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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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