Posts Tagged ‘Cormons’

This review was originally published in the September 2010 issue of Dream of Italy. Since my last visit, La Subida has been awarded one Michelin star.

Situated in the heart of the Collio wine zone is one of Friuli’s most esteemed restaurants, Trattoria Al Cacciatore de La Subida (known to locals simply as La Subida). On the outskirts of Cormòns, surrounded by rolling hills and lush vineyards, La Subida serves impeccable dishes inspired by the nearby border where Friulian and Slovenian cultures merge.

Opened at Christmastime in 1960 by Slovenian Joško Sirk and his wife, Loredana, La Subida was originally a small osteria and inn, which soon became a popular gathering spot for hunters. A recreational cacciatore (hunter) himself, Sirk takes great pride in the land and has built a small complex of apartments adjacent to his restaurant, complete with tennis courts, children’s playground, horse stables, and swimming pool. For Sirk, building these rustic farmhouses has been an obsessive hobby and the realization of a longtime dream.

To the Sirk family, Trattoria Al Cacciatore is not just a restaurant—it is their home, filled with special belongings, mementos, and memories. Daughters Tanja and Erika have grown up here and now help out in the dining room. Joško and Loredana are always there as well, interacting with their guests, even joining them at the table. After a while, dining at La Subida is like dining with family.

The Sirks look at their cuisine as a slice of life, a part of their culture and heritage. The menu leans toward the Triestine—jota (bean and sauerkraut soup) and gnocchi di susine (plum-filled dumplings), for example—but also offers a variety of Friulian dishes, including frico, frittata, and orzotto (barley cooked risotto-style). They specialize in the Slovenian pastas mlinci and zlikrofi, as well as wild game, which is roasted or grilled to perfection. The stinco di vitello (braised veal shank), carved tableside, simply melts in one’s mouth. While their food remains authentic, each dish is refined to an exquisite level through added touches such as fried sage leaves, elderberry flower syrup, and herb-infused sorbets.

The best way to experience this slice of culture is with La Subida’s multi-course tasting menu. After an aperitif and some light snacks under the lime tree or inside by the fogolâr (fireplace), diners will feast on an appetizer, two or three first courses, two meat dishes, a palate-cleansing sorbet, and a dessert that inevitably includes a plate of homemade biscotti. This must all be accompanied, of course, by local Collio wine from Joško’s cellar.

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My only plan for the day was to take the train to Cormòns for lunch, which left me the entire morning to spend in Trieste. The air was surprisingly thick and muggy, the dark, overcast sky threatening rain. I worked up a sweat as I took a long stroll around the city center, stopping at several food shops along the way. Most memorable was Trieste’s oldest bakery, Pasticceria Bomboniera, founded in 1836. The bakery’s elegant hardwood displays, black-and-white marble floor, and crystal chandelier offered a glimpse into the grandeur of a bygone era. I bought two pastine (bite-size pastries)—sachertorte (chocolate cake with apricot glaze and chocolate ganache) and dobostorte (layer cake with chocolate buttercream and caramel glaze)—as well as a putizza, a Triestine spiral cake similar to the gubana found elsewhere in Friuli. I wanted to compare Bomboniera’s putizza to that from Pasticceria Penso. (As I came to learn, the primary difference is that Penso adds melted chocolate to the dried fruit and nut filling, while Bomboniera uses chocolate chunks.)

After dropping off the pastries at my apartment in Residence Liberty, I suddenly realized I was running a bit late. I speed-walked all the way to the train station, making it there in 15 minutes instead of the usual 20, and caught the train to Cormòns moments before it departed.

Upon arrival in Cormòns, I set out on the 45-minute trek from the station to La Subida on the outskirts of town. The foreboding clouds had begun to pass during my train ride, and by the time I was nearing La Subida, the sun was shining brightly in the blue sky. Vineyards blanketed the rolling hills, which were beginning to show the first signs of autumn color.

I had eaten at Trattoria Al Cacciatore de La Subida once before, and it had been my most memorable Friulian meal ever. It was a peaceful July afternoon, and I had sat outdoors, along with just one other table of diners. Owners Joško and Loredana Sirk had been free to spend a great deal of time chatting leisurely with me about Friulian cuisine and my cookbook project. This time, however, the restaurant was packed. Both owners were super busy, so their daughter Tanja was waiting tables instead. A young, petite woman, Tanja wore a beaming smile that projected the tranquil joys of life at a country inn.

