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Archive for September, 2013

Sauris di SopraThe forecast had predicted clouds and a chance of rain for my remaining three days in Sauris di Sotto. Sure enough, I awoke to a string of low, wispy clouds floating like gauze through the hills, with only a few scattered spots of blue sky peeking through. Later that afternoon, I had an appointment to tour the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris, so I took the opportunity to spend my free morning in Sauris di Sopra.

Although the buses in Carnia had so far proven to be highly punctual, the same compliment could not be paid to their frequency. At the time, there were only three buses to and from Sauris every day: early morning, midday, and evening. This made frequent travel between the two villages Sauris di Sotto and Sauris di Sopra nearly impossible for me. I did find, however, that if I took the 10:55am bus to the upper town of Sauris di Sopra, I’d have about an hour before catching the same bus on its downhill return. It didn’t seem like much time, but it was better than nothing.

Sauris di SopraBy the time I reached Sauris di Sopra, it was beginning to drizzle lightly. An hour turned out to be plenty of time to explore, given the inclement weather and the village’s small size. I walked up and down each street and along the wildflower-strewn meadow, my gaze fixated on the rocky Alpine peaks rising majestically in the distance. Just as intriguing were the homes with their uniquely Alpine character. Later, I would learn more about the architecture of Carnia and understand the subtle variations in each valley. While some areas were known for their green-tiled roofs or arched loggias, what made Sauris distinctive were its multistory, wood-framed homes, often with stone masonry on the lower floor and decorative woodwork on the external balconies. Like much of northern Italy, the feel was more German than Italian.

As I was waiting for my return bus, church bells began tolling the noon hour, while a faraway dog chimed in with its wolf-like howl. Seconds later, the bus arrived, and I was soon back in Sauris di Sotto—just in time for lunch. I went directly to Ristorante Alla Pace, now one of my favorite restaurants in Friuli. I ordered the frico con polenta and an insalata mista. The salad came first: greens from the family’s garden, shredded carrot, cucumber slices, canned beans, and sliced onion. The frico was a thick, six-inch pancake, browned to a golden crust on both sides. Made mostly of potato—the cheese was barely noticeable—it wasn’t at all greasy and held its puffy shape well.

After my meal, Signora Franca joined me again. This time, I showed her the manuscript for my cookbook. She thought my photos were molto belle and that I had included all the right recipes. This boosted my confidence a ton! Then she showed me a bottle of their house wine with a homemade label; the family photo had been taken 24 years ago at a touristy studio in Sacramento, California. Despite the kitschy costumes, it appeared, with its western style and old-fashioned sepia tone, to be a genuine photo of someone’s Friulian ancestors.

When I was ready to leave, Franca dismissed my request for il conto, saying that I could pay when I came back for dinner that evening. This was the Friulian hospitality that I had come to cherish so dearly.

Prosciuttificio Wolf SaurisAt 3:30pm, I showed up at the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris for my tour. Although the new, barn-like factory was not built until 1983, the business had been family-run since the mid-19th century, when village eccentric Pietro Schneider began selling his hams. (In addition to being a pork butcher, Schneider was also a church sexton, an unofficial dentist of sorts, and a self-proclaimed healer.) In 1962, his grandson Beppino Petris took over the business, officially naming the company Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris after Schneider’s nickname “Wolf.” As of my visit, the factory was turning out an annual 80,000 legs of prosciutto, 100,000 legs of speck, and hundreds of tons of pancetta, salami, cotechino, ossocollo, and coppa.

prosciutto di SaurisJust like the previous day, the tour group comprised a busload of older folk, plus a young Italian couple who had overheard me asking about the guided visit. It felt a little like entering Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, only it was not candy but the salty, smoky aroma of ham that wafted through the air and tantalized my senses. Surrounded by sterile, white walls, stainless steel equipment, and impeccably clean floor tiles, workers wearing white hats and aprons took freshly butchered legs and transformed them—over a period of months, through the magical process of smoke- and salt-curing—into the delectable prosciutto di Sauris.

prosciutto di SaurisAlthough the tour guide spoke only Italian, I could understand most of what she said as we passed through the various rooms: the refrigeration room, where the hams began their curing process with a coating of salt; the smoking room, where the hams were smoked for four to five days using woods and herbs such as beech, maple, fir, birch, oak, pine, chestnut, juniper, thyme, sage, and rosemary; and the curing rooms, where row upon row of hams hung from floor to ceiling.

