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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Torta Rigojanci (Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Cream Filling), a decadent Hungarian dessert perfect for the holidays. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Strucolo de Spinaze (Spinach-Filled Pasta Roll). Strucolo means “strudel” in the Triestine dialect, though restaurants may also refer to the dish as a “rotolo” or “rollata.” It is quite common throughout the Carso, often served with the pan sauces from a roasted or braised meat. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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This review was originally published in the September 2010 issue of Dream of Italy.

My fondest memory of Trieste will always be the day I first stepped into Pasticceria Penso. My timing seems predestined—I arrived on a blustery February morning just as a few dozen chocolate cakes were being pulled from the oven. I was immediately invited back into the cozy kitchen to watch their transformation into torta Sacher. The patriarch of the family-run bakery, Italo Stoppar, doused each layer of cake with Maraschino liqueur, then spread on a thick coat of apricot preserves. His son Antonello drizzled the top with dark chocolate ganache, which was soon followed by a garnish of chocolate sprinkles around the sides. This was just the first of many such mornings; the next year, I arranged for an apartment across the street, so that I could spend countless hours observing their techniques—and sampling every cream-stuffed, chocolate-glazed, fruit-filled morsel I could possibly devour.

The bakery was founded in 1920 by Trieste native Narciso Penso. When he died in 1971, the store was bought by one of his young employees, Italo Stoppar, who had begun working at Penso in the 1960s after a stint as a pastry chef on the cruise ship Lloyd Triestino.

Today, as Stoppar passes on the trade to his two sons, Lorenzo and Antonello, Pasticceria Penso is truly a family business. Brother-in-law Giovanni also helps out in the kitchen, while Italo’s wife, Rosanna, and Giovanni’s wife, Silvana, tend to customers. The mood is light, the kitchen functioning like a well-choreographed ballet, each person silently knowing everyone else’s next move. Italo’s role is both slicer and icer. He can usually be seen preparing the layered cakes and jelly rolls—slicing the cakes into layers, spreading them with buttercream frosting, whipped cream, ganache, or caramel, and finally slicing the sheet cakes into the proper rectangular serving size. His steady hand also garnishes birthday cakes with whipped cream flowers and flourishes, piping special messages in chocolate icing. Lorenzo is in charge of dough, filling tartlet pans with crostata crust and rolling puff pastry for strudel. Antonello handles a little of everything, from applying fruit garnishes to measuring and mixing cake batter, from sorting and grinding almonds for marzipan to melting chocolate for ganache.

True to Trieste’s multiethnic roots, Pasticceria Penso specializes in the pastries from Austria and Hungary, such as the ever-popular Sacher and Dobos cakes, as well as the ubiquitous local desserts presnitz, putizza, and pinza. In all, they make around thirty-five different types of pastries, cakes, and cookies, which are purchased by locals for both special anniversary celebrations and as a Sunday post-church ritual. The sturdier pastries are also shipped to clients throughout Europe, the United States, and Australia.

In a city that clings to heritage and tradition, Pasticceria Penso is surprisingly one of just a few surviving bakeries from its era. The quality of their product is surely what has kept Penso in business for so many years. They use only butter—unlike many modern bakeries that rely on margarine to prolong shelf life—and always top-quality ingredients, from the richest, darkest baking chocolate to the Bulgarian rose oil that flavors the pink fave dei morti cookies. Their key to success is perhaps identical to the inherent nature of Trieste itself—classic Viennese precision combined with pure Italian passion.

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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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This review was originally published in the September 2010 issue of Dream of Italy. Since then, following the passing of its owners, Bepi and Fides Salon, Ristorante Salon has closed its doors.

In the hilltop hamlet of Piano d’Arta, on a serene lane lined with shady trees and wisteria blossoms, Hotel Ristorante Salon has long been recognized for its innovative local cuisine. When Arta Terme’s thermal baths first opened in the late 19th century, the sudden influx of visitors spawned a proliferation of new restaurants and hotels in the valley. Salon was one of the originals, opened by Osvaldo Salon in 1910—first as an osteria and then expanding a few years later into a small pensione.

It was when Osvaldo passed the business down to his son Bepi, a budding mycologist, that the restaurant saw a significant transformation. In a tourist market where hotel menus typically featured “national” dishes such as spaghetti al ragù, lasagne, and tortellini in brodo, Bepi Salon pioneered the use of local ingredients and regional specialties. With his wife, Fides, commanding the kitchen, the pair introduced guests to such Carnian peasant fare as polenta, frittata, and goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew).

