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The Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna, e dei Funghi di Primavera—celebrating wild asparagus, mountain radicchio, and spring mushrooms—is held every May in Piano d’Arta, a hilltop hamlet just up the road from the town of Arta Terme. I arrived a day prior to the street fair’s scheduled opening, but there was plenty to keep me busy.

Several hotels were offering special tasting-menus for the entire weekend. For lunch at Albergo Ristorante Salon, I was treated to a series of small plates that showcased local wild edibles: herb fritters, marinated trout with wild fennel and greens, dandelion soup with delicate Montasio cheese puffs, orzotto (barley cooked “risotto-style”) with morel mushrooms, lasagne with hop shoots and wild asparagus, pheasant breast with marjoram and potatoes, and a wild strawberry spumone for dessert.

Fully sated, I spent the afternoon exploring the environs. Down the hill and across the Bût River, a Japanese pagoda housed the Terme di Arta thermal baths and spa. A ten minute walk further along the highway landed me in nearby Zuglio, where I could investigate the ruins of an ancient Roman settlement right in the center of town.

That evening at Hotel Gardel, I splurged on yet another tasting menu, only this time I barely made it halfway through the feast before I admitted defeat. After courses of breaded asparagus, pear and cheese salad, asparagus and potato tortino (layered into a “little cake”), asparagus gratinati (baked with melted cheese), and bleons (buckwheat pasta) with mushroom sauce, I had no room for soup, another mushroom orzotto, stuffed rabbit, or dessert. The banquet hall was packed, and the air buzzed with the hum of foreign conversation and the electric tunes of a live pianist—so I knew I would not be missed when I ducked out to pay my bill.

The next morning, I left my hotel to find the festival gearing up bright and early. In both directions along the wisteria-lined road, tables were being set up to display all sorts of traditional arts and crafts. Wildflowers seemed to be a common theme, appearing on hand-painted ceramic plates, beaded ornaments, and decorative wooden plaques for the home.

Tucked away in a corner near Albergo Salon, a couple of mycologists had arranged a display of local wild mushrooms. It was well known that the elderly owner of the hotel, Bepi Salon (who passed away several years after my visit, in 2010), was an avid mycologist himself and made daily excursions into the forests to collect mushrooms, herbs, and berries for his wife, Fides, to serve in the hotel’s restaurant.

Around noon, as the sun peeked out from behind a patch of ominous rain clouds and a big band struck up the tune “New York, New York,” I embarked on a self-guided tasting spree. Bypassing a grill station loaded with ribs and sausages, I headed first for the frico (fried cheese) cart. Frico was one of the first Friulian dishes I had tried many years earlier and may be given credit for sparking my interest in this region’s cuisine. There are two main varieties—crispy fried wafers (frico croccante), often served in the shape of a bowl, and pancakes prepared with cheese and potatoes (frico con patate)—but here in Piano d’Arta, I was introduced to yet another type called frico friabile. Instead of cooking the cheese in a skillet, the signora was dropping handfuls of grated cheese into a pot of boiling oil. After only a few minutes, she removed what looked like a porous sea sponge and draped it over a small rack of copper rods, where it quickly crisped up in the shape of a taco shell. Now while I simply adore frico made with potatoes, this disappointing version dripped with grease and tasted strongly of cooking oil.

I discreetly disposed of my plate and proceeded to the next food stall, where a young boy was handing out samples of frittelle (fritters) made with wild herbs and greens such as sage, acacia, melissa (lemon balm), sambuco (elderberry), radicchio di montagna (blue sow thistle), and sclopit (silene). I then spotted an array of frittatas and politely jostled my way into the line. When the woman ahead of me reached the table, she requested a piatto misto so that she could sample all three varieties: mushroom, asparagus, and sclopit. The server refused, explaining that it could not be done for just one customer. Eavesdropping on the exchange, I immediately piped in to express my similar wish, and we were each subsequently granted half a frittata sampler plate. Each slice was as thin as a pancake but loaded with savory flavor.

Finally, I ordered a plate of cjalsòns. There are dozens of recipes for cjalsòns (alternately spelled cjarzòns or cjalcions) in Carnia, and most contain some element of sweetness. These particular ones were half-moon-shaped ravioli filled with herbs, raisins, and chocolate and served with melted butter, smoked ricotta cheese, sugar, and cinnamon. After sampling nearly twenty versions over the years, my absolute favorite turned out to be the ones I later ordered at Ristorante Salon. Filled with a sublime combination of apple, pear, and herbs, they were the perfect balance of sweet, savory, salty and smoky.

