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Posts Tagged ‘frico’

This was the day I had been looking forward to ever since my arrival in Trieste. My baker friends at Pasticceria Penso had invited me to watch them prepare one of Trieste’s specialties, putizza. Similar to the gubana found elsewhere in Friuli, putizza is a spiral cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate.

When I arrived bright and early at the bakery, however, brothers Antonello and Lorenzo informed me that the big event had been postponed. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed. As consolation, Antonello offered me a few treats: a curabiè (half-moon shortbread cookie dusted with powdered sugar; of Greek origin), a torta granatina (triangle of chocolate mousse), and a tiny marzipan peach.

I hung around the bakery for a bit, nibbling on the cookie, regrouping and trying to formulate another plan for the day. Finally, I decided to head to Gorizia. When I last visited this city on the Slovenian border, I was discouraged to find that many restaurants were closed, though I did eventually happen upon a tiny working man’s trattoria, where I enjoyed a hearty lunch of pasticcio and goulasch. Perhaps today I would discover a new place to eat.

When I got to the train station, I found the line at the ticket counter to be exceedingly long—apparently all of the automatic ticket machines were broken. By the time I finally arrived in Gorizia, it was nearly noon. I headed straight to the restaurant Ai Tre Soldi Goriziani. To my tremendous relief, it was open.

To start, I ordered the cestino di frico, a “bowl” of crispy, fried cheese filled with polenta and porcini mushrooms. Then, for my main course, I had the goulasch alla Goriziana. There were plenty of other local dishes on the menu and I had already eaten my fair share of goulasch on this trip, but I was too intrigued by the description “alla Goriziana” to turn it down. I was curious to learn whether the goulasch in Gorizia differed from that found in Trieste and the rest of Friuli. Upon tasting it, I determined that this Hungarian-style beef stew was fairly similar to one I had recently eaten in Trieste, in that it was prepared with tomatoes, an addition that, while not entirely traditional, is common throughout Friuli. To further assert the dish’s Friulian spirit, slices of grilled polenta were served alongside the paprika-laced stew.

Although I was quite full, I couldn’t resist ordering the palacinke alla marmellata for dessert. Palacinke may enfold any number of sweet fillings, from fruit preserves to ricotta cheese to pastry cream. I was pleased to find that these crêpes were filled with apricot jam—my favorite!

Here is my recipe for frico croccante, fried Montasio cheese in the shape of a basket. You may fill them with anything you like: polenta, mushrooms, fresh herbs and greens, prosciutto…the possibilities are endless! If Montasio stagionato is not available, you may substitute any aged cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano.

4 cups grated Montasio stagionato, divided

Preheat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle 1 cup Montasio cheese into the skillet, making a 6-inch circle. Cook until the edges begin to turn golden brown, about 5 minutes. (Watch carefully as the cooking time will vary depending on the precise temperature of the skillet.) Gently remove the frico from the pan and drape over an upside-down glass or bowl. (Allowing the frico to cool in the skillet for a couple seconds off the heat will help the spatula release the cheese from the pan.) The frico will harden in less than a minute, at which point it can be removed from its mold. Repeat with the remaining cheese.

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Forni Avoltri's Chiesetta di Sant'AntonioOn my first full day in Forni Avoltri, I would be visiting the Val Pesarina, the last of Carnia’s seven valleys on my itinerary. After an ample breakfast at Hotel Scarpone—yogurt topped with some cereal flakes, a slice of chocolate Bundt cake, a banana, and a glass of grapefruit juice—I set out to buy my bus ticket.

Since I had some time before my bus would arrive, I took a walk across the river. There I found a delightful little church, the Chiesetta di Sant’Antonio, its pink stucco walls standing out in contrast against the pale blue sky. On my walk back, a woman who was tending her garden called out the traditional Friulian greeting, “Mandi,” and I stopped to chat. Americans don’t typically venture as far north as Forni Avoltri, she told me. I must have been a real novelty, for she then called to her cousin, “Vieni a vedere l’americana!Come see the American! After I told them about my interest in Friulian cuisine, the women mentioned that there was to be a presentation on the cooking of Carnia at the Municipio that very evening.

At the bus stop moments later, I saw a flyer announcing the event, a book-signing for Cucina della Carnia by Melie Artico, a book I had coincidentally just purchased the previous week. While waiting, I asked an elderly lady which building was the town hall, and she pointed to it in the piazza behind the bus stop, also commenting that they never see any American visitors there. I told her about the book I was writing, and she said she hoped it would bring more tourists to their small town. Continuing our conversation on the bus, she asked the name of my book, so I presented her with my business card, which gave both my name and the book’s title, Flavors of Friuli. An old man sitting behind her piped up and asked for one too—as if I were someone of particular importance!

My bus arrived in Comeglians, where I had almost two hours to wait for my connecting bus to Prato Carnico. There was nothing to do or see in Comeglians, but I found a tiny church, Chiesa di San Nicolò, where I could sit and escape the harsh sun.

Prato CarnicoI arrived in Prato Carnico after a brief 15-minutes ride. The sight that caught my eye first was a home straight out of a fairy tale, with its tall, brick walls, green-tiled roof, immaculate white trim, dark green shutters, and colorful flower garden. (The green-