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Archive for March, 2013

Torta Sacher and other pastries at Pasticceria PensoCheck out my “Highlights” page on Afar.com. From sachertorte in Trieste to prosciutto in Sauris, from butterflies in Bordano to mummies in Venzone, read about all my favorite places in Friuli.

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Flavors of FriuliFlavors of Friuli now has an official Facebook page. Come visit and share with your friends—and don’t forget to “like”!

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Radic di montThe next morning it was apparent that I was no longer the only guest at Hotel Gortani. The breakfast room was crowded with visitors who had come for the Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna e dei Funghi di Primavera. After a sumptuous breakfast of prosciutto, cheese, and two types of cake—raisin brioche and chocolate-marbled pound cake (called kugelhupf in German but referred to as “plumcake” by many Italians)—I returned to Piano d’Arta.

In both directions, along the wisteria-lined road, tables were being set up to display all sorts of arts and crafts: hand-knit scarves, animal figures carved from the volcanic rock of Mt. Etna, copper kitchen utensils, and lavender-scented soap and potpourri. Wildflowers seemed to be a particularly common theme, appearing on hand-painted ceramic plates, beaded ornaments, and wooden plaques for the home.

morel mushroomsTucked away in a corner near Albergo Salon, a couple of mycologists had arranged a display of local wild mushrooms. It was well-known that the elderly owner of the hotel, Bepi Salon, was an avid mycologist himself and made daily excursions into the forests to collect mushrooms, herbs, and berries for his wife to serve in their restaurant.

frico friabileAround noon, as the sun peeked out from behind a patch of ominous rain clouds and a band struck up the tune “New York, New York,” I embarked upon a tasting spree of Friulian specialties. Bypassing a grill station loaded with ribs and sausages, I headed first for the frico cart. Frico was one of the first Friulian dishes I had tried several years earlier and may be given credit for sparking my interest in this region’s cuisine. There are two main varieties—crispy fried cheese wafers often served in the shape of a bowl and pancakes prepared with cheese and potatoes—but here in Piano d’Arta, I was introduced to yet another type called frico friabile. Instead of frying the cheese in a skillet, the cook was dropping handfuls of grated cheese into a pot of boiling oil. After only a few minutes, she removed what looked like a porous sea sponge and draped it over a small rack of copper rods, where it quickly crisped up in the shape of a taco shell. Unfortunately, while I simply adore frico made with potatoes, this version dripped with grease and tasted strongly of cooking oil.

frittelleI discreetly disposed of my plate and proceeded to the next food stall, where a young boy was handing out samples of frittelle (fritters) made with wild herbs and greens such as sage, acacia, melissa (lemon balm), sambuco (elderberry), radicchio di montagna (blue sow thistle), and sclopit (silene). I then spotted an array of frittatas and politely jostled my way into the line. When the woman ahead of me reached the table, she requested a piatto misto so that she could sample all three varieties: mushroom, asparagus, and sclopit. The server refused, explaining that this was not possible for just one customer. Eavesdropping on the exchange, I immediately piped in to express my similar wish, and we were each subsequently granted half a frittata sampler plate. Each slice was as thin as a pancake but loaded with savory flavor.

To conclude my feast, I ordered a plate of cjarsòns—half-moon-shaped ravioli filled with herbs, raisins, and chocolate and served with melted butter, sugar, cinnamon, and ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta cheese). It was my guess that, given the quantity served to visitors that day, the cjarsòns were not homemade but produced in the small Latteria Cjarsòns factory at the bottom of the hill.

Fully sated, I spent the afternoon exploring the environs. Down the hill and across the Bût River, a Japanese-style pagoda housed the Terme di Arta thermal baths and spa. The spa building was closed for renovation, but I lingered on the bridge, listening to the roar of the currents and enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face.

ZuglioA ten minute walk further along the highway landed me in nearby Zuglio, where I could investigate the ruins of an ancient Roman settlement right in the center of town. Before heading back I rested for awhile on a bench overlooking the river. The valley was abloom with purple, red, yellow, and white wildflowers and surrounded by forested mountains. A few snowy peaks were visible in the distance. While I sat there, a dozen cars pulled up and parked at the side of the road; as the families got out, I watched them don backpacks and head up the path toward the hilltop church of San Pietro.

