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Archive for February, 2013

Muggia's Piazza MarconiThere was to be no respite from the weather—it was still pouring rain on this final Sunday of Carnevale. My plans were to watch the famous mask parade in Muggia, so I set out, braving the elements once again. I took the train to Trieste, then a bus to the town of Muggia. When I finally arrived, several hours later, I was perplexed to find no crowds milling around waiting for the parade to begin. Did I have the right date? Yes, large banners advertising the celebration lined the streets along my route to the city center. I reached Piazza Marconi where, on an unassuming, white memo posted outside the orange and yellow municipal building, I read the words: the parade was cancelled, rained out, postponed until the following Sunday. My spirits sank. The very next day I had to return to Milano for my flight home, so I would miss the Carnevale Muggesano.

Carnevale MuggesanoAs I wandered around in disbelief, struggling to come to terms with this latest setback, I stumbled into Muggia’s tourist office. It was filled with memorabilia from past parades; tables were covered with boxes of snapshots and postcards for sale. I rummaged through, trying to imagine myself in the midst of the action. Instead of the typical Carnevale images of masked figures in elegant Baroque attire, Muggia’s parade seemed to be characterized by bizarre and quirky themes—townspeople were costumed as cartoon figures, farm animals, and platters of food. The other thing that stood out was the absence of masks. I learned that Muggia has forbidden the use of masks in its parade, except when absolutely necessary.

My disappointment was slightly mitigated when one of the representatives offered me a free CD of official photos from the previous year’s parade. Feeling slightly more cheerful but not in the mood to scope out a new restaurant in the rain, I headed back to the unfortunately named Lilibontempo Trattoria Ex-Hitler for lunch. When I had dined here on my first trip to Muggia, I received a warm welcome from the owner, who had spoken in length about the region’s cuisine and described in full detail the preparations of two recipes. This time, the restaurant was packed, and Lili was preoccupied—too much so to remember me, it seemed. I ordered the same dish as before, the Gran Piatto Istria, a lackluster assortment of local seafood specialties. Then, after an hour’s effort, I finally grabbed Lili’s attention long enough to get my check and pay my bill.

Osteria Al Vecchio StalloAfter a return bus to Trieste and train to Udine, it was nearly time for dinner. Once again, I walked through the door into Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo precisely at 7:00pm. Instead of being seated at what was becoming my table, I was seated in the bar area. It was still the weekend, and they were booked with 8:00 reservations. I started with an order of gnocchi di susine (plum-filled dumplings). As I cut my way into the first of three giant balls of potato dough, my fork finally found a small prune in the center. The dough was thick and bland, and I longed for more fruit. Melted butter and cinnamon added some sweetness but did little to enhance the overall flavor. My sarde in saor that followed were much tastier. The sardines were huge, marinated in vinegar and onions and served with polenta. Anti-smoking laws had not been passed yet (that happened the following year in 2005), so I was anxious to finish my meal as quickly as possible. I was, in fact, out the door by the time the 8:00 dinner rush arrived.

My mood was somber on my walk back to my hotel. Not only did I miss out on what had promised to be a fantastic Carnevale celebration, but my trip was coming to a close. The next day I would endure the five-hour journey back to Milano, where I would make my usual rounds of visiting the Duomo and getting an order of melanzane alla parmigiana from Rosticceria Fontana. After an early bedtime and restless night sleep, I would wheel my single piece of luggage across a dark, deserted Piazza del Duomo to catch the first airport shuttle to Linate. Although I was anxious to return to the comforts of home, I was already looking forward to my next trip three months later.

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gondolasSomehow or other, I always seemed to wind up in Italy during Carnevale season. The first time was coincidental, when I went to Friuli to visit the Ledragomma GymnastikBall factory. I had stayed in Udine for several nights, which gave me plenty of time for some day trips—one of which was to my favorite city, Venezia. It must have been a weekday, for the crowds were virtually non-existent, and I had been able to drift along the calli in pure bliss.

The second time was with Mike; we had planned a few days in Venezia before heading on to Udine and then Firenze. Since we had found a quaint hotel on a quiet canal in the Dorsoduro, we were able to avoid much of the Carnevale chaos. With the exception of one weekend, when we found ourselves in human gridlock trying to cross the Rialto Bridge, things weren’t too bad. Or possibly the wonderful moments—like meandering back to our hotel after dinner, hand in hand, alone in the dark mist, with ghostly images of masked figures and strains of Vivaldi echoing through my mind—pushed all the bad ones to the recesses of my memory, because I had the crazy idea on yet another February trip to spend a day in Venezia.

This time, it happened to be a Saturday—a rainy Saturday. Venezia during Carnevale on a rainy weekend—it sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it was the only free day in my schedule, and I just couldn’t bear being in this part of Italy without seeing La Serenissima at least once.

