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Albergo Ristorante BellavistaI awoke early on Saturday morning with complete uncertainty as to my plans for the day. The prior evening’s storm had passed through, leaving the valley glistening as the first rays of sunshine reflected off the dewy grass. Downstairs in the dining room at Albergo Bellavista, I chose some yogurt topped with granola from the breakfast buffet and seated myself near the front windows. The waitress was making the rounds, taking all the guests’ orders for lunch and dinner. Since I wasn’t sure where I would be going, I clumsily confessed that I hadn’t yet decided if I’d even be eating my meals there. While I recognized the restaurant’s need to plan ahead, I couldn’t help feeling inconvenienced. For me, part of the fun of traveling invariably involved having some modicum of spontaneity, especially where food was concerned. On this trip, it was more essential than ever. My chief objective was to explore the region’s cuisine, and seeing as I had not yet had time to check out Ravascletto’s other restaurant, I wanted to keep my options open. Feeling a bit guilty about my indecision, I returned to my room before the waitress had a chance to press me for an answer.

My two goals for that weekend were to attend the Mondo delle Malghe festival in nearby Ovaro and visit Malga Pozôf on the peak of Monte Zoncolan. Upon arriving in Ravascletto, I had learned that the festival’s street markets were taking place only on Sunday, not running the entire weekend as I had originally believed. This was a problem, since there was no bus service out of Ravascletto on Sundays. Suddenly, I remembered reading in one of my brochures that taxis were available in a couple of Carnia’s towns, including Ravascletto. After inquiring at the tourist office, I was directed to a bar across the street, where the owner’s husband—a friendly but toothless old gentleman—provided an informal taxi service. I arranged for him to drive me to Ovaro the next day.

Now that Sunday was settled, I turned my attention to Malga Pozôf. Yesterday, I had seen a flyer posted outside the tourist office announcing that the ski lift would reopen today. This morning, however, I learned that the funivia was going to be closed for repairs all summer. My heart sank, knowing that my only alternative was to undertake another grueling mountain hike. The woman at the tourist office convinced me that it was entirely doable and provided me with a map of the trail. Down in the valley, I found the entrance to the path. Here, I also ran into an older British couple, whom I recognized from the breakfast room at Bellavista. They intended to walk partway up the trail, so we agreed to set out together.

RavasclettoAlmost immediately, we came upon a fork, with one path leading directly ahead, up the wide clearing used as a ski run in winter, and the other branching off to the left through the forest. The couple claimed they knew the way, so I followed them into the woods. We trudged along for a half hour, although I had a nagging suspicion that we were going in the wrong direction. The trail was not progressing up the mountain so much as winding eastward. Twice our path was blocked by a house-sized pile of timber—this should have been an obvious clue. Still, my new friends insisted that this was the way, even as they struggled to circumnavigate the massive obstacles.

Finally, I decided to say goodbye and turn around. Another half hour later, I found myself at the original fork, where I began climbing up the steep, grassy carpet of wildflowers. Within moments, I glimpsed the sign designating the proper trail, clearly marked Malga Pozôf. If I had been alone, I might have trusted my instincts and saved some time. Instead, my misguided detour turned what should have been a strenuous two-hour hike into an utterly exhausting three-hour trek.

Malga PozofI continued the ascent to the top of the ski slope, where the trail diverged and began meandering through a patch of tall grass. My black clothes were soon covered with yellow pollen from the bushes that pressed in on either side of me. After stepping across a shallow stream, I entered the woods again. This final leg of the hike took a full hour and was almost entirely uphill. Panting for air, I emerged at the summit and was instantly confronted by the foul stench of manure. Up ahead, cows roamed freely, grazing alongside the dirt road. I was elated with the thrill of my success. After three arduous hikes, I had finally found the cows I had been seeking for my photographs!