As a complimentary appetizer, she brought me a taste of ricotta di malga on a bed of polenta and arugula, some crispy frico chips, and a glass of Prosecco. Instead of handing me a written menu, Tanja rattled off the choices of the day. While I was fairly proficient at reading and writing Italian, my conversational skills were far from fluent. I typically understood enough to get by while traveling and even conduct the occasional one-on-one interview, but the rapid-fire speed of normal speech often left me feeling rather stupid. So on this occasion, when I vaguely recognized an antipasto that I had not tried on my previous visit, I immediately went with that. The dish was a mound of minced venison over a bed of arugula, with potato purée and topped with three slices of meaty porcini mushrooms.

Next, I ordered the gnocchi di susine, a dish I was already quite familiar with, having eaten my share of the heavy plum-filled dumplings in other restaurants. These, in contrast, were light and not overly doughy at all. On the plate sat a pair of gnocchi, each one just slightly larger than a golf ball. Instead of being stuffed with a whole prune plum, as I had seen elsewhere, these were filled with a spoonful of juicy diced plums. When I cut into the dumplings, red juices burst forth with an audible squirt. More diced plums and a semi-circle of toasted bread crumbs garnished the plate, giving it the appearance of a smiley face. Sugar and cinnamon were served on the side to sprinkle as desired.

For dessert, I opted for something less decadent than the sweets I had been eating as of late: sorbetto al sambuco, a light and refreshing elderflower sorbet. Tanja also brought a plate with three different types of cookies and a bowl of candied pistachios. As I was enjoying my dessert, Loredana stopped by my table to say hello—she remembered me from my visit in July. Before I left, Joško spotted me and came over as well.

On my way out the door, I realized for the second time that day that I was running late. I had less than 45 minutes to catch my train back to Trieste. Once again, I speed-walked the entire way to the station, managing to get there with 5 minutes to spare. At least I could say I had burned enough calories to justify indulging in those slices of sachertorte and dobostorte later that evening!

Here is my recipe for gnocchi di susine:

For the Dough:
2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and quartered
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons 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.

To Prepare:
1/2 cup sugar, divided
6 medium plums (about 1 to 1-1/4 pounds), pitted and cut into 8 wedges each

Roll the dough into four dozen balls. Flatten each into a 3-inch circle; sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and top with a plum wedge. Wrap the dough around the plum and seal tightly. (At this point, the sugar will begin to draw the juice out of the plums; placing the filled gnocchi on a wooden board will help prevent them from getting soggy.)

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. Once the gnocchi have risen to the surface, cook until the dough is tender, about 10 minutes longer; remove them promptly with a slotted spoon.

To Serve:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
Ground cinnamon

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the bread crumbs; cook and stir until golden brown, about 3–4 minutes. Add the gnocchi and toss to coat with bread crumbs. Divide the gnocchi among serving dishes. Drizzle with the excess butter and bread crumbs; sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar.

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Udine's Osteria Al Vecchio StalloMy three weeks in Carnia were over, and it was time to return to Udine for the final week of my trip. From Forni Avoltri, I caught the bus to Tolmezzo, where I made the connection to Udine. I arrived just before noon, checked into Hotel Principe, and went out immediately to have lunch at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. The restaurant was packed, rather unusual for a Monday at lunchtime, although perhaps it was due to increased holiday travel. It was, after all, late July. I ordered the deliciously creamy baccalà (salt cod stew) with polenta, along with a side of grilled eggplant, zucchini, and red bell peppers.

After lunch, I took some time to unpack and rest—it was a relief to have a day without any strenuous hiking or sightseeing. Then, around 4:30pm, I headed across the street to the train station and caught the next train to Cormòns. It was a short trip, and by having my dinner at the town’s enoteca (wine bar), I would be able to get back to my hotel early and call it a night.

On my way into Cormòns, I stopped at the COOP supermarket and stocked up on apricots and peaches. After five weeks of eating in restaurants, I was really starting to miss fresh fruit.

Enoteca di CormonsWhen I arrived, the Enoteca di Cormòns was nearly empty, save for a man and woman in biking attire having wine at the bar. I sat at one of the long, wooden tables and ordered an antipasto plate of assorted cheeses, salami, prosciutto D’Osvaldo, and olives, along with a glass of Ribolla Gialla. Noticing that the couple at the bar were Americans, I invited them to join me at my table. It turned out that they were on a cycling tour of northeast Italy and had just tasted at least twenty local wines. Tempted by my plate of goodies, they ordered the same. I found it refreshing not only to be speaking English after a month of nothing but Italian, but also to not be eating alone for a change.