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Tucked away in Italy’s northeast corner, Friuli–Venezia Giulia stretches from the Adriatic Sea to the boundaries of Austria and Slovenia. It is along the region’s Austrian border that the flat plains of central Friuli ascend into forested hills and snow-capped peaks. With the Carnian Alps (Carnia) in the west and the Giulian Alps (Tarvisiano) to the east, this mountainous area is sprinkled with onion-domed church steeples, gabled chalets, and Alpine farmhouses. Isolated from the rest of the region by rugged mountains and long, treacherous roads, Carnia embodies everything I long for in nature—wildflowers, birdsong, open meadows where I can twirl like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

On several trips to Friuli in 2004 and 2005, I planned my itinerary around a few of the region’s numerous food festivals, all in either Carnia proper or the area at the base of the Alps known as Alto Friuli. While there was always a trade-off—tranquil, tourist-free villages inevitably became overwhelmed by flocks of visitors—I found these festivals to be an invaluable opportunity to learn about Friulian culture and interact with the local people.

Over the following month, I’ll take you on a tour of the following five food festivals:

  • Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna, e dei Funghi di Primavera—Arta Terme
  • Festa del Prosciutto—Sauris
  • Mondo delle Malghe—Ovaro
  • Festa dei Frutti di Bosco—Forni Avoltri
  • Festa della Zucca—Venzone

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This piece was originally published in the May 2011 issue of Dream of Italy.

When asked to recall my most perfect memory of absolute bliss, I immediately picture myself floating on my back in the tranquil sea off Baia Santa Lucia, the sun beating down on my face and limbs, the buoyant water sending my thoughts drifting into oblivion. Several years prior, I had spent two months as a student at the dance festival Pro Danza Italia, and I had now returned to Castiglioncello—located on the Tuscan coast just south of Livorno—to teach a Pilates workshop at the same festival.

 

All the teachers were given lodging at Villa Santa Lucia, a spacious home perched high on a cliff, with thatched-roof gazebos spilling down the hillside to a sandy cove below. Like an unwanted stepchild banished to a fairytale tower, I was given the closet-sized room on the roof. Although it had no bathroom (I had to go down the outside stairway to get into the main house), my roof-tower room was truly paradise. The door opened directly onto the roof, an open terrace with panoramic views of the sea. I remember watching sunsets fill the sky with shades of fuchsia, periwinkle, and crimson, and I often woke during the night just to see the moonlight sparkle over the horizon.

During my free afternoons, I would spend hours at Bagni Italia—a beach club on the town’s largest bay, Baia del Quercetano—lunching on fresh marinated anchovies and tender fried calamari, then relaxing in the sun on a rented lounge chair. When the summer’s heat became too intense, I could cool off in the gentle waves. On the way back to the villa, I would pause for a late afternoon snack, which always entailed at least three flavors of gelato at nearby Gelateria Bocelli (owned by singer Andrea Bocelli’s second cousin Rossano).

Nearly a decade later, I found myself dreaming of Castiglioncello’s rocky coves and sandy beaches, so I returned once again, seeking to relive some of those early, carefree memories. This time I stayed at the pink Hotel Baia del Sorriso, overlooking the bay where I had years ago spent so many afternoons sunning and bobbing in the waves. My old haunt Bagni Italia was no longer serving a full menu (or perhaps things were not yet in full swing, seeing as I had arrived just at the cusp of high season), and I was disappointed to find that Signor Bocelli had sold his gelateria (I’ve heard a rumor that he is now a butcher in nearby Rosignano). But I was consoled by the fact that, being a decade older, I could afford to treat myself to some spectacular restaurant meals…and I had planned my trip to coincide with the annual Festa del Pesce.

The “Festival of Fish” began forty years ago as a casual get-together between a few hungry friends and a pot of fried fish. As curious passers-by were invited to join the party, word spread throughout their tiny, coastal hamlet, and soon this innocuous meal had grown into a full-fledged bash. The event was repeated the following year…and the year after that, gradually evolving into what is today an enormous feast for tens of thousands of visitors. Held annually on the second Sunday in June, the Festa del Pesce celebrates the beginning of the summer season with music, street markets, and—most importantly—plenty of seafood.

