Archive for August, 2013

Enoteca di CormonsJet 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.

Rosa Mistica in CormonsCormòns 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).

wine tasting in CormonsThe 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.

Collio vineyardsWhen 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 SubidaLa 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.

Loredana and Josko SirkAfter 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.

CormonsIt 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.

Chiesetta della Beata Vergine del SoccorsoAt 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.

Udine's Osteria Al Vecchio StalloSince 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.

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Latteria Sociale di CividaleAfter a late arrival in Udine the previous night, I awoke to the sound of rain pounding on my shutters. How I desperately longed to roll over, close my eyes, and sleep the morning away! Instead, I forced myself to change and head downstairs to Hotel Principe’s basement-level breakfast room, where the server, Luciana, greeted me like an old friend, even though it had been over a year since my last visit. The hotel’s breakfast buffet included a substantial array of choices: fresh rolls, croissants, and pastries; several types of cereal; the seemingly obligatory packaged toast; fresh fruit; orange and grapefruit juices; and my favorite brand of yogurt, appropriately called “Carnia,” my flavors of choice being frutti di bosco and albicocca.

Since it was raining and I still suffered from jet lag, I decided on a simple excursion to Cividale to ease me into my five-week-long stay. A quick train ride away, the town was by now quite familiar to me, but this time I had a brand new objective: to visit the Latteria Sociale di Cividale, located a short distance across the Ponte del Diavolo in an area I had not yet explored.

The Latteria Sociale is a dairy cooperative, founded in 1924. Members provide a daily supply of milk, from which the latteria produces a number of different cheeses, including the famous Montasio. I had emailed them in advance of my visit but, to my disappointment, received no reply. Unfortunately, the shop was packed with customers when I arrived, and no one was available to speak to me about their cheese production.

Back on the other side of the bridge, however, I stumbled upon a true gem called La Bottega del Gusto. A gourmet’s paradise, this tiny shop was filled to the brim with cheese, salumi, wine, and other artisanal products—not just from Friuli but from all over Italy. The shop owner was thrilled to hear of my interest in his region’s cuisine and offered me some samples. First, I tasted a bite of formadi frant, a cheese made from mixing cheeses of various stages of maturation. It had a golden hue and a salty, pungent flavor. Next, I tried a paper-thin slice of petti d’oca (goose salami), sweet and rosy with a wide border of fat. Another cured meat that I had read much about was pitina; while there were no samples to taste that morning, the shop did carry pitina, and so I bought one to try later.

strucchiMy next stop was the nearby Panificio Cattarossi, where I purchased a gubana Cividalese and a package of cookies called strucchi. Of Friuli’s famous spiral confections, I had so far tried putizza and presnitz in Trieste, and gubana delle Valli del Natisone in Cividale. The differences between the spiral cakes putizza and gubana delle Valli del Natisone were easily determined—for starters, I found that putizza contained chocolate and was baked in a cake pan—but whether there was any significant difference between the puff pastry spirals presnitz and gubana Cividalese remained an unresolved question. I asked the clerk, and although she did emphasize dried fruit in the gubana, her answer was predictably vague.

Ristorante Al MonasteroFor lunch, I returned to the restaurant where I had eaten on my last visit to Cividale: Ristorante Al Monastero. I was lured by the presence of two dishes from my master list—asparagi gratinati and gnocchi di ricotta—on their menu posted outside, but, as so often happened in my travels, those items were not on the actual menu inside. So instead, I ordered the antipasti misti, which included crêpe spirals filled with ricotta and an assortment of salumi—of which the prosciutto d’agnello (cured lamb) was the most unusual. To keep things on the light side, in anticipation of more than a month’s worth of culinary indulgences, I next ordered a plain bowl of minestrone. This meal was healthier than many, and the soup hit the spot on such a rainy day. To complete my meal, and in lieu of dessert, I savored a glass of Picolit wine—sweet and golden with notes of honey, fruit, and caramel.