Friuli: Path of FlavoursThroughout my trip, I kept coming across the book Friuli: Via dei Sapori by Walter Filiputti. Since it was a large, heavy coffeetable book, however, I wanted to wait until the end of my trip to purchase it, so that I wouldn’t have to lug it around any more than necessary. Seeing that the enoteca carried copies of the book in several languages (including the English translation, Friuli: Path of Flavours), I decided to go ahead and buy it. Of all the books in my Friulian cookbook collection, this one is by far the most gorgeous, with full-color photos throughout. It features several of the restaurants I have been to—Alla Pace, La Subida, All’Androna, Al Lido—along with recipes for some of their signature dishes. The book also discusses the history of Friuli, as it pertains to the region’s cuisine, with detailed descriptions of its typical foods and artisanal products.

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Enoteca di CormonsJet lag kept me awake most of the night again, so it wasn’t surprising that I didn’t hear my alarm go off at 7:30am. When I finally woke up, I had to rush to catch the 9:25 train to Cormòns. Yesterday, when I was on my way to Cividale, I had barely made it to the platform on time; due to construction work, the biglietteria had been temporarily relocated to the far end of the station, which meant I now had to allow a bit of extra time.

Rosa Mistica in CormonsCormòns is only a 15- or 20-minute ride from Udine, depending on whether or not you catch the veloce, or “fast,” train. On the way into town from the station, I passed a COOP supermercato, where I stocked up on Band-Aids—I had worn a new pair of sandals on my first couple evenings out and was already starting to get blisters.

Shortly before reaching the town center, I passed the Chiesa di Santa Caterina, a pale pink church topped by a pair of blue onion-domed steeples. The church is also known as Rosa Mistica for its altar statue of the Madonna and Child holding a rose made of precious stones (the stones were stolen by raiding French troops in 1812).

wine tasting in CormonsThe hub of Cormòns is Piazza XXIV Maggio, the central focus of which is the Enoteca di Cormòns, a squat building of yellow stucco, home to the Collio’s wine-producing consortium. Without hesitation, I parked myself at the bar for some wine tasting. Lining up five glasses along the counter, Signora Elena poured me tastes of Tocai, Malvasia, two labels of Schiopettino, and Verduzzo. As I was sipping the wine, she took a long, sharp knife and deftly carved off a pile of paper-thin slices of prosciutto D’Osvaldo. This locally-made ham was sweet and smoky, albeit a bit gristly. I took my time—swirling, sniffing, sipping, and taking copious notes.

Collio vineyardsWhen it was nearing noon, I set off for what has become my favorite restaurant in all of Friuli: Trattoria Al Cacciatore de La Subida. From the enoteca, it was a substantial trek into the hilly outskirts of town. Clearly, this is the heart of the Collio wine zone, I thought, as I hiked along a stretch of highway lined with vineyards as far as the eye could see. When I arrived at La Subida, I was greeted by Loredana Sirk and seated at a table on the veranda overlooking the vineyards. Opened in 1960 by Joško Sirk and his wife, Loredana, La Subida was originally a small osteria and inn. Today, the Sirks run a Michelin-starred restaurant and complex of apartments, complete with tennis courts, children’s playground, horse stables, and swimming pool.

La SubidaLa Subida appeared nothing short of a bucolic utopia. As I took in my surroundings, a shaggy, white dog with floppy, brown ears emerged from underneath one of the tables to chase a dragonfly buzzing overhead; after sniffing the legs of all the guests, he lazily returned to his resting spot in the shade. Shortly, Loredana returned with a complimentary glass of prosecco, some frico croccante (crispy fried cheese), and a taste of ricotta salata over polenta with a garnish of arugula and black pepper. When I explained to Loredana that I was researching a book on Friulian cuisine, she suggested that, instead of my choosing from the menu, she might bring an assortment of small plates for me to sample.

First came a bocconcino di zucchini: a purse of phyllo dough stuffed with shredded zucchini, served with a fried sage leaf and a warm sauce of sambuco syrup. Next, there was another phyllo antipasto, this time a large single sheet accompanied by sautéed zucchini blossoms and red bell peppers, served on a mound of grated apple. The antipasti were followed by a couple of Slovenian pastas: zlikrofi (pasta filled with potato, pancetta, onion, and marjoram, served in a meat broth, and topped with shavings of cheese) and mlinci (thick, wide noodles served in a phyllo bowl with a sauce of minced goose and tomatoes). The final primo piatto, a strudel di ciliege (cherry strudel), was my favorite. A filling of chopped fresh cherries was rolled jellyroll-style in a sheet of gnocchi dough; it was then boiled, sliced, and served with a drizzle of melted butter and a topping of toasted bread crumbs, sugar, and cinnamon.

