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Archive for February, 2014

Luca ManfeI recently had the opportunity to interview Luca Manfé, Friuli native and winner of MasterChef Season 4. Originally from Aviano in the province of Pordenone, Luca moved to the U.S. in his early 20s to follow the American dream. Having worked in a pub in his hometown from the age of 16, he continued in the restaurant business, working his way up from being a busboy to the position of restaurant manager. Luca currently resides in New York with his wife, Cate. Read on to learn about Luca’s favorite foods, his childhood, places he likes to visit in Friuli, his current culinary ventures, and so much more…

I’ve read that your mother was your biggest culinary inspiration. What were some of your favorite childhood foods?
I loved my mother’s meatballs! I could never stop eating them. Her tiramisu is fabulous, and all her pastas are fantastic.

My own son, David, won’t eat ham. Were there any foods you strongly disliked back then?
I never disliked anything! I really eat everything!

Some traditional dishes, such as musetto e brovada and jota, are an acquired taste to many foreigners, yet they are favorite comfort foods for some of my older friulani friends who grew up eating them. How do those foods rate for you?
I love them! I do not spend a holiday season without making muset and brovada at home. I don’t think it is just about being an acquired taste, but it is also because they are not very familiar and popular dishes here in the States.

In your words, how would you describe la cucina friulana?
La cucina friulana is a cuisine made from very poor ingredients. Back in the days everybody had fields, farms and gardens, so after selling the products, women had to use the leftovers from the production to feed the family. I think it’s a very creative cuisine, perhaps rich, but it’s not easy to make such delicious food from such simple ingredients!

Do you and/or your family speak Furlan?
Of course, everybody at home speaks Furlan!

Aside from spending time in the kitchen with your mother and grandmother, did you have any particular hobbies or interests growing up?
Soccer, soccer, soccer.

Luca ManfeIs there a special place in Friuli–Venezia Giulia where your family would spend vacations?
We had a house up in Claut, in the mountains, so in summer I would always spend a month up there with my grandparents from my dad’s side, and then we would go another month in Lignano Sabbiadoro at the beach with my mother’s parents.

Where are your favorite places to visit in Friuli–Venezia Giulia?
Right now I really like to go where there is history: Palmanova, Cividale, Aquileia or Trieste. When I go back to Friuli now my visits are all food-related, so I do not necessarily go to the most beautiful town, but where the best restaurants are.

What are your favorite restaurants in Friuli–Venezia Giulia? What dishes do you like to order?
My favorite restaurants are always the hosterias. I always like to order classic dishes, especially frico.

What are your favorite Italian cities or towns outside of Friuli–Venezia Giulia?
I love Rome—there is really something magical in that city. I like Florence as well, and I think the Amalfi coast is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Since you moved to New York 10 years ago, you have been exposed to numerous ethnic cuisines. What are some of your favorites?
I absolutely love Asian flavors, from sushi to authentic Chinese.

Is there any particular ethnic cuisine that you dislike?
Indian.

In the season finale, Gordon Ramsey complimented your short ribs, saying that it was the kind of dish he would want for his last supper. What would your last supper include?
Raw scampi, sea urchin, truffles, foie gras.

Tell me about your current venture, Dinner with Luca.
“Dinner with Luca” is a great intimate service. I go to people’s kitchens and cook a great dinner with them and for them. It’s been a great journey so far. I get to travel the States a lot because people are booking parties from all over, even in Canada. The particularity of this service is that who books the parties are people who followed my journey on the show and cheered for me all season. I like it because these people know my story.

You’ve talked a lot about your dream of opening a restaurant in New York. Can you describe your vision?
The restaurant is my final project. I am working on it right now and trying to find a location. It will be in Brooklyn. It will be a modern tavern with food inspired, of course, by the region of Friuli.

My Italian KitchenLuca’s cookbook, My Italian Kitchen: Favorite Family Recipes, will be released in May 2014.

Follow Luca online at:
www.lucamanfe.com

www.twitter.com/MC4Luca
www.facebook.com/MC4Luca
www.instagram.com/lucamanfe 

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DolomitesAfter a tasty breakfast of yogurt and granola, I left my hotel, Albergo Centrale, to explore the town of Forni di Sopra. The sky was clear, except for a few pillowy clouds drifting past the craggy peaks in the distance. It was now late July, and though much of Europe was suffocating under a stifling heat wave, cool Alpine breezes served to temper that warmth here in the Carnia mountains.