The scene is Caletta, a peaceful town nestled between the comfortably trendy resort of Castiglioncello and the more industrial Rosignano Solvay. This charming slice of the Tuscan coast is lined with pine forests, turquoise bays, and a rainbow of umbrella-dotted beaches. Farther north, the winding coastline ascends to a stretch of rugged cliffs, while to the south lies the town of Vada and its vast Spiaggia Bianca, where the sand is implausibly white. A short distance inland, the hill town Rosignano Marittimo offers a sweeping view of the verdant countryside and endless shores.

On the menu at the Festa del Pesce, I found a number of local seafood dishes, including porpo bria’o (octopus cooked in red wine), cozze alla pescatora (mussel stew), risotto ai tre scogli (shellfish risotto), crespelle alla calettana (seafood-filled ravioli), penne alla bua de ‘orvi (seafood pasta named after the nearby bay Buca dei Corvi), spiedini di gamberoni (grilled shrimp kebabs), and cacciucco alla livornese (Livorno-style seafood stew). The main attraction, however, was the frittura, a mix of fried calamari and shrimp. The frittura was cooked in a massive frying pan that spanned 13 feet, held 160 gallons of oil, and fried 1000 portions an hour.

As the festival coincided with the year’s first heat wave, the beaches were packed with bronze sun-worshippers sporting miniscule bikinis and nearly naked toddlers learning to swim. Instead of joining the crowds, I decided to take a walk along the lungomare, the seaside promenade that winds around tiny coves from Caletta north to Castiglioncello’s promontory, Punta Righini.

As I approached Baia di Portovecchio, I was stunned to see a shipwrecked Lebanese vessel looming over the tufa rock beach. (The abandoned ship has since been demolished.) At Baia dei Tre Scogli, the promenade was briefly interrupted by the pineta, a cliff-side park lined with pine trees and home to a children’s playground, a movie theater, and tennis courts. At the north end of the park, I climbed down a set of stairs to Baia di Castiglioncello, arriving just in time to watch the embarkment of a festival-sponsored sailing regatta.

The final stretch of the lungomare circled halfway around the Punta Righini. Along the way, I passed La Baracchina where I had dined the night before. Located on a stretch of rocks jutting out into the sea, the restaurant gave the appearance of a casual beach shack. In the evening, however, the interior was enhanced by elegant yellow and white linens and the romantic glow of candlelight. Floor-to-ceiling windows encircled the dining area and let in a refreshing breeze. While tucking into a deliciously grilled sea bass, I had been mesmerized by the 180-degree view spanning the electric, pink-and-blue horizon and the darkening coastline punctuated by gleaming specks of light.

When the paved promenade ended, I continued exploring further—walking over and between boulders, following a makeshift path to its ultimate end at a privately owned beach. When I could go no further, I backtracked through the town, stopping to admire two of Castiglioncello’s landmarks: the Torre Medicea, built by the Medici family during the 16th century as a guard against the raids of Saracen pirates, and the Castello Pasquini, built centuries later by art critic Diego Martelli to house his entourage of writers, poets, and Impressionist painters. In recent years, the castle has provided a stage for numerous dance and theater performances, including ones by Pro Danza Italia.

Still craving some beach time, I headed back to my hotel for a swim. While Hotel Baia del Sorriso does not have an actual beach, they do provide a concrete landing with a ladder for easy access into the crystal clear water. As I leisurely swam from one end of Baia del Quercetano to the other, I felt that sense of sun-drenched elation return. Although I will always miss my rooftop tower and private beach at Villa Santa Lucia, I discovered that bliss could still be found in Castiglioncello.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Risotto con gli Asparagi (Risotto with Asparagus), in honor of Tavagnacco’s Festa degli Asparagi. Held over a span of three weekends from late April into early May, this festival celebrates the town’s locally grown white asparagus. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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For my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Pane di Zucca (Butternut Squash Bread), in honor of Venzone’s Festa della Zucca. This bread is one of numerous baked goods featured at the festival, celebrated in the medieval-walled town every October. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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On the day of Venzone’s Festa della Zucca, I made my way to the train station in Trieste with some degree of trepidation. The last time I had visited Venzone, I had been stranded during a transportation strike. At the end of an interminable afternoon of waiting at the station for trains that never showed up, I had managed to catch the last bus of the day back to Udine. Fortunately, on this particular day when thousands of people would be heading to Venzone, I learned that extra trains would be added to the schedule.