Malga Pozof cowsFollowing the path a short distance further, I reached Malga Pozôf. Settling in at a long, wooden table, I was welcomed with an assortment of cheeses, which included both fresh and aged varieties, as well as ones with herbs and spicy red pepper flakes. The plate also held a few slices of salami and polenta. As I savored each bite, I introduced myself to the trio at my communal table. A portly bunch, they explained that they were on a mushroom foraging expedition, and the wife guided my eyes to a table nearby where another forager was showing off his specimen of the day—a giant porcini the size of a soccer ball.

fogolar at Malga PozofAfter indulging in a slice of blackberry crostata for dessert, I gave myself a tour of the malga. A ring of stables encircled us, many cows wandering outside the enclosure, some lounging inside the pens. The main room of the malga was lined with small wheels of aging cheese. Following the aroma of smoke, I entered the adjacent fogolâr room, where balls of ricotta rested above the fire, on their way to becoming ricotta affumicata.

On my way out, I conveniently bumped into my lunch companions. They kindly offered me a ride—if I didn’t mind the occasional stop for mushrooms. The four of us crammed into their miniscule Fiat, which instantly whizzed into gear along its harrowing course, careening down the narrow, hairpin turns of the mountain.

Suddenly, the stout woman wedged into the backseat next to me shouted “Ferma! Ferma!” Her brother slammed on the brakes, while his wife jumped nimbly out of the passenger door and disappeared into the forest. A moment later she returned clutching a fistful of freshly picked porcini mushrooms.

We were barely on our way when the husband jerked to a halt once more. This time, both women skipped around to the back to retrieve some refreshments from a cooler, and we all enjoyed an impromptu snack of homemade custard and fresh raspberries. To drink, the threesome was well-prepared with both iced coffee and mint tea. Finally, we reached the foot of the mountain, where I was dropped off in the closest town, Ovaro.

As I waited for the bus, it was clear that there was nothing happening at the Mondo delle Malghe festival—I had made the right choice to wait until Sunday. My first bus soon dropped me off in Comeglians, where I made the connection to Ravascletto. Before returning to my hotel, I stopped at the market for some bananas. I also peeked into the shop where I had seen linens and dishes in the window. There, I selected a couple of embroidered dishtowels that I would someday use as props in my food photos.

I had just made it back to Bellavista when the rain started. By the time I had climbed the stairs to the top floor, it was hailing. I collapsed on my bed, thoroughly spent, listening to the pellets of ice pelt the windows, the thunder quickly developing from a low rumble into a resonating boom. I felt fortunate not to have been caught in the storm while on Monte Zoncolan. As the lightning flashed outside, the power inside flickered off a few times. A fast-moving storm, it was all over within what seemed like only minutes.

Since the storm appeared to have passed, I took my chances walking down the hill to eat dinner at Hotel La Perla. It began raining again, however, just as soon as I arrived. The restaurant was hosting a wedding reception, and though I was seated at one of the few empty tables at the edge of the dining room, I had a clear view of the festivities.

To start, I was served a complimentary antipasto of frico croccante. The crispy fried cheese was shaped into a bowl and filled with marinated radicchio di montagna, a wild green native to Carnia. My first course, the cjarsòns di Monaj, would have been equally suitable as a dessert: dumplings made from thick, gnocchi-like dough were stuffed with a rich, sweet filling of fresh ricotta, walnuts, and raisins. The dish was made even more decadent by a topping of melted butter, cinnamon sugar, and ricotta affumicata. Next, I ordered the toç in braide, a bowl of hearty polenta topped with a sauce of fresh ricotta, drizzled with browned butter and toasted cornmeal, and encircled with a garnish of sautéed mushrooms. Although I was quite stuffed, I felt no guilt, having burned more than enough calories on my hike!

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TimauEven though it was mid-July, the weather in Carnia remained rather cool. In fact, my room at Hotel Poldo was downright chilly, forcing me to dig two extra blankets out of the armoire in the middle of the night. In the morning, my hopes were up for a fantastic breakfast—when I had checked in the previous day, the staff had described a spread of prosciutto, cheese, yogurt, and pastries. Alas, there was no prosciutto nor cheese, but there was yogurt, some pound cake, cookies, the usual rolls and packaged toast with jam, and an odd red juice that tasted like fruit punch.

Despite my failed attempt in Sauris, I was still determined to find a malga. My plan for the day was to visit Malga Pramosio, located in the mountains along the Austrian border. Also an agriturismo offering both food and lodging, this dairy farm was accessible by car from the hamlet of Laipacco. Without a car, however, I was obliged to undertake another hike.