Anxious to get going toward my destination for lunch—a restaurant aptly named Polenta e Frico—I decided to begin my hike to the hamlet of Nuoitas a bit early. The journey took me northwestward, along the highway toward the Veneto. Since I had so much extra time, I walked slowly, admiring the view of the Dolomites, a massive, gray ridge poking up behind the green, forested slopes. When I reached the turnoff to Nuoitas, I idled awhile at the small bridge over the Tagliamento River, merely a trickle of a creek at this crossing. By the time I reached the hotel and restaurant, it was only 11:00am, so I found a seat outside to wait, savoring the quietude and brisk freshness of the sunny mountain air.

fogolar at Polenta e FricoAt noon I went inside, passing an unlit traditional fogolâr (hearth) as I followed the waiter into the dining room. Naturally, I felt obliged to order the polenta and frico (cheese and potato pancake), but there were still quite a few choices, including full and half portions for each dish. I settled on a half portion of polenta, frico, and sausage, although the serving was so generous, I could only imagine how enormous the full portion would have been! On the plate sat a thin wedge of frico atop a slice of polenta, with a small sausage on the side—and in what many would consider overkill, more than half the plate was smothered in a gooey layer of melted cheese. In an attempt to bring an ounce of healthfulness to my meal, I also ordered an insalata mista, which consisted of some rather bitter greens, cabbage, and tomato.

Forni di Sopra's Chiesa di San FlorianoMy return to Forni di Sopra took only 50 minutes, as I was hiking back at a swifter pace. After a brief rest in my room, I set out again, this time in the opposite direction toward the hamlet of Cella and the Chiesa di San Floriano. Located alongside the Tagliamento River, this 15th-century church had been deemed a national monument, famous for its fresco cycle by Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo and altarpiece by Andrea Bellunello. The church was closed, however, so I hung around outside, thinking I might wait until it reopened at 5:00pm.

As in much of Carnia this time of year, the wide, gravelly riverbed of the Tagliamento was practically dry, with only a shallow stream flowing through its center. Someone had built a crossing out of rocks, and I watched as several young couples stepped carefully across the slick stones. On the far side was a park, where I could see a lake, fountain, and children’s playground. As the afternoon wore on, the sky began to darken, ominous rainclouds forming over the western mountain range. I took that as a sign I should head back. Tomorrow there would be plenty of time to visit the church.

For dinner, I returned to Osteria Al Tulat for more of Chef Rocky’s cooking. The tiny dining room was much busier than last time, one large table being occupied by what appeared to be the chef’s family. As previously agreed, I let Rocky take full charge of my meal. First, he sent out a taste of marinated eggplant, a recipe he said was from Puglia. Next, he fixed me a plate of cjarsòns—not a traditional version, he explained, but his own original rendition. The greenish dumplings were made with a spinach-and-potato dough, stuffed with a mixture of game meat and radicchio, and topped with melted butter and grated cheese. A little on the heavy side, they lacked the sweetness and complexity of flavors that cjarsòns typically offer. Already quite full but not wanting to turn down his baccalà, I requested just a half portion. The salt cod was prepared alla Vicentina: a soupy stew cooked with potatoes, onion, and milk.

While Rocky’s creations deviated slightly from the region’s more traditional recipes, the essence of the cuisine was still there, and I left looking forward to one more meal at Al Tulat the following evening.

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Forni di SopraA deafening crash of thunder, followed by a stampede of raindrops against the window, startled me out of my restless dreams at 4:30am. It was still dark outside, yet every few moments the valley was illuminated, just for a split second, by an electric purple-yellow sky. After the storm had subsided, I curled back up under the bedsheets and turned on the TV to watch the early morning news. The top story was the heat wave that continued to ravage southern Europe—Rome had hit 95°F, and parts of southern Italy had topped 100°F. There was also another transportation strike, this time affecting the airports; Alitalia had cancelled over 90 flights throughout the country.

It was my last morning in Ravascletto. After breakfast, I took a walk to the nearby market to buy a roll and a piece of latteria cheese for my on-the-go lunch. Though no longer raining, the sky was dark and overcast, a clue that another storm was brewing. I checked out of Albergo Bellavista and found a spot on their veranda to sit and relax until my departure time. Just like my last two travel days, the bus wouldn’t come until around noon.

I was headed to Forni di Sopra and would need to change buses twice—in Comeglians and Villa Santina. Both connections were extremely tight, and since my ticket only took me as far as Villa Santina, I had to purchase another bus ticket there. To my relief, each of my three buses was on time, the entire schedule running like clockwork.

Albergo CentraleI arrived in Forni di Sopra and within minutes found my hotel, Albergo Centrale, just steps from the main highway in a quaint piazza, much of which was under construction and boarded off. The hotel had no elevator, so the chivalrous owner insisted on lugging my bag—which was growing heavier with my expanding cookbook collection—up the three flights of stairs to my room.