Loredana and Josko SirkAfter those five small plates (not to mention the amuse-bouches and my plate of prosciutto at the enoteca), I was quite full—too full for any of the secondi piatti. This was a shame, because I had been looking forward to trying their famous stinco di vitello (veal shank). Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist a slice of apple strudel. Along with my dessert, Loredana brought a plate of six homemade biscotti and a bowl of fresh cherries. As I savored these, wishing I could somehow pocket them for later, Joško joined me at my table. He was very interested in hearing about my experiences in Friuli and, in what felt somewhat like a pop quiz, asked me to name three recipes from my cookbook-in-progress. Between my continuing jet lag and subsequent sleep deprivation, I had to rack my brain to come up with anything. Fortunately, my notes were at the ready in my backpack, and I was able to rattle off several dozen traditional Friulian dishes. Before he got up to leave, Joško presented me with a small book about La Subida, a chronicle of the restaurant’s history.

Later, on my way back from the restroom, I ran into Joško again. As I was giving him my business card, I noticed a waiter wheeling a cart of stinco di vitello from the dining room toward the kitchen. Excitedly, I spoke up, and Josko carved a little off for me, along with a spoonful of patate in tecia. The veal was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the potatoes had a sweet, caramelized flavor from the onions.

CormonsIt was now mid-afternoon, and I decided to burn some calories by exploring the Collio on foot. Armed with an adequate map that pointed me in the general direction of the ruins of a medieval castle, I set off along a winding road, climbing high up into the hills above the town. Vineyards blanketed the rolling hillside as far as I could see. The castle looked closer on the map than it actually was, and I hiked for nearly an hour before reaching the entrance. As luck would have it, the castle and its surrounding park were closed for renovation. There was, however, a sweeping view from Monte Quarin across Cormòns and the plains below.

Chiesetta della Beata Vergine del SoccorsoAt this point, I didn’t particularly want to backtrack all the way to La Subida. Since my map showed another winding road that led directly back to Cormòns, I headed in that direction. After ten minutes, however, I concluded that I was going the wrong way. According to the map, the road should have zigzagged back on itself, but the farther I got, the clearer it became that the road was heading straight out of town. I must have passed a turn-off somewhere, so I returned to my lookout point, a parking lot below the Chiesetta della Beata Vergine del Soccorso, where I had seen a trail map posted for hikers. It turned out that the winding road on my map was actually an overgrown stone footpath cutting through the woods. The entrance, a narrow gap between the hill and a stone wall, was easily missed. There was a sign, but its writing was so faded, it’s no wonder I passed by it the first time.

I then headed down the wooded trail toward town. It was a full 90 minutes from the time I left La Subida that I finally reached the train station, with some sore muscles, a few bug bites, and a rash from fighting the brambles on the path to show for my troubles. To my dismay, I had just missed the train by 15 minutes, and the next one wouldn’t arrive for over an hour—actually, it turned out to be a two-hour wait, since the train was running late. By the time I got back to my hotel in Udine, it was 7:00pm. I dropped off my backpack and headed right back out to dinner.

Udine's Osteria Al Vecchio StalloSince I was exhausted from my hike, I didn’t feel like wandering the city in search of a new restaurant. As I so often did, I returned to the familiar and comforting Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. For a change, I was seated in the corner that used to be reserved for the old signora. Where could she be? Then I realized that except for myself the dining room was completely empty. While I had preferred the coolness and quiet of the indoors, the rest of the diners were outside in the courtyard. I nearly was forgotten, but chef Mario eventually came over to give me a menu. His portly stature and graying beard reminded me of Luciano Pavarotti, although his dark ponytail and bandanna were more suggestive of a pirate. After my indulgent multi-course lunch, I opted for a light frittata, thick and green with herbs, served with polenta and a side of marinated zucchini. I made it a quick meal and headed back to my room for some much-needed sleep.

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Flavors of FriuliIt was June 2004 when Mike and I returned to San Francisco. I had over a year to prepare for my next trip, which would take me once again throughout Friuli–Venezia Giulia. Since Udine made a convenient home base for me to explore the region, I planned two separate weeks there, bookending a three-week journey through Carnia. Two of my main objectives were to visit at least one malga and to attend several more food festivals, so I arranged to travel to Carnia’s major villages—Sauris, Arta Terme, Ravascletto, Forni di Sopra, and Forni Avoltri—all by bus. During my time in Udine, I would take day trips to now-familiar towns such as Cormòns, Cividale, and San Daniele, as well as new ones like Marano Lagunare, Bordano, and Maniago. I would tour three prosciutto factories, climb two mountains, and panic during one very frustrating train strike that stranded me in Venzone. Please join me in the weeks and months to come, as I continue chronicling my Friulian adventures.