When I returned to my hotel, all was quiet. I had hoped to have dinner at another of the hotels offering a tasting menu that weekend (the Hotel Park Oasi), but when I tried to make a reservation, I was declined on account of my dining solo. So, I decided to eat in my own hotel—after all, when I had returned the previous night after my feast at Hotel Gardel, the restaurant at Hotel Gortani was absolutely packed. Apparently, however, the hordes of tourists that had descended for the festival had only stayed one night, and so I was once again the only guest.

The restaurant offered no menu and no choices—not only was I alone in the dining room but I was completely at the mercy of the cook. Dinner started with a bowl of tagliolini in a bland cream sauce with what appeared to be bits of processed fish. This was followed by a grilled chicken cutlet, entirely devoid of seasoning and served with roasted potatoes. The mixed green salad was, I’m sorry to say, the only redeeming part of the meal.

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Arta TermeI arrived on a gorgeous spring morning after a 50-minute bus ride from Udine and a quick change of buses in Tolmezzo. Not being terribly familiar with Arta Terme, I had made reservations at Hotel Gortani in the lower part of town, where there turned out to be nothing but a few hotels and the tourist office. (I would later learn that the bus also makes a stop in the upper part of town, where there are more hotels and shops.) Although it was mid-morning, the town’s main street seemed deserted. Even the lobby of my hotel was empty. As I wandered the halls, searching for someone to check me in, I began to wonder if I was the only guest!

Albergo SalonAfter finally settling in, I made the hike to the upper half of Arta Terme—and then a little further uphill to the hamlet of Piano d’Arta. It was there, I had read, that Albergo Salon served the region’s best cjalsòns, a savory-sweet filled pasta that I was determined to sample at every possible opportunity. Since this was the weekend of the annual (and lengthily named) Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna e dei Funghi di Primavera, however, the restaurant was not serving their regular menu but a special tasting-menu instead. Those cjalsòns would have to wait until my next visit.

The tasting menu was a seven-course feast of small plates, showcasing the local bounties of spring—particularly wild asparagus, mountain radicchio, and mushrooms. I began with a glass of prosecco accompanied by delicately fried frittelle di erbe (herb fritters). This was followed by marinated trout with wild fennel and greens, dandelion soup with tiny Montasio cheese puffs, orzotto (barley cooked risotto-style) with morel mushrooms, lasagne with hop shoots and wild asparagus, pheasant breast with marjoram and roasted potatoes, and a wild strawberry spumone for dessert.

Hotel GardelThat evening, I splurged on yet another tasting menu at Hotel Gardel. I arrived early and was treated to a glass of Tocai in the lobby while I waited. The dining room was spacious, with white walls and a chandelier hung from the high, wood-paneled ceiling. With a banquet table of about forty French tourists already seated and a live musician crooning at his keyboard in a corner, the atmosphere initially felt like that of a bad wedding party. Once the food started arriving, though, my focus shifted to the countless plates that emerged from the kitchen. But this time, still sated from my lavish lunch, I barely made it halfway through the feast before admitting defeat.

After courses of breaded asparagus, pear and cheese salad, asparagus and potato tortino (layered like lasagne), asparagus gratinati (baked with melted cheese), and bleons (buckwheat pasta) with a sauce of mushrooms and what was listed vaguely as carne bianca (“white meat” could signify poultry, rabbit, or even pork), I had no room for mushroom soup, yet another mushroom orzotto, stuffed rabbit, mixed vegetables, or strawberry tartlet for dessert. The banquet hall was packed, and the air buzzed with the hum of foreign conversation and the electric tunes of the keyboardist—so I knew I would not be missed when I ducked out to pay my bill.

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PordenoneIt was now May—the type of sunny spring morning that soothes you with warm breezes and energizes you with the scent of anticipation. The previous evening, I had arrived in Udine after my routine 5-hour train ride from Milano. Mike would be joining me in about a week, but for now I was on my own. After a leisurely breakfast of frutti di bosco yogurt and a roll with apricot jam, I crossed the street to the train station for my first trip to Pordenone.

