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Archive for March, 2014

Forni Avoltri's Chiesetta di Sant'AntonioOn my first full day in Forni Avoltri, I would be visiting the Val Pesarina, the last of Carnia’s seven valleys on my itinerary. After an ample breakfast at Hotel Scarpone—yogurt topped with some cereal flakes, a slice of chocolate Bundt cake, a banana, and a glass of grapefruit juice—I set out to buy my bus ticket.

Since I had some time before my bus would arrive, I took a walk across the river. There I found a delightful little church, the Chiesetta di Sant’Antonio, its pink stucco walls standing out in contrast against the pale blue sky. On my walk back, a woman who was tending her garden called out the traditional Friulian greeting, “Mandi,” and I stopped to chat. Americans don’t typically venture as far north as Forni Avoltri, she told me. I must have been a real novelty, for she then called to her cousin, “Vieni a vedere l’americana!Come see the American! After I told them about my interest in Friulian cuisine, the women mentioned that there was to be a presentation on the cooking of Carnia at the Municipio that very evening.

At the bus stop moments later, I saw a flyer announcing the event, a book-signing for Cucina della Carnia by Melie Artico, a book I had coincidentally just purchased the previous week. While waiting, I asked an elderly lady which building was the town hall, and she pointed to it in the piazza behind the bus stop, also commenting that they never see any American visitors there. I told her about the book I was writing, and she said she hoped it would bring more tourists to their small town. Continuing our conversation on the bus, she asked the name of my book, so I presented her with my business card, which gave both my name and the book’s title, Flavors of Friuli. An old man sitting behind her piped up and asked for one too—as if I were someone of particular importance!

My bus arrived in Comeglians, where I had almost two hours to wait for my connecting bus to Prato Carnico. There was nothing to do or see in Comeglians, but I found a tiny church, Chiesa di San Nicolò, where I could sit and escape the harsh sun.

Prato CarnicoI arrived in Prato Carnico after a brief 15-minutes ride. The sight that caught my eye first was a home straight out of a fairy tale, with its tall, brick walls, green-tiled roof, immaculate white trim, dark green shutters, and colorful flower garden. (The green-tiled roof was a style characteristic of the nearby Val Degano, and this was the most charming example I had ever seen.)

Fortunately, the town’s one restaurant, Ristorante Ai Sette Nani, was open. Inside were several paintings of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a tribute to the restaurant’s name—one that seemed oddly appropriate after having just passed that storybook cottage with the green roof. There were only three menu items available—understandable, perhaps, given that it was a slow day and I was the only customer. I ordered the gnocchi di zucca but was dismayed when I glanced over at the bar area and saw the cook putting my plate into the microwave. Rustically misshapen—from the technique of dropping spoonfuls of dough directly into the cooking water—these pumpkin gnocchi had the potential to be delicious had they been fresh. As it stood, they were tough, doughy, and obviously reheated—a far cry from the delicate ones I had had several years earlier at Ristorante Al Fogolâr in Brazzacco.

One of the dishes on my “to-try” list that I hadn’t yet found on any menu was pendalons. I had read that this side dish of string beans and potatoes was native to the Val Pesarina, so I asked the waiter if they ever served it. They did, although he said that string beans were not currently in season. When I had finished my meal, I declined to order dessert; nevertheless, the waiter brought me a plate of crostoli—strips of fried dough dusted with powdered sugar, a traditional Carnevale treat.

As I was paying my bill at the counter, the cook (and apparently the owner/waiter’s mother) came out of the kitchen to explain to me how she prepares pendalons. Basically a potato purée mixed with string beans, hers are topped with a sauté of pancetta, onion, garlic, parsley, and chives. I took careful notes, so that I could recreate her dish at home.

Prato CarnicoAfter lunch, I took a walk to explore the tiny town. Along the highway, I passed the campanile pendente (leaning tower); its church was destroyed in an earthquake in 1700, and only the tower had been renovated. Then, finding a road leading down to the river, I crossed the bridge and wandered uphill through a residential area amid shady woods and winding roads.