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Rosa Mistica in CormonsHaving taken the train from Trieste back to Udine and dropped our bags off at Hotel Principe, Mike and I set out for our very first Italian rental car adventure. Mike was to be the designated driver for this trip, since I don’t drive (at least not anymore, though I did learn as a teenager). A few weeks earlier, Mike “learned” how to drive a stick-shift using his aunt’s truck, so we thought we were well-prepared.

The plan was to pick up our car—it was a tiny Fiat Punto—and drive to Cormòns for lunch. Mike’s driving lessons, however, proved to be far less than adequate. After finally getting the car going, with countless jerks and starts and to the tune of a dozen locals honking at us, we managed to make it a couple of blocks before stalling in a rotary. As Mike was desperately gunning the engine, a polizia car passed us and paused briefly, the officers turning their heads to stare at us in utter disgust.

We finally made it out of Udine but realized that Mike needed somewhere to practice before battling the urban traffic again—someplace like a large, empty parking lot. We found just the place behind a massive warehouse on the side of the highway. Here, Mike could practice using the clutch without feeling any pressure. As he was getting the hang of it, the Fiat advanced forward a few feet at a time, until the wheels hit the curb and we could go no further. Then the trouble really began: we couldn’t figure out how to shift into reverse! This was certainly problematic, I thought, panic beginning to set in. I had learned to drive on a stick, so I was familiar with where reverse should be, but it simply wasn’t there. After a half hour of feeling dumbfounded, I had the brilliant idea of pulling the owner’s manual out of the glove compartment. Reading in Italian, I learned that in order to shift into reverse, you needed to pull up on the stick’s collare (collar). Finally, it all made sense, and we both felt like complete idiots.

Duomo in CormonsWith a great sense of accomplishment, we then drove the rest of the way to Cormòns. After a quick visit to the Duomo di Sant’Adalberto and the Chiesa di Santa Caterina (better known as Rosa Mistica), we stopped for lunch at Trattoria Al Giardinetto. To begin, we were served several complimentary antipasti: lardo (cured fatback), pâté of oca affumicata (smoked goose), and a gnoccho di ricotta (ricotta dumpling) with tomato and zucchini purée (plated for a patriotic red, white, and green effect). For my first course, I had the cjalsòns, which were filled with potatoes, speck, and sage, and served in melted butter with pancetta and aged Montasio. Mike ordered the orzotto (barley cooked “risotto-style”) with shrimp and artichokes. Next, I had the goulasch (again, there was no tomato in the sauce, though I did detect some spicy paprika and fennel) served with späetzle verde (tiny German-style spinach dumplings), while Mike had asparagus wrapped in smoked pork with a potato tortino and horseradish sauce. After finishing our meal, we stayed at our table for a long time, delaying the inevitable drive back to Udine.

Once we had returned to Udine, we stopped by several other car agencies, but as I had expected, automatic transmission was simply not available. A period of moodiness followed, as we lay in our hotel room, contemplating whether we should cancel all our plans for the next few days. Finally, Mike got up the nerve to take the car out for another spin. We drove around the block at least a dozen times before returning to the hotel with a bit more confidence.

Udine's Piazza della LibertaOn our way out to dinner, we joined our friends Steno and Liviana at a bar in Piazza della Libertà. Over glasses of prosecco, we chatted and exchanged gifts. I had brought them a batch of homemade cookies with white chocolate chips and dried cranberries—flavors I thought they would find to be rather exotic. Liviana gave me two books: the cookbook Le Ricette Tradizionali di Trieste by Maria Frausin, which I had just seen in a bookstore in Trieste and fortuitously passed over, as well as Guida di Udine by Maurizio Buora, a guide to the city’s history, art, and architecture.

Afterward, Mike and I returned to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo for dinner. I had the tortellini al ragù (looking back, I’m not sure why I ordered something so un-Friulian—perhaps I just needed a break from my research) and sarde in saor with polenta, while Mike had spaghetti alle vongole and frico con polenta. When we left the restaurant, the sky had darkened, warning us of an impending storm. As lightning flashed to the north and thunder rumbled threateningly, we hurried to make it back to our hotel before the rain started.

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wine tasting in CormonsCheck out my article “Wines of Friuli–Venezia Giulia” at travellady.com.

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