Through the decades, nearly every ingredient has been raised, cultivated, or hand-picked by the Salon family, or at least procured from a local source. From the garden are fresh greens and vegetables, which are displayed on a rolling cart so that waiter Matteo can individually prepare each guest’s salad tableside. Chickens, ducks, and guinea hens are raised in backyard pens, while wild game is obtained from local hunters. Trout, fresh from the valley’s river and streams, are purchased weekly and kept live in tanks until ready to cook.

It is Carnia’s abundance of wild edibles, though, that has contributed most to the restaurant’s fame. With the sprightly nature of a sbilf (mythical elves that are said to inhabit Carnia’s woodlands), Bepi Salon would rise at the crack of dawn for his daily trek through Carnia’s forests and meadows, returning just hours later bearing baskets of freshly picked mushrooms, herbs, and berries. Signora Fides, drawing inspiration from her mother’s family recipes, would then prepare such creations as mushroom soufflé, risotto with seasonal greens, and crêpes with mushrooms and truffles. Daughter Antonella, who has recently joined Fides in the kitchen, specializes in pastries and has a particular flair for incorporating wild berries into her desserts. In his old age, Bepi has had to relinquish his daily hike, but Ristorante Salon continues to feature those indigenous ingredients.

Among the regular menu listings at Salon, there is one standout that deserves mention—the cjarsòns. Many experts have judged these to be the best in existence, and after sampling numerous recipes throughout Friuli, I wholeheartedly concur. Filled with a complex blend of eighteen ingredients, Salon’s cjarsòns offer the perfect flavor combination of herbs and fruit, sweet and savory, salty and smoky. The pasta is delicate, never doughy, and the cinnamon-laced butter is enhanced by just the right amount of smoked ricotta cheese. So even if you are not drawn to Arta Terme for the thermal baths or one of the town’s gastronomic festivals, the cjarsòns at Ristorante Salon alone merit a special trip.

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This review was originally published in the September 2010 issue of Dream of Italy.

During my very first visit to Friuli, my friend Steno treated me to dinner at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. At that time, I had no familiarity with Friulian cuisine, but Steno wanted me to experience authentic regional cooking at its best. Ever since that first meal of cjarsòns (cinnamon-laced ravioli) and frico con patate (cheese and potato pancake), this unassuming, hole-in-the-wall restaurant has held a truly special place in my heart.

One of the oldest in Udine, this osteria is housed in a 17th-century building that once served as a stable and rest stop where horses and their drivers could stop for a meal and a respite. In the early 1900s, the stall was closed and converted into a section of the dining room. Today, Al Vecchio Stallo is run by the three Mancini brothers—Enzo, Maurizio, and Mario. Their objective is to preserve the traditional cuisine of Friuli, while giving it the elegance and style that modern tastes have come to expect. Their osteria exudes the warmth and hospitality so characteristic of Friulians, making guests feel just like family.

The dining room retains the atmosphere of an old-world tavern—wood-beamed ceilings, hardwood floors, red-checked tablecloths, and walls cluttered with colorful paintings, newspaper clippings, period photographs of Udine, and memorabilia of all sorts. In warm weather, diners can sit outside in the courtyard under a canopy of grapevines.

During my frequent solo travels, I usually found myself dining alone, and this is one restaurant where I always felt at home. The atmosphere is comfortable, the clientele an assortment of crusty, old men drinking at the bar, families with rambunctious toddlers, young couples sporting the latest fashion trends, and inevitably a particular signora at the same corner table every night.

The food is simple—what some might describe as peasant fare—but still tasty and completely satisfying. The prices are inexpensive, a huge bargain for such generous portions. Their stinco di maiale (braised pork shank) is gigantic, as are the sardines in sarde in saor. Chef Mario Mancini rotates his menu daily, some dishes being served only on certain days, such as savory, herb-filled cjarsòns on Sundays or creamy, salty baccalà (salt cod stew) on Fridays. For dessert, order the gubana (dried fruit and nut spiral cake), which comes soaked in grappa.

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While doing research for Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy, I practically ate my way through the region. Over the coming month, I will share with you three unforgettable dining spots: Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo, where I enjoyed my first Friulian dinner; Ristorante Salon, which produced the best cjarsòns I ever tasted; and my all-time favorite restaurant in Friuli, La Subida. Plus, we’ll visit Pasticceria Penso, one of Trieste’s oldest bakeries.

These reviews were originally published in the September 2010 issue of Dream of Italy. Since then, following the passing of its owners, Ristorante Salon has closed its doors.

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