Back on the highway later, I realized how far I had strayed from Prato Carnico. Instead of heading back, however, I took a gamble that I’d reach the next village, Pesariis, in time to catch my return bus. Speed walking most of the way, I made it with just five minutes to spare! Pesariis is known for its Museo dell’Orologeria, or “museum of watches.” I wished I had had time to visit, but the buses in this valley were so infrequent that I had no choice but to return to Forni Avoltri—via Comeglians again, where I had a full hour to wait for my connecting bus.

I left for dinner early, hoping that I would finish in time to attend that book-signing event. I had made a reservation at Ristorante Al Sole, located a short distance across the river. When I arrived, owner Tiziana Romanin immediately introduced me to Giacomo del Fabbro, president of the town’s Centro Culturale, who was hosting the event. He sat at my table for a few minutes before I ordered, as amused as everyone else seemed to be that an American was visiting their out-of-the-way village, and especially pleased that I was writing a book about Friulian cuisine.

Instead of handing me a menu, Tiziana suggested some of their specialties. I started with the cjarsòns, her aunt Lia’s recipe. Prepared with a potato-based dough, the pasta was filled with a mixture of fresh ricotta, raisins, crushed amaretti cookies, parsley, and cinnamon, and served with melted butter, cinnamon, and ricotta affumicata. To drink, she recommended a glass of Verduzzo, its honey and citrus notes pairing perfectly with the sweetness of the cjarsòns.

Next, I had the frico, which came with a slice of polenta, some saucy sautéed wild mushrooms, and a couple bites of veal stew. Though Tiziana had originally specified that the frico was going to be prepared con patate, what I was served actually contained no potatoes. Instead, it was a less common type called frico friabile: crunchy deep-fried cheese with the unique appearance of a porous sea sponge. I had tried this kind of frico once before, at a food festival in Arta Terme, and found it to be extremely greasy. Careful not to express any criticism, I discussed with Tiziana the various types of frico, and she eagerly brought me a thin wedge of frico made with potato and onion. This was the frico I had fell in love with several years earlier—crispy on the outside, soft and cheesy on the inside. To accompany this portion of my meal, Tiziana brought a glass of housemade red wine.

When I finished eating, I was in a hurry to pay my bill so that I could make it to the book-signing by 8:30pm. I tracked down Tiziana on my way to the front counter, and to my complete astonishment, she refused to let me pay for a thing!

Cucina della CarniaI arrived at the Municipio just in time. The room was already crowded with dozens of people seated in rows of folding chairs, but Signor del Fabbro spotted me and led me to an empty, reserved seat in front. During his opening speech, he introduced me as “a special guest from America.” The author was there, of course, along with a panel of scholars, but rather than focusing on the region’s cuisine, the discussion centered around the efforts of translating her cookbook into the Furlan language (each recipe is printed in both Italian and Furlan). I understood some of what was said, but not enough to fully hold my attention—my stomach was full, the room was uncomfortably toasty, and I was exhausted from my long walk earlier. When everyone stood up an hour later, I assumed the event was over (although, to my great embarrassment, I learned the next day that it had only been the intermission). I approached Melie Artico to autograph my copy of her book, and then, after not being able to find Signor del Fabbro to say goodbye, I just left.

During the lecture, I had noticed raindrops beginning to pelt the room’s large window. By the time I left, the skies had unleashed a full-blown thunderstorm. Not having had the foresight to carry my umbrella, I pulled my light jacket up over my head and sprinted the few blocks back to Hotel Scarpone.

pendalonsHere is the recipe for pendalons from Ristorante Ai Sette Nani:

12 ounces string beans, cut into 1-inch-long pieces
1-1/2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1. Place a steamer rack inside a large pot; fill with 1 inch of water. Place the string beans on the rack. Bring to a boil over high heat; cover and steam until just tender, about 10–15 minutes.

2. Place the potato slices in a large pot, along with 1 cup water; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 20–25 minutes, stirring occasionally as the water begins to evaporate. Remove from heat; coarsely mash the potatoes. Stir in the string beans and black pepper. Season to taste with salt.

Topping:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta, onion, and garlic; cook and stir until the onion softens and the pancetta is brown and crisp, about 7–8 minutes. Add the parsley and chives; cook and stir until wilted, about 1–2 minutes. Serve the topping over the potatoes.