Malga PramosioFirst, I took a bus from Piano d’Arta north to the town of Timau, where, after searching the treeline at the base of the mountain, I found the entrance to the footpath. Cut through the beech forest called Bosco Bandito, the trail was incredibly steep and almost nonexistent in the less trodden spots. Like the typical Italian hiking path, red and white stripes marked the trees sporadically, but this trail was so overgrown in places that I often feared I might be lost. Inevitably, I always came upon another faint yet reassuring stripe of paint. Ninety minutes and 2,300 vertical feet later, I managed to reach the summit, where the woods gave way to a rolling, green meadow. Gray clouds loomed over the towering granite peaks that surrounded me, so I hurried down the lengthy path to the red-roofed, stone malga. I was disappointed to find no cows anywhere in sight—they were grazing in a higher pasture during the day, I later learned—but this time, at least, the malga was open.

Malga PramosioInside, a fogolâr (fireplace) roared, filling the entryway with thick smoke. As I sat at one of the communal wooden tables, waiting for the waitress to come by, I overheard someone speaking English—a real rarity in this corner of Italy. I went over to introduce myself and found there to be an entire family: a husband and wife, their two young children, the husband’s cousin and his wife. The husband was in the military, formerly stationed in Vicenza for eight years and currently living with his family in Stuttgart, Germany. The cousin and his wife lived in southern California. The family’s ancestors were from a small town near Maniago, and the group was taking a sort of family heritage tour of the region, with a special focus on its military museums and monuments.

They invited me to join them at their table, and I ordered a plate of frico con polenta. Crispy on the outside and soft and gooey in the center, the cheese and potato pancake was served with a side of soft, freshly made polenta. The others all ordered the gnocchi. Stuffed with herbs and cheese, these dumplings were rather like a savory version of cjalsòns.

ricotta pressAfter lunch, the family arranged an informal tour of the malga’s cheese-making rooms, and I tagged along. On a shelf across one wall sat stacks of metal ring molds that were squeezing the liquid out of newly formed wheels of cheese. Nearby, ricotta—made from reheating whey and extracting the curds—was wrapped in cheesecloth and piled onto wooden planks; heavy iron weights sat on top to press out the excess liquid. In the next room, rounds of cheese were soaking in a vat of salted water to make formaggio salato (salted cheese). Many more wheels, in various stages of aging, were stacked high to the ceiling. A worker wearing a green Alpine cap gave each of us a sample of an 11-month-old formaggio di malga, which had a deliciously nutty yet mellow flavor.

As we were leaving, trepidation began to set in about my return hike. Hesitantly, I asked this family if I might have a ride down the mountain. There was just enough room for me in their rented minivan, so they dropped me off in Timau on their way north to Austria, where they were planning to spend the afternoon.

Timau's Chiesa di Cristo ReI missed my return bus by just ten minutes and had a full hour and a half to wait for the next one. There wasn’t much to see in the town—only the unusual, modern façade of the Chiesa di Cristo Re, with its three rounded, bluish arches—so I found a spot to sit by the curb and rest, my eyes gazing skyward toward the mountain’s summit.

As the bus was empty when I boarded, I sat near the driver. A young man with stereotypically handsome Italian features, he demonstrated none of the cockiness that so often comes with such good looks. As we chatted, he showed a genuine interest in my day’s adventure and told me how he went skiing on that very mountain every winter.

Albergo Ristorante SalonThat evening, I headed up to Ristorante Salon once again for dinner. I began by ordering the flan di funghi, a mini mushroom soufflé served with creamy Montasio cheese sauce and sautéed mushrooms. Next, I had the gulash and an insalata mista. Compared to many of the other versions I had tried over the past several years of research, this gulash was rather uninspiring. It didn’t help that the side of four small boiled potatoes was equally bland. As always, Matteo prepared my salad to order. From his rolling cart, I chose a simple combination of fresh greens, tomato slices, and shredded carrot.

I had hoped to speak with Bepi Salon again, but unfortunately he wasn’t there. At least I would have two more dinners in Arta Terme—I was counting on meeting the sprightly proprietor once more before it was time to move on.

