the restaurant is housed in a 17th-century building that once served as a stable and rest stop for deliverymen. Amid the atmosphere of an old-world tavern—wood-beamed ceilings, hardwood floors, red-checked tablecloths, and walls cluttered with colorful paintings, newspaper clippings, period photographs of Udine, and memorabilia of all sorts—chef Mario serves up hearty portions of local dishes such as cjalsòns (herb-filled pasta topped with cinnamon and smoked ricotta), gnocchi di susine (potato dumplings stuffed with plums), baccalà (salt cod stew), sarde in saor (marinated sardines), cevapcici (Slavic grilled sausages), salame all’aceto (salami cooked in vinegar), and brovada (pickled turnips). In true Friulian style, most second courses are served with polenta. For dessert, order the gubana—a spiral cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices.

6. Warm up with an Illy espresso or hot chocolate in one of Trieste’s Viennese-style coffee houses

While they truly love wine and beer, Triestini are even more notorious as coffee drinkers. Claimed by many to be the world’s best coffee, Illycaffè got its start in Trieste in the early 1900s. Of the 6 million cups of Illy espresso or cappuccino that are enjoyed daily around the globe, a good number are imbibed at home in Trieste’s old-time cafés. The legendary ones—Caffè San Marco, Caffè Tommaseo, Caffè degli Specchi, and Caffè Tergesteo—date from the 19th to the early 20th century. Authors James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Italo Svevo, and Umberto Saba were known to be regulars.

7. Indulge in a putizza from one of Trieste’s historic bakeries

Photo courtesy of Pasticceria Penso

One of several desserts considered native to Trieste, putizza is a rich spiral cake filled with dried fruit, chocolate, nuts, and spices. Like Friulian gubana, a similar spiral pastry, it was originally baked only for the Christmas and Easter holidays but is now available year round. For a taste of the city’s best putizza, I recommend visiting one of the century-old bakeries such as Pasticceria Penso or Pasticceria Bomboniera. Both prepare an excellent putizza, though there is one slight difference I noticed in sampling the two. Penso melts the chocolate for their filling, while Bomboniera leaves the chocolate in large chunks. Taste them both to decide your favorite!

8. Take advantage of the off-season with a crowd-free stroll in the seaside town of Grado

Located on an island and adjacent peninsula in the marshy lagoon off Friuli, Grado was once a fishing village but is now a popular destination for beachgoers. Though lacking the pristine, white sand of nearby Lignano Sabbiadoro, crowds still flock to Grado’s beaches and spas during the summer season. In winter, however, the town takes on an entirely different character, with the winding alleys of the medieval centro storico largely devoid of tourists. An expansive seaside promenade that curves around the town center makes for a relaxing afternoon stroll, as do the boat-lined canals that run through the harbor.

9. While in Grado, sample the town’s signature dish, boreto alla Gradese

When dining in Grado, don’t miss the town’s best known dish, boreto all Gradese. Also called boreto alla graesana in local dialect (and not to be confused with the soup called brodeto), boreto alla Gradese is a selection of small fish steaks cooked with garlic and vinegar and served with white polenta. Many restaurants in Grado offer the dish on their menu, but one of the more elegant is Tavernetta All’Androna, run by the brothers Attias and Allan Tarlao.

10. Attend the quirky Carnevale Muggesano

Photo courtesy of Associazione delle Compagnie del Carnevale Muggesano

In contrast to the elegant, baroque images evoked by the nearby Carnevale di Venezia, Muggia celebrates the absurd and bizarre with townspeople dressed in quirky garb such as cartoon characters, farm animals, and platters of food. Among the whimsical costumes, however, you will rarely see a masked face. Contrary to the practice of other Carnevale celebrations where anonymity is sacred, the people of Muggia have elected to keep their identities exposed.

Carnevale Muggesano began after World War II, when a group of friends dressed up as gauchos and marched through the streets playing music. As they repeated this annual affair, dressed next as gypsies and later as Apache Indians, the procession grew with more and more people joining in the merriment. Soon a few rival groups had formed, each costumed in its own fantastical theme. By 1954, the parade had blossomed into an official event.

The week of festivities opens with the “Dance of the Vegetables,” when representatives of each group perform for the public. This is followed by the “megafrittata,” a culinary ritual that begins with townspeople traipsing door to door begging for eggs. The eggs are then used to make what is possibly the world’s largest frittata, cooked in a giant 13-foot-wide frying pan. On Ash Wednesday, to mark the final day of the celebration, the groups perform a tragicomedy ritual: following a solemn funeral procession, townspeople throw a lifelike “corpse” of the Carnevale king into the sea.

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