Compared to the last few rooms I had stayed in, this one was rather dingy and cramped, the only window being small and too high to see out of comfortably. If I stood on tiptoes and craned my neck at just the right angle, I could make out some rooftops and a sliver of mountain and sky. To say that the bed was soft would have been an understatement. Instead of a mattress, there were two sheets of foam resting atop the springs. When I lay down, the middle of the bed sagged dreadfully, as if I were being swallowed up by a spongy taco shell. To make matters worse, something in the room—perhaps a trace of cat or dog hair on the bedspread or floor—soon began to trigger my allergies. (I continued to sniffle and sneeze for the three days I spent in Forni di Sopra.)

Municipio Vecchio in Forni di Sopra In the afternoon, I took a walk to explore the town. It seemed larger than any of the Carnian villages I had visited so far, though not by much. My hotel occupied the central piazza, along with the starkly whitewashed Vecchio Municipio (old town hall), used for temporary art exhibits during tourist season but closed at the time of my midweek visit. Everywhere, wooden balconies were lined with row upon row of red and pink geraniums. In the distance, I could see a jagged ridge of grayish peaks: the edge of the Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti Friulane.

When it was dinnertime, I headed first to the restaurant in my hotel. Having grown tired of the mundane pensione meals at my hotel in Ravascletto and desiring a more authentic experience, I asked the waitress if I could take a look at the menu before being seated. She gaped at me like I was crazy—I suppose no one had ever asked her that before—but dug around and found a list for me to peruse. I was glad I asked, because it consisted entirely of run-of-the-mill Italian dishes—nothing particularly Friulian. My second stop was an osteria around the corner. They had a menu board propped outside listing some intriguing choices, but inside I was told that the kitchen was closed for the evening.

Finally, I stumbled upon the cozy Osteria Al Tulat at Albergo Tarandan. Just after I was seated, a sizable party rose to exit, leaving me alone in the empty dining room. I began with the antipasto buffet, a decadent table of goodies that included sausage-stuffed pomodori gratinati (tomatoes gratin), spinach quiche topped with ham and cheese, roasted bell peppers, mixed olives, and marinated anchovies. For my main course, I ordered the goulasch (Hungarian beef stew), which deviated from tradition in that potatoes were cooked within the stew rather than being served as a side dish. As I was tucking in, the chef peeked his head out of the closet-sized kitchen and asked, “Signora, conosce la polenta?” Do I know polenta? I had to laugh out loud at that—if he only knew how much polenta I had eaten in the past few weeks!

At this point, I divulged that I was writing a cookbook, Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy. The chef disappeared momentarily, then brought out not only a small plate of polenta for me but also a hefty cookbook. Titled La Cucina Friulana by Emilia Valli, the tome was a comprehensive guide to the region’s cuisine. I stayed there quite late, taking notes and copying recipes for such dishes as cjalzòns di Pontebba (pasta filled with ricotta, prunes, and dried figs), cialzòns di Ovaro (pasta filled with ricotta, bread crumbs, and raisins), risotto alla Maranese (Marano-style seafood risotto), paparòt (spinach and cornmeal soup), gnocchi di susine (plum-filled gnocchi), costolette al latte (pork ribs cooked in milk), toç de purcìt (Carnian pork stew), and zucca in purea (butternut squash purée). I also elicited a good deal of information from the chef, such as his favorite way to cook trout (with butter and sage) and his preferred method of cooking baccalà (in the oven).

Before I left, the chef introduced himself as Giuseppe, although he said everyone called him Rocky on account of his black belt in karate. Chef Rocky then invited me to return the following evening, offering to prepare some traditional Friulian dishes especially for me.

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torta RigojanciFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Torta Rigojanci (Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Cream Filling) in honor of Valentine’s Day. This decadent mousse-filled cake was named after the Hungarian gypsy violinist Jancsi Rigó (or Rigó Jancsi, as Hungarian names are written surname first ). It was the late 19th century, and he was playing at a Parisian hotel, where Baron Chimay and his American wife, Klara, a millionaire’s daughter, were in the audience. The beautiful baroness was so captivated by the gypsy that she seductively slipped her own diamond ring onto his finger. It was not long before Klara left her husband and children for her new sweetheart. During the height of this worldwide scandal, a Budapest pastry chef named his newest sinful dessert after the infamous violinist. Sadly, the love affair didn’t last, but Jancsi’s passionate fling has been forever immortalized in chocolate. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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