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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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cheese at Mondo delle Malghe in OvaroCheck out my latest travel “Highlights” on Afar.com: a festival of cheese and Friuli’s largest palazzo.

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Udine's Torre dell'OrologioTraveling to do research for a cookbook sounds like a dream job, but in fact, it can be hard to keep up the pace. With a limited schedule, I usually found myself running nonstop, visiting a different town each day and attempting to see as many of the sights as humanly possible. Occasionally, though, I needed to give myself a break. This was one of those days, in between my excursion to Arta Terme and my upcoming meeting with cooking instructor Gianna Modotti.

I decided to spend the morning exploring Udine’s markets, bakeries, and food shops. I began in Piazza Matteotti, whose farmer’s market stands were overflowing with a bounty of spring produce: mushrooms, fava beans, artichokes, and the celebrated white asparagus from Tavagnacco. (This market has recently been relocated to the newly renovated Piazza XX Settembre.) From there, I headed to my favorite cheese shop, La Baita, where I bought an etto (100 grams) each of the three types of Montasio: fresco, mezzano, and stagionato. Next, I wandered a bit more around the city center, peeking into every food shop and bakery I passed. I ended up buying some prosciutto di Sauris and formaggio di malga at Alimentari Tami Galliano and a selection of small rolls—zucca, noci, patate e rosmarino, and patate e formaggio—at Panificio Pasticceria Bacchetti.

When the shops began closing their doors for the afternoon, I returned to my room at Hotel Principe for a picnic lunch. I unwrapped my cheeses and spread my feast before me on the bed. The sight was mouthwatering. As it was still too early in the season for fresh formaggio di malga (cheese produced during the summer in the mountain dairies of Carnia), the slice I had purchased had been aging since the previous summer. It was quite firm and had a flavor reminiscent of aged Asiago.

Montasio cheeseThe three types of Montasio were easy to discern. The fresco (aged 2 to 4 months) was soft, creamy, and white in color, with a mild, delicate flavor. The mezzano (aged 5 to 10 months) was golden in color, firmer, and a bit more piquant. The stagionato (aged over 10 months) was extremely sharp and hard like Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Produced at the Wolf Sauris factory in Sauris di Sotto, the prosciutto was sweet with just a hint of smokiness. The rolls were soft and fresh from the oven—the potato rosemary roll went especially well with the cheese and prosciutto, while the pumpkin roll with walnuts and raisins made a nice dessert.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon sorting my notes and reading through my new Friulian cookbooks. Earlier on this trip, I purchased Vecchia e Nuova Cucina di Carnia by Gianni Cosetti and Friuli in Cucina by Adriano Del Fabro. Today, I added to my growing collection the heavy tome La Cucina del Friuli–Venezia Giulia by Alessandro Molinari Pradelli—an encyclopedic compendium of Friulian recipes. By now I had compiled a list of those recipes that I felt were most characteristic of the region and that I planned to include in Flavors of Friuli. In addition to tasting those dishes in restaurants, my goal was to gather as many published recipes as possible, in order to jump-start the recipe-testing process once I returned home.

Osteria Al Vecchio StalloFor dinner that night, I was determined to try someplace new. My plan “A” was a restaurant I had read about in my guidebook called Trattoria All’Allegria, but unfortunately it was closed—or rather nonexistent behind a wall of plywood and scaffolding. (It reopened several years later as a chic hotel and restaurant.) My plan “B” was the nearby Osteria Al Canarino; however, this one turned out to be filled with smoke and old men—not a comfortable environment for me. (Anti-smoking laws were not passed until the following year, 2005.) Therefore, predictably, I ended up back at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo, where I felt right at home. I started with a bowl of sfregolotz agli spinaci. A recipe I had discovered in Gianni Cosetti’s cookbook only that afternoon, these were misshapen, pea-sized, emerald-green gnocchi topped with ricotta affumicata. Next, I ordered the cevapcici: tiny, finger-shaped sausages that are especially popular in the neighboring Slavic countries. They were served with polenta, chopped onion, baby greens, and a bitter red pepper purée called ajvar.

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