The ride was short, about 30 minutes. I could tell we were approaching the city as the train crossed the Noncello River and began to slow down. Walking through the streets toward the centro storico, the feeling was urban, modern, and uninspiring. Once I reached the main thoroughfare, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the mood changed. Elegant shops and endless porticoes lined this bustling yet somehow tranquil street. Most remarkable were the Venetian-style palazzi, whose façades were decorated with vivid frescoes. Some were in disrepair, the paint faded and peeling, but others had been restored to their original brilliant colors. At the end of the Corso, stylish city folk took their espresso breaks in an al fresco café facing the Palazzo Comunale. This town hall building, also known as the Municipio, featured two pinnacle-topped towers and a clock with symbols of the zodiac. Across the piazza towered the campanile of the Duomo di San Marco. Inside the church, the congregation was preparing for the inauguration of a restored 18th-century organ.

It was still early, so I continued walking a little further toward the river, which was bordered on both sides by a stretch of trees. Under the bridge, ducks were napping in the shade alongside the emerald green waters. Here, it felt like a bucolic oasis as the city’s noise and traffic faded away. I sat on the bank and rested my legs until I heard the church bells chime noon.

Vecia Osteria del MoroEarlier, the wrought-iron sign of Vecia Osteria del Moro caught my eye, so I headed straight there for lunch. I was also attracted by the menu posted outside which listed many traditional dishes; inside, however, I found there to be no written menu at all. Instead, the smartly-dressed waiter rapidly recited a list of three or four choices each of antipasti, primi, and secondi. I always find great pleasure in perusing a menu at my leisure, taking my time to make a decision, so these no-menu situations typically leave me rather flummoxed. While the casual style is something I appreciate in theory, in practice my brain tends to exert all its effort in translation—so that by the time the list is finished, I’ve already forgotten many of the choices.

Being the season for white asparagus, my ears perked up at the mention of an appetizer of those tender ivory stalks wrapped in prosciutto, as well as a pasta course of three mezzalune stuffed with asparagus and cheese. I also had the baccalà alla Vicentina, which was served with grilled polenta. It was a familiar dish, typical of the province, Pordenone having been part of the Venetian Republic longer than the rest of Friuli. Unfortunately, this version was tough with lots of bones.

On my way back to the train station, I took a detour to find the unusual campanile of San Giorgio—a tall, Doric column capped by a statue of Saint George atop a ball. Then, from Pordenone, I took another train westward to the town of Sacile.

SacileBuilt at a fork in the Livenza River, the town sits amid a small network of canals and bridges, shaded by willow trees and Venetian-style palazzi. It was quite a walk from the station into the centro storico. Just like Pordenone, the streets were lined with graceful porticoes, but here there was much more greenery about. No wonder Sacile was once dubbed the “Garden of the Serenissima,” suggesting a resemblance to the region’s former capital, Venice.

By this time of day, all stores were closed. There was an air of calm about the town. The breezes off the river felt refreshing in the mid-afternoon sun. As I approached the Duomo di San Nicolò, I noticed a series of yellow markers hanging across the river; as it turns out, kayaking is very popular here. Further on, as I stood admiring the tiny, hexagonal Chiesa della Madonna della Pietà, I noticed the soft melody of birds chirping in the trees. How appropriate, considering that Sacile hosts an annual festival of songbirds called the Sagra dei Osei.

Back in Udine, I headed out for dinner. The air now held that indefinable scent of impending rain. The sky was growing dark, as it should at 7:00pm, but I sensed a storm in the near future. Not wanting to get caught in a downpour, I hurried to the nearest familiar restaurant, Osteria Alle Volte, where the dishes are always refined and interesting, even if not traditional Friulian. Down a set of steps from the street, the dining room gave the impression of an underground cave, with stone walls and a vaulted ceiling. To start, I ordered the timbale di polenta e Montasio, a precisely molded mound of warm polenta and cheese, surrounded by rolled slices of icy cold smoked goose breast, drizzled with balsamic vinegar, and served on a bed of arugula. Next I had the cjalsòns—four large half-moons of pasta filled with a tangy cheese, swimming in melted butter, and topped with ricotta affumicata.

When I emerged from the subterranean dining room, the streets were damp and the air still moist from the showers that I had fortunately missed. Groups of men wearing olive green Alpine hats milled about the Piazza della Libertà. Preparations were underway for the upcoming weekend’s beer festival; however, I had a different agenda—the next day I would be going to Arta Terme for the Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna e dei Funghi di Primavera.

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