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Forni AvoltriI left Forni di Sopra early, catching the 9:15am bus east to Villa Santina, where I had about 90 minutes to wait for my connecting bus north to Forni Avoltri. This was to be my final stop in Carnia—a festive one, for the town was hosting the annual Festa dei Frutti di Bosco that weekend. I arrived at 12:30pm and checked into Hotel Scarpone, conveniently located directly across the street from the bus stop.

Without even bothering to unpack, I immediately headed down to the hotel’s restaurant for lunch. Having recently learned some valuable lessons regarding pensione protocol, I didn’t hesitate to request the regular menu, explaining that I was conducting research on Friulian cuisine for a cookbook I was writing. Upon handing me the menu, however, the waitress proceeded to point to a couple of the least interesting-sounding pastas—the same ones from their pensione menu and, apparently, some of the only items available. Skimming down the list, my heart jumped when I saw cjarsòns and frico, my two favorite dishes. Unfortunately, she informed me that neither was being served that day for lunch, but that I could return and order them for dinner.

With only a few choices available, I opted to start with the ravioli alle erbe (herb ravioli). Dull and bland, they tasted like prepackaged ravioli from the refrigerator section of my supermarket back home. My second course was a huge portion of capriolo (venison), served with more polenta than I could eat. For dessert, the two selections were a crostata ai frutti di bosco (mixed berry tart) and a bowl of fresh berries with gelato. Feeling already pretty stuffed, I requested just the fruit, no ice cream. A taste of what was yet to come at the festival, the bowl contained plump blackberries, sweet strawberries, and the tiniest wild blueberries I’d ever seen.

After lunch, I took some time to unpack and settle into my room. Of all the hotels I’d stayed in that summer, this one was, on the whole, the most comfortable. Though the bed was a little firm, I found the bathroom to be unusually spacious, impeccably clean, and obviously newly renovated with its shiny pink tiles and dish of fragrant rose potpourri.

As was my custom upon landing in a new town, I took a walk to get my bearings. Across the Degano River, I found Albergo Al Sole and went in to check out the menu. At the counter, I met owner Tiziana Romanin and made a dinner reservation for the following evening. Then, I continued up the hill a ways, where I found a splendid lookout point. As I stood there surveying the valley, dismal, gray clouds began encroaching on the pale blue sky, and a few drops of rain began to fall. This was my cue to head back to my hotel, where I spent the rest of the afternoon in my room working on my laptop—and repairing a broken hinge on my umbrella (rather ingeniously, I thought) with the stripped-down wire from a twist tie.

For dinner, I returned to Hotel Scarpone’s restaurant with high hopes of trying their cjarsòns and frico. Initially, the waitress offered me the same primi choices as at lunchtime. When I asked about the cjarsòns and frico, she said that there would be no frico until tomorrow, but that they did have the cjarsòns. Enthusiastically, I ordered them, along with the petto d’anatra (duck breast)—the only second course available. Within minutes, however, the waitress returned with the news that the cjarsòns were not available after all. Disappointed, I ordered only an insalata mista to go with my meal.

As I ate, my chagrin deepened when I overheard the table behind me being offered a set of completely different menu items. Not that anything they ordered would have furthered my research any more than what I was currently having, but the disparate choices perplexed me. Later, the waitress did offer an apology for not having the cjarsòns and frico as earlier promised and assured me that they would have them tomorrow. (Since I had just made those reservations at Al Sole, I wouldn’t be able to dine at Scarpone tomorrow, though perhaps I could my final evening.)

For dessert, I had the crostata ai frutti di bosco. The tart was filled with pastry cream and topped with blackberries, blueberries, and red currants. Then, I figured that since I was already paying the pensione price for a full multicourse meal, but hadn’t ordered anything for my first course, it would not be out of line to request some fruit (one of the choices offered for dessert). The grapes on the sideboard behind me had caught my eye, and the waitress graciously brought me the entire bowl—along with, curiously, a knife and fork.

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Forni di SopraIt was my final day in Forni di Sopra. With absolutely no agenda other than to take in the gorgeous scenery, I headed out after breakfast to explore the other side of the river. At this time of year, the Tagliamento River was merely a wide, nearly dry riverbed, with only a shallow trickle of water zigzagging through the gravel. Across the bridge was the Centro Sportivo, an immense recreational complex comprising a swimming pool, gym, spa, tennis courts, soccer fields, and so much more. Not being quite the height of the holiday season, there were no crowds yet. All this would change on the upcoming weekend, the last one in July, when families throughout Italy would be embarking on their lengthy summer vacations.