From Udine, Venezia is a leisurely 2-hour train ride. I had no plans for the day, except to wander around the labyrinth of narrow alleys and lose myself in the magic of the city. This was not to be. As soon as I stepped off the train, I did become lost—lost in the throngs of tourists pushing their way to San Marco. The rain was gushing down, and we were packed like anchovies in alleyways barely wide enough for one umbrella. It was impossible to see anything but the tourist in front of you; if your focus strayed for one second to look in a shop window, you risked being shoved and knocked to the ground. A ceiling of umbrellas masked the skyward view but didn’t seem to block the downpour. My pants were soaked up to my knees. My umbrella broke as I struggled to wrestle it free from the gusts of wind that whipped around corners and threatened to carry me aloft.

When the tight passageway finally opened up into Piazza San Marco, I could breathe a little easier, although the masses were still too close for comfort. The line to enter the Basilica stretched halfway across the square! I continued walking westward in the direction of the Dorsoduro, where I hoped the crowds would be somewhat thinner. I was also craving a bite to eat in my favorite cicchetti bar.

Cantinone Gia SchiaviThe Dorsoduro sestiere lies across the Accademia Bridge, and while it is home to many of the city’s tourist sites—including Santa Maria della Salute and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection—it doesn’t typically see the same crowds as San Marco or the Rialto. So when I reached my destination, Cantinone Già Schiavi, situated on a small canal across from Campo San Trovaso, there was room for me to squeeze my way up to the bar and enjoy a plate of bite-size treats. There were chunks of salami, mortadella, and cheese; anchovies, pearl onions, and peperoncini; and freshly prepared crostoni (mini open-faced sandwiches)—each serving speared on a toothpick. The crostoni came with countless irresistible toppings such as baccalà (both mantecato and alla cappucina); tomato, brie, and anchovy; fluffy herb-flecked ricotta with sun-dried tomato; and tuna salad with a sprinkle of cocoa. All of this I enjoyed with a glass of prosecco.

Heading back to the train station, I took a roundabout path along the outskirts of the Dorsoduro and avoided much of the madness. Even though I appreciated being able to pause occasionally to gaze around in awe, I still found myself continually dodging hordes of people as they streamed by. There was no chance of getting myself lost on this trip—literally or figuratively.

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Tolmezzo's DuomoLast night at dinner, my friend Liviana had mentioned it might be snowing in Carnia today, so I dressed in extra layers. Five layers on top and three on the bottom may have been overkill, but the past few days were close to freezing! I sat on the upper level of the double-decker bus for an optimal view of the landscape. Zooming along the autostrada, we spotted the town Gemona del Friuli in the distance, crossed the Tagliamento River, and then bored through mountain tunnels to arrive—50 minutes later—in Tolmezzo, the gateway to the Carnian Alps.

A short walk brought me to the center of town and the Duomo di San Martino. With a modern façade completed in 1931, this 18th-century church features a gold-gilded white interior and an angel perched atop its campanile. Snow-capped mountains loomed overhead as I strolled along the town’s narrow streets. Every so often, a few flakes of snow drifted from the overcast sky.

After my brief walk, I made my way back to the bus terminal and took the next bus to Arta Terme, only 15 minutes away. Unfortunately, it seemed that everything in this tiny town was closed except for the tourist office. There, I got the information I needed about the festival (Festa dell’asparago di bosco, del radicchio di montagna e dei funghi di primavera) that I was hoping to attend in May. Next, after a 20-minute hike to Piano d’Arta, the upper half of Arta Terme, I was disappointed to find everything closed there as well. (As I would later learn, summer is peak season for most towns in Carnia, with the exception of those with ski resorts such as Ravascletto and Forni di Sopra.)

I returned to Tolmezzo just in time for lunch and chose Antica Trattoria Cooperativa for its variety of traditional dishes. Although it is not typically Friulian, I ordered a pasta dish called casunziei simply because it sounded so intriguing. Typical of the Dolomites in the neighboring Veneto region, these half-moons of thick pasta were filled with fresh ricotta tinted bright pink with beets, served in bubbly brown butter, and sprinkled with poppy seeds and ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta cheese). I also chose to partake in the restaurant’s elaborate self-service buffet of side dishes, filling my plate with potatoes, onions, tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, eggplant, artichokes, and beans.

Afterwards, I got up the nerve to ask for the casunziei recipe. The owner, Patrizia Bonora, responded, “Non c’è problema, fra 5 minuti.” So I waited and waited, but she didn’t seem to have any minuti to spare. As I lingered at my table, a scruffy, old man in the corner asked the waitress in his rasping wheeze for “un cognac, così buono come Lei” (a cognac, as good as you). Feeling a bit uncomfortable with his sleazy vibe and afraid he would start hitting on me next, I approached Patrizia with the excuse that I needed to catch my bus, and we agreed to stay in touch. I never did get that recipe!

Osteria Al Vecchio StalloWhen I arrived back in Udine, it was still extremely cold and windy. After a brief late afternoon nap—from which I always found it difficult to rouse myself, especially on dark, winter evenings—I set out for what was becoming my customary fall-back, Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. It was early—seven o’clock sharp—and the wrought-iron lamp above the door had just flickered on.