pitinaBack in my hotel room that afternoon, I opened up my box of pitina—inside was a round hunk of meat, about the size of a tennis ball. Since the early 19th century, pitina (also called peta and petuccia) has been prepared in the mountainous areas of Val Tramontina and Val Cellina in the northern part of Pordenone province. Like all cured meats, pitina was originally created as a way of preserving the meat, in this case mutton, goat, or game such as chamois or venison. The conventional method of sausage-making, which involved stuffing pig intestines with ground meat, was impractical due to the scarcity of swine in these hills. So instead, the meat was seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, herbs, and red wine, then rolled into balls and dredged in cornmeal. Once prepared, these meatballs were placed above a fogolâr (fireplace) to smoke for several days, typically using juniper wood to give the pitina its distinctive smoky flavor. They were then relocated to a cool, dry place to age for several months. Today, only a few artisans still prepare pitina from wild game. This particular brand was made with a combination of pork, beef, and lamb and tasted like smoky salami.

Ristorante Al VaporeLater that evening, I found myself at Ristorante Al Vapore for dinner. Since my last visit three years earlier, the restaurant had renovated and was under new management. The morning showers had gradually tapered off, and I was seated in their outdoor patio area under a red awning. The air was muggy and filled with mosquitoes. I started with one of Friuli’s traditional dishes, toç in braide: a mound of piping hot, creamy polenta topped by a sauce of thinned ricotta, drizzled with a bit of toasted cornmeal in browned butter, and garnished by a ring of sautéed porcini mushrooms. The polenta was so filling that I chose a light dish of trota affumicata (smoked trout) for my second course. This rosy fillet of trota salmonata (salmon trout) was delicately smoked and served on a bed of mixed greens, radicchio, carrots, and zucchini. As I ate, I perused the rest of the menu, intrigued by the lengthy list of salads, particularly the one dubbed the “Equilibrio”—meaning “balance,” this happens to be the name of my publishing imprint!

Back in my hotel room, I cut myself a slice of gubana for dessert. Shaped into a snake-like spiral, flaky puff pastry enveloped a dense filling of raisins, walnuts, and spices. As far as I could tell, it was practically identical to the presnitz I had tasted in Trieste (although a side-by-side taste test would perhaps have yielded a clearer comparison).

strucchiI also sampled a couple of the strucchi. Named for the Slovenian dumplings called štruklji, these small rectangular cookies were made with the same filling as the gubana, deep-fried, and dusted with sugar. Here is my version of the recipe. It makes about 10 to 11 dozen cookies.

6 cups all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon peel
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, lemon peel, and salt. Blend in the butter, a little at a time, until crumbly. Add the eggs and vanilla extract; mix until the dough forms a solid mass. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

1 cup raisins
1/2 cup grappa or rum
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1/2 cup blanched slivered almonds
3/4 cup finely crushed biscotti or amaretti cookies
1/2 cup diced candied orange peel
1/4 cup pine nuts
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 egg

1. Place the raisins in a large bowl; add the grappa and let soak for 30 minutes.

2. Finely grind the walnuts and almonds in a food processor; add to the bowl of raisins. Stir in the crushed biscotti, candied orange peel, pine nuts, melted butter, sugar, cinnamon, and egg.

Vegetable oil

1. Working in batches, roll the dough on a sheet of waxed paper to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut the dough into 1 by 1-1/2 inch rectangles. Place 1/2 teaspoon filling in the center of one rectangle; cover with another rectangle, sealing the edges tightly. (Keep the unused dough refrigerated until ready to use.)

2. Pour 1-1/2 inches of vegetable oil into a large pot. Heat the oil to 365°F. Working in batches, carefully place the strucchi in the hot oil; fry until golden brown, about 1–2 minutes. Remove from oil; drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with sugar.

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capesante gratinateFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Capesante Gratinate (baked scallops), because summer reminds me of the sea, seafood, and the time I spent on the coast of Friuli–Venezia Giulia. Many restaurants there serve shellfish baked with a breadcrumb topping, but two in particular stand out in my memory due to their stunning locale: Trattoria Alla Laguna Vedova Raddi in Marano Lagunare and Ristorante Alla Dama Bianca in Duino. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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Milano's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele IIIt 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.

Studio Pilates MilanoMy 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.

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