Forni di SopraCrossing the bridge back into town, I then turned to head up into the hills, where the grassy meadows were strewn with yellow, purple, and white wildflowers. To the west, I could see the jagged, gray Dolomites peeking up over the softer peaks of forested mountain. The sky was a brilliant blue, a sea of tranquility stirred only by the giant puffballs of cloud drifting by. When I felt I had hiked far enough, I retraced my steps down to Forni di Sopra and back across the bridge. There, I found a bench on which to rest until noon.

For lunch, I returned to the restaurant that had caught my attention two nights prior but had been closed: Osteria Agli Sportivi. They were open this time, though I seemed to be the only customer. I ordered a plate of agnolotti, which were filled with Montasio cheese and served surrounding a mound of grated pear. Reminiscent of cjarsòns, the dish was topped with cinnamon and grated Montasio.

Forni di SopraAfter lunch, I returned to Albergo Centrale for an afternoon of writing. Like I had done in other hotels, I set up my laptop computer in the bar downstairs. I worked without distraction for several hours, then returned to my room to rest and take a nap. As soon as I plugged my computer back in to charge, however, the electricity in my room suddenly went out. I had blown a fuse! Embarrassed and full of apologies, I found the owner, and he lackadaisically climbed the stairs to reset the circuit breaker in the hall.

I then collapsed onto my flimsy mattress, my body sagging deep into the spongy valley of foam, but soon I began to feel antsy and claustrophobic. Around 5:00pm, I decided to take another trip to Cella. Yesterday afternoon I had made the 15-minute walk there, but the Chiesa di San Floriano had been closed. This time the church was open, and the frescoes by Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo were as colorful as I had imagined.

From there, I returned to Forni di Sopra, crossed the bridge over the river once more, and walked to the Parco Giochi Comunale “Pineta.” Located directly across from Cella, this park featured several small lakes and a children’s playground. I took a long stroll around one of the lakes, watching as a couple of children were feeding some mallard ducks. While the sky to the north was still sunny and blue, dark storm clouds began to creep over the western Dolomites. A cool wind picked up, blowing ripples across the placid pond.

With a storm obviously brewing, I made my way back for one last meal at Osteria Al Tulat. For the first time that I could remember on this trip, I was actually starving at dinnertime. I arrived a little early, so that I could spend some extra time perusing Chef Rocky’s cookbook La Cucina Friulana by Emilia Valli. A wealth of information on Friulian cuisine, the book had been immensely useful in my research.

When it was time to eat, the waitress invited me to help myself from the antipasto buffet: a cart of vegetable dishes that included marinated bell peppers, eggplant, pearl onions, and string beans, as well as some delicious, briny anchovies. On my first evening, as there was no written menu, the waitress had given me a verbal list of choices. The second evening, I had agreed to let the chef determine my dinner. Tonight, I was wondering how exactly my meal might evolve when Chef Rocky stuck his head out from his tiny kitchen and asked if I would like some gnocchetti. I assented, although I actually misheard him to say due (two) rather than degli (some) gnocchetti—my mistake became clear when a small bowlful of dumplings arrived at my table. Prepared from the same green spinach-and-potato dough as last night’s cjarsòns, these diminuitive gnocchi were topped with melted butter and ricotta affumicata.

Finally, Rocky brought out a plate holding two fried sardines—to be precise, as I later surmised, they were European anchovies, a type of “blue fish” caught in the waters off Friuli’s coast. The fish were only about three inches long, butterflied and flattened, then coated in very fine bread crumbs and fried.

It was a real treat for me to hand over the culinary decision-making to Chef Rocky. While the dishes were rustic and uncomplicated, there was a certain charm to their simplicity. Although Rocky is no longer cooking at Osteria Al Tulat, I have never forgotten his hospitality.

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orzo e fagioliFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Orzo e Fagioli (Barley and Bean Soup). Given that winter is still upon us for at least a few more weeks, this hearty soup would be perfect for a cold evening by the fire. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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