The waiter, beginning to recognize me as a regular, showed me to the same table as my last couple dinners. The elderly signora was already seated in her usual corner spot, tucking into a bowl of comfort food. Craving something warm and comforting myself, I ordered orzo e fagioli (barley and bean soup), followed by the baccalà con polenta. This salt cod stew was simmered in milk with notes of cheese and cinnamon, deliciously salty and creamy without being overly fishy. As I would later learn from chef Mario, the dish was based upon the recipe for baccalà alla Vicentina. Just like the casunziei I enjoyed at lunchtime, it was one of many dishes that had made its way from the Veneto into the kitchens of Friuli.

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Gorizia's Chiesa di Sant'IgnazioAfter good night sleep, I woke to sound of rain pattering against the shutters. At breakfast, the server, Luciana, said there had even been a light dusting of snow at daybreak. Fortunately, by the time I left Hotel Principe and crossed the street to the train station, the pounding rain had turned to a mere drizzle. This would be my first visit to Gorizia, located on the Slovenian border and one of Friuli’s provincial capitals.

On the train ride, I was struck by an unusual sight: a giant chair, several stories high, sitting by the side of the road. It turns out that we were passing by the Italian Chair District, often called the Triangolo della Sedia (Chair Triangle), as it is made up of three towns, Manzano, San Giovanni al Natisone, and Corno di Rosazzo. Reportedly, 80% of Italian-made chairs are produced here—including, as it turns out, the ones sitting in our San Francisco dining room.

From Gorizia’s train station, it was about a half-hour walk to the center of town. Digital signs recorded the temperature at 5°C. I stopped briefly to visit the rather plain, white-washed Duomo but was more interested in seeing the stunning Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio. Recognizable from afar by its set of blue onion domes, the church opens up to a Baroque explosion in gold, amber, and rosewood hues.

Gorizia's CastelloAfter pausing to admire a row of purple and white cabbages gracing Piazza della Vittoria, I hiked to the hilltop Borgo Castello, the medieval district dominated by a fortified castle dating back to the 11th century. Given the gloomy weather, I decided to forgo the castle tour on this visit. (My next trip, planned for May, would see clear skies and a more expansive view from the castle’s ramparts.) As well, Gorizia’s oldest church, Chiesa di Santo Spirito, was closed.

For lunch, I headed to Trattoria Gostilna Alla Luna, where I was hoping to taste some of the region’s Slavic-inspired dishes. Given Gorizia’s proximity to Slovenia, the city has adopted many Slavic words and customs: a gostilna is the Slovenian counterpart to the Italian trattoria or osteria. To start, I ordered gnocchi di pane, which is Friuli’s version of the German semmelknödel. These oval bread dumplings were served con sugo all’arrosto, in a light, brothy gravy. Next I was pleased to try cevapcici—tiny, grilled sausages that were inspired by the Middle Eastern spiced meat patties brought to southeastern Europe by the Ottoman Turks. Especially popular in the Slavic countries, they are even considered a national dish in Bosnia, Serbia, and Bulgaria. These cevapcici were served with grilled polenta and a rather bitter red bell pepper sauce called ajvar.

It had become my custom, as part of my research, to ask restaurants and bakeries about their recipes. Until this day, I had always been welcomed warmly, and most Friulians seemed thrilled that an outsider had taken an interest in their local cuisine. (In fact, just the previous day, a bakery in Cividale had given me the gift of a cookbook.) Today, however, was the first—and only—time that my inquiries were ever met with disregard. When I asked the waitress if she might tell me how the cevapcici were made, she responded with a smirk, “No,” and disappeared to a corner where I spied her whispering to the other staff.

The day was so frosty—both the weather and the waitress’s reaction—I decided to take the train straight back to Udine. On my way to the station, my friend Steno called to invite me to dinner, along with his wife, Liviana.

That evening, the pair picked me up at my hotel and drove to Hostaria Alla Tavernetta, where I had recently dined alone on Valentine’s Day (and there had been a mix-up with my order). This meal would turn out to be so much more enjoyable! Steno strongly recommended the orzotto ai funghi (barley cooked in the style of risotto, with mushrooms) followed by guanciale di maiale (pig cheeks) served with potatoes, both puréed and roasted. To finish, we shared a tray of pineapple slices for dessert—this seemed to be an exotic treat for the couple.

Flavors of FriuliIt was during this meal that I started formulating the structure of my book, and Liviana was my inspiration. She spoke in great length about the region’s cuisine and described what were, in her opinion, four culinary regions: Venezia Giulia (Gorizia and Trieste, plus the entire coast), Carnia (plus the Giulian Alps), Friuli (Udine and the Collio), and Pordenone. Later on, I decided to simplify it a step further and settled upon three geographical areas: northern mountains, central hills and plains, and southern coastline. Over the next year and a half, I would continue to explore the nooks and crannies of glorious Friuli-Venezia Giulia, falling in love at every step of the way.

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