I changed trains in Udine and arrived in Venzone around 1:00pm. The streets within the medieval-walled village were packed beyond capacity. Townspeople dressed in medieval costumes roamed the streets. Walls of visitors blocked the narrow alleys, watching groups of jugglers and other performers. In addition to the usual vendors selling local craft items, a display of medieval weaponry attracted the attention of passersby. I was too short to see much over the crowds, so I weaved my way to the piazza where many varieties of squash were on display. Prizes would be given out later in the day for the largest, heaviest, longest, most beautiful, and most unusual.

I was especially drawn to the works of pumpkin art, including a crocodile carved from a long squash and a mosaic of Venzone’s cathedral using bits of multi-colored rind. My favorites were the intricate floral carvings. Mesmerized, I watched a couple of chefs demonstrate their skill on a gigantic pumpkin that must have weighed hundreds of pounds.

Anticipating plenty of street food, I hadn’t eaten any lunch beforehand. I ended up ignoring all the savory food stands, making a meal of nothing but dessert samples. I wanted to include in my cookbook Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy some type of torta di zucca (pumpkin cake), but I had yet to settle on a recipe. I hoped to finally come to a decision today at the festival.

Most desserts were being sold in bite-size samples for €1 apiece. I tried several pumpkin cakes, all variations on the same ordinary yellow cake, some with raisins, others plain. Most were slices of what was labeled plumcake di zucca, though one was baked in cupcake form. There were more tarts than cakes on offer—tiny, round crostate as well as rectangles with a lattice crust—and even more varieties of bread and focaccia. In addition, I saw pumpkin strudel, krapfen (cream-filled doughnuts), and biscotti.

As I was filling up on these desserts, I was tempted by a sign for frico con la zucca (cheese and squash pancake), but the line wrapped all the way around the building. I just didn’t have the patience to wait. I’ve never really been one for crowds. The noise, being jostled by strangers, feeling trapped amid the chaos—it always made me long to escape.

Venzone is a remarkably tiny town, and so, despite the throngs of visitors, I was able to navigate the entire festival in an hour and a half. On my way back to the train station on the other side of the highway, I passed a couple of kids selling homemade cakes, tarts, and cookies outside their home. For €0.50 they gave me two pieces of torta di zucca.

On the train ride back to Trieste, my pumpkin dilemma suddenly became crystal clear. Instead of a recipe for pumpkin cake, I would recreate a version of pane di zucca that I had seen in abundance at the festival: braided loaves of pumpkin bread with raisins and walnuts. Here is that recipe:

1 small butternut squash (about 1 to 1-1/2 pounds), halved lengthwise
1 package active dry yeast (2-1/4 teaspoons or 1/4 ounce)
1/4 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup warm water (100° to 110°F)
2 eggs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon salt
3-3/4 cups all-purpose or bread flour
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
• • •
1 egg, beaten to blend

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Place the squash halves on a baking sheet. Bake until tender, about 40–45 minutes. When the squash is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the seeds and membrane. Scoop out enough flesh to measure 1 cup. (Reserve any extra for another use.) Place in a small bowl; mash well. Cool to room temperature.

2. In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast and a pinch of sugar in 1/2 cup warm water. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes. Whisk in the remaining sugar, mashed squash, eggs, melted butter, and salt. Gradually stir in the flour until the dough forms a solid mass; stir in the raisins and walnuts. Using a mixer with a dough hook attachment, knead for 10 minutes. (It may be necessary to occasionally scrape the ball of dough off the hook.) Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface; knead briefly by hand. (The dough should be smooth and elastic.) Form the dough into a ball; cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise until doubled in size, about 1-1/2 hours.

3. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into six equal sections; roll each into a 12-inch-long rope. Form three ropes into a braid, tucking under the loose ends; repeat with the remaining three ropes. Place the braided loaves on a baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise for 30 minutes.

4. Preheat oven to 350°F, placing a pan filled with water on the bottom rack to create steam. Brush the two loaves with beaten egg. Bake until golden brown, about 30–35 minutes.

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Gnocchi di ZuccaFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Gnocchi di Zucca (Butternut Squash Gnocchi), in honor of this month’s Festa della Zucca. After having been cancelled for the past two years due to financial difficulties, the popular festival is returning to the town of Venzone on the weekend of October 24-25. In addition to a plethora of medieval-themed entertainment and activities, the town’s taverns and restaurants will be offering special tasting-menus, naturally featuring the celebrated pumpkin. Gnocchi di zucca will undoubtedly be one of the star dishes. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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