By the time the tour was over, I was craving a nibble or two. Fortunately, we were dropped off in the factory store, where the guide handed out bread sticks draped with gauze-thin slices of the rosy, pink meat.

Shortly after I returned to my room, it started to rain. I spent the rest of the afternoon there—writing, watching the news, and playing a few games of Solitaire on my computer. By the time I turned off the TV, it was raining hard. Before heading out again, I laid in bed for a bit, listening to the sound of the rain pelting the roof and dreading the wet walk down the hill to dinner.

Back at Alla Pace, Signora Franca recommended the gnoccho croccante. Since she was so insistent that I try the dish, I felt it would be rude to even glance at the menu. It was a good call. Those gnocchi were some of the best I had ever eaten. Shaped like little footballs, the potato dumplings were filled with a mixture of minced speck and cheese; then, after a brief boil, they finished cooking in a skillet of butter, which gave them a nice golden crispness on top and bottom. Five of these gnocchi were presented in a circle over a bed of wilted crescione (garden cress). Potato gnocchi can often be tough, but these were soft, delicate, and crispy all at the same time, with an amazing flavor boost from the salty filling.

For dessert, I ordered a slice of torta di mele. Finally, I had found an apple cake worthy of recreating for my cookbook! While the cake itself was similar to the ones I had at Ristorante Kursaal and Albergo Morgenleit, the presentation was a step above. Thin slices of apple were set obliquely into the cake in a spiral pattern; to serve, the cake was then dusted with powdered sugar, cinnamon, and slivered almonds.

Gnocchi Croccanti di SaurisHere is my version of Alla Pace’s gnocchi croccanti. While the restaurant uses speck, prosciutto di Sauris would also be a delicious choice. If neither is available, use prosciutto di San Daniele or even prosciutto di Parma. In addition, if Montasio is not available, you may substitute any aged cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano.

FILLING:
8 ounces prosciutto or speck, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup grated Montasio stagionato
1 tablespoon whole milk
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Blend the prosciutto, Montasio cheese, and milk in a food processor until the mixture forms a smooth paste. Stir in the chives. Form the mixture into three dozen balls.

DOUGH:
1-1/2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 egg

Place the potatoes in a large pot filled with water; bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until tender, about 20–25 minutes. Drain the potatoes and place in a large bowl; mash well. Cool to room temperature. Add the flour, salt, and egg; mix thoroughly to form a soft dough, adding a little extra flour if the dough appears too sticky to handle. Form the dough into three dozen balls. Press a ball of filling inside each ball of dough, wrapping the dough around the filling to seal tightly. Roll gently to form an oblong shape.

TO PREPARE:
6 tablespoons butter, divided
12 ounces arugula

1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Working in batches, place the gnocchi in the water, taking care not to overcrowd the pot. Cook until the gnocchi rise to the surface; remove them promptly with a slotted spoon.

2. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add half the gnocchi; cook until the bottoms are crisp and golden brown, about 3–5 minutes. Turn the gnocchi over and cook 3–5 minutes to brown the other side. Repeat with an additional 2 tablespoons butter and the remaining gnocchi.

3. Meanwhile, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add the arugula; cook, covered, until wilted, about 4–5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Divide the arugula among serving plates. Top with the gnocchi; drizzle with any excess butter from the skillet.

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Sauris di SottoOn my first morning in Sauris, I awoke to cloudy skies and a forecast of rain. After a yummy breakfast of muesli and yogurt, I set out to look for a market where I could buy some fruit. It was a habit of mine to always keep a supply of bananas on hand—for a quick breakfast or snack, or if I just felt in need of some fruit. There was only one small market in the village, next door to the only ATM. They had a good selection of groceries—including a cheese and salumi counter, where I would pick up some picnic food on my final morning—and although their fruit selection was limited, I was able to buy my bananas.

Since it was beginning to rain, I decided to spend the rest of the morning indoors working. This was my first trip to bring along my laptop (a slim, 3-lb Sony VAIO—perfect for packing in a small backpack but, unfortunately, now defunct), and so I carried it downstairs to the bar, where I made myself comfortable at a corner table, an ideal place to spread out my work and concentrate. I spent the next two hours transcribing notes and editing text, oblivious to the world around me.

By the time I came to a stopping place, it was time for lunch. I decided to try the dining room at my hotel, Albergo Morgenleit, where, shortly after I sat down, that noisy group of boys from the previous evening descended for their lunch—fortunately for me, they were seated in another room. I ordered only one dish, the gnocchi alle erbe (herb gnocchi), with an insalata mista on the side. To prepare the gnocchi, the cook had dropped spoonfuls of dough directly into the pot of boiling water—a rustic style I found to be quite common in Friuli. These misshapen, green-flecked dumplings were then served with melted butter and ricotta affumicata. While their fresh, grassy flavor was suggestive of the surrounding meadows where wild herbs grew rampant, the gnocchi were sorely in need of a little salt. My mixed salad proved to be equally disappointing, for at the bottom of my bowl, under a pile of radicchio, arugula, shredded carrot, and slices of unripe tomato, lay a plump, partially smushed insect, its little legs still wiggling.

To erase the image of that bug from my mind, I treated myself to a slice of torta di mele for dessert. Similar in texture to the torta di pere I had at Ristorante Kursaal, this cake was without flaw—rich with chunks of sweet-tart apple and garnished with a dusting of powdered sugar.

Sauris di SottoThe morning showers had since let up, so I took advantage of the afternoon lull to go exploring. First, I walked down the hill, past numerous wood-framed houses, some wearing a cloak of drying hay around their upper-floor balconies. At the base of the village, I located the second restaurant from my list, Ristorante Alla Pace, where I would end up eating the rest of my meals in Sauris. Then, I backtracked and walked a little ways up the hill past Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris, where I found the beginning of a hiking trail at the edge of the forest. Since the sky still threatened rain—and because there was a rather unsavory-looking man ahead on the path who kept glancing back at me with shifty eyes—I decided against an impromtu hike in the woods. (I often found it hard to shake my city street-smarts, even in such idyllic locales.)

Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Sauris di SopraInstead, I hiked a short distance up the highway toward Sauris di Sopra. I didn’t intend on making it all the way; I just wanted to see how far I could get in 15 minutes. When I rounded a curve in the road, the pointy steeple of Chiesa di San Lorenzo came into view, towering over the distant green hils. I decided it was too far to go that afternoon, so I turned back. Along the road, I passed a small cemetary, protected from the highway by a thick, stone wall. Taking a quick stroll through, I noticed that two names were most prominent on the gravestones: Petris and Schneider, names that are both associated with the town’s prosciutto factory.

Ristorante Alla PaceFor dinner that evening, I was excited to finally try Ristorante Alla Pace. The hostess was Franca Schneider, a warm, motherly sort who made me feel right at home. To start, she served two complimentary antipasti: a parchment-thin frico croccante (crispy fried cheese) in the shape of a bowl and a zucchini blossom stuffed with ricotta and garnished with tomatoes.

Naturally, I had to try their cjalsòns, which were made with pasta so paper-thin and delicate that they appeared pale green from the herbed ricotta filling. With a scalloped edge, these half-moons made an elegant presentation, served in a spiral pattern on the plate, with a topping of finely grated ricotta affumicata and poppy seeds.

Next, I ordered the gulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew) with a side of pan-fried potatoes. While I could detect the paprika and red wine in the sauce, Signora Franca assured me that there were no tomatoes—and so my gulasch quandary was destined to linger on for another few months.

As I savored my glass of red wine, I spoke with Signora Franca at great length about my cookbook project. After discussing my list of recipes, particularly the ones I was still uncertain about, she brought me a huge coffee-table book called Friuli: Via dei Sapori to browse through. A gorgeous, full-color compendium of Friulian cuisine—with profiles of many local restaurants, including Alla Pace—it would eventually become my absolute favorite in my growing collection of Friuli books!

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Chiesa di Sant'Osvaldo in Sauris di SottoThe day I had been waiting for was finally here! I would be leaving Udine for a three-week stay in the mountains of Carnia. I had hotel reservations in five of the major villages and had worked the timing to coincide with several local food festivals. First on my agenda was Sauris. In May 2004, Mike and I had spent the night there, at a quaint hotel in the hamlet of Lateis. This time I would be staying in Sauris di Sotto, where the Festa del Prosciutto was being held over a period of two weekends.

From Udine, I needed to take three buses to get to Sauris. With fairly tight connections in Tolmezzo and Ampezzo, I left early so that I would have plenty of options in case one of my buses was running late. I would soon learn that Friulian buses are some of the most reliable in Italy; even connections that seemed too close for comfort ended up working out, since the connecting bus often waited for the first bus to arrive before departing. The schedule was like a well-oiled machine.

The first leg of my journey went off without a hitch. I boarded the double-decker bus, sitting on the upper level for the best views, and precisely 50 minutes later arrived in Tolmezzo. There, I had a comfortable 10-minute wait for the next bus to Ampezzo. This bus was a regular-sized coach, and we were required to put our luggage in the compartments underneath. This was a nerve-racking proposition, because now I not only had to watch the street signs vigilantly to make sure I didn’t miss my stop, but I also had to make sure the driver didn’t pull away before letting me retrieve my suitcase.

Along the way to Ampezzo, the bus picked up two large groups of children. The first was a group of at least forty grade-school kids; the second group was slightly older, likely a sports team as they were carrying bags of athletic gear. The bus was now packed beyond capacity. Boys were crammed into the aisle, laughing and shouting at the top of their lungs, as kids of that age will do. I could barely see out the window and was growing even more nervous that I’d miss my stop.

Presently, we came upon yet a third group of kids, just as large as the first two. There was obviously no room left, so the driver got out to do some negotiating with the chaperones. The minutes ticked by, and I became worried that I’d miss my connection. Without a clue what was happening, I then watched as one group of kids began filing off the bus, while the waiting group piled on. Just as jam-packed as before, the bus finally took off. Luckily, I managed to ring the bell in time, for I was the only one getting off the bus in Ampezzo. All the kids on the bus, it turned out, were continuing on to Forni di Sopra.

Sauris di SottoRight on schedule, the bus to Sauris pulled up, and to my suprise, it was already full. On the bus were the same kids that had gotten off the earlier bus to make room for the group going to Forni di Sopra. The first driver had called the driver of the Sauris bus and asked him to make an out-of-the-way trip to pick up this group. While this was far more accommodating than I would expect from any driver in the U.S., it meant that I had to squeeze myself onto a standing-room-only bus with my suitcase. This bus didn’t have a luggage compartment underneath, but luckily there was a free seat behind the driver—no one could sit there, because there were cases of water bottles stacked in front of it, but it was just the place for my bag—and one of the children generously gave me his seat next to it. In addition to the kids that had been on my original bus, there was yet another group, even larger than the first three, going to Lateis.

The road to Sauris was long and steep, with nearly continuous hairpin turns the entire way. As we began the winding ascent, the schoolkids began getting carsick left and right. The chaperone nearest me handed out plastic bags and guided the sickest kids toward the front of the bus. One poor child threw up right next to me; he partially missed the bag and got vomit all over himself. It was a relief when we arrived at Lateis and the carsick group could get off.

Albergo MorgenleitIt was then just a short ride back down the hill from Lateis and up again toward Sauris di Sotto. Although I immediately recognized the town when we arrived, I still needed to ask someone on the street to point me in the direction of my hotel, Albergo Morgenleit. My room there turned out to be fairly spacious and comfortable, with a large bed and a desk where I could work. I was to stay here five nights and would have plenty of extra time for writing. The only view was through a couple of small windows, looking out toward the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris. When I checked in, the hotel was fully booked with yet another group of kids; I was told they were leaving in a few days and that I could move to a terrace room across the hall if I wanted. Looking back, I wish I had taken the hotel up on its offer, but once I got settled in, I felt it was a chore to have to move.

After unpacking my bags and organizing my notes on Sauris, I headed out to find some lunch. The mountain air was cool and a little breezy—much nicer than I had expected and a huge relief to get away from the sweltering heat of Udine. The pace of life seemed much more tranquil, too, despite the incessant hammering as tents for the weekend’s festival were being erected.

There were only two restaurants on my list for Sauris di Sotto, and since one of them was closed that day, I ended up at Ristorante Kursaal, where chef Daniele Cortiula—protégé of the late Carnian chef Gianni Cosetti—had made it his mission to continue the legacy of Carnian cuisine. The restaurant was split into two levels, with a casual osteria downstairs and a more elegant dining room with a prix fixe menu upstairs. Both rooms were empty, and so I seated myself at a table downstairs.

I began my meal with the cialzòns (alternate spellings include cjarsòns and cjalsòns), which were filled with fresh ricotta, raisins, and herbs. Drowning in a pool of melted butter, they were topped not with the usual ricotta affumicata but with shavings of aged Montasio cheese.

It was here that I began to question the pronunciation of this dish. Until this point, I had always heard it pronounced with an English “ch” sound, as in chawl-ZOHNZ or chahr-ZOHNZ. At Kursaal, however, the waitress pronounced the word with a hard “k”: kee-awl-ZOHNZ. Over the next several years, I continued to be perplexed over the true pronunciation of the word, having heard as many disparate pronunciations as there are spellings. I finally concluded that the true Furlan pronunciation begins with a “k” sound, despite several variations in endings (-ZOHNZ; -CHOHNZ; -SHOHNZ), and that the “ch” variation that I had previously heard may in fact be simply an Italianization; since there is no letter “j” in the Italian alphabet, it may be that the letters “cja” were spoken as “cia,” which are pronounced in English as cha.

Next, I ordered the frico, which was quite possibly the best I had ever had. Served with grilled polenta, the frico was formed into a six-inch pancake. The outside was crisp and golden, while the inside had the velvety softness of mashed potatoes, with just enough cheese to melt in your mouth but not so much that it oozed grease. Cortiula also tossed bits of diced speck into the mix for added flavor.

For dessert, I indulged in a slice of torta di pere e noci: a light, crumbly square of yellow cake, baked with chopped walnuts and a slice of pear set into the top. The cake was served with a sprinkle of powdered sugar and a drizzle of chocolate sauce.

After lunch, I mustered enough courage to go meet Cortiula. I was a tad nervous, for I had made an embarrassing blunder in an email to him earlier that year. I was writing to inform him of my cookbook project and upcoming visit; somehow I got my vowels mixed up and addressed him as the female “Daniela” rather than the male “Daniele.” I made no mention of my error and couldn’t tell if he remembered, but still I felt that his reception was a bit chilly. Nevertheless, he agreed to prepare a couple of Carnian dishes for me that evening.

Prosciuttificio Wolf SaurisIn the meantime, I took a long stroll to explore the village. First, I headed to the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris, a barn-like factory that has been producing its special brand of smoked prosciutto since 1862. A tour bus sat outside waiting for a group of older folk to finish their guided visit. Upon inquiring, I was told that they only offer guided tours to large groups; however, there was a group scheduled for Friday at 3:30pm, and I was invited to tag along.

Next, I discovered the Tessitura Artigiana di Sauris, a shop specializing in traditional Carnian textiles. I selected and purchased four handwoven placemats—which I would later use as props when photographing my recipes—and then paid a visit to the onion-domed Chiesa di Sant’Osvaldo.

At the tourist office, I saw a flyer advertising an excursion to two local malghe, or “dairy farms,” high up in the mountains above Sauris di Sopra. The hike was scheduled for Saturday and would take six hours round-trip, with the closest malga being about an hour and a half away. I wasn’t sure I’d be up for a six-hour hike, but I thought perhaps, one of these days, I could undertake the hike to the first malga on my own.

For dinner, I returned to Ristorante Kursaal, which was still surprisingly empty. The first dish Cortiula prepared for me was toç in braide: a bowl of soupy polenta topped with a sauce of thinned ricotta, a pile of sautéed mushrooms, and a drizzle of toasted cornmeal in browned butter. Next came a plate of blècs: buckwheat pasta cut into triangles and topped with sautéed mushrooms and grated Montasio. Depending on the season, the thick, chewy pasta can be served with any number of toppings, from meat to vegetables to cheese.

As I ate, the waitresses intermittently passed through the dining room but seemed to avoid making eye contact with me. All of our exchanges were short and terse, even though I expressed a genuine interest in the preparation of the two dishes. Were the women merely tired and bored, or were they being intentionally brusque? This was quite unlike my typical experience here; most of the time, I had found Friulians to be exceptionally gracious. While the meal more than satisfied my hunger—it helped me to further appreciate the region’s history by experiencing its traditional cucina povera (cooking of the poor)—I was beginning to feel a dissatisfaction creep up on me. With the staff treating me so coldly and the room still devoid of other diners, I felt lonelier than I had in many years.

Back at Hotel Morgenleit, instead of retiring directly to my room as usual, I wandered around the halls and stumbled by chance upon a game room. While browsing the bookshelves—being particularly intrigued by a cookbook entitled Cucina & Vini Friulani nel Mondo—the room was suddenly stormed by a couple dozen screaming young boys. Although I yearned for company, this was not the company I desired, so I borrowed the book and fled to my room for the night.

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Montasio cheeseI 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.

Villa ManinThe 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.

Osteria Al Vecchio StalloBack 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.

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PordenoneMy 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.

ManiagoWhen 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.

PordenoneAfter 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.

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GradoAs 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.

GradoAs 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.

GradoI 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.

PalmanovaAfter 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.

PalmanovaPalmanova 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.

boreto alla gradeseHere is my recipe for boreto alla Gradese, adapted from the one at Tavernetta All’Androna. The fish is traditionally served with white polenta.

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.

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torta di meleFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Torta di Mele (apple cake), in honor of Tolmezzo’s Festa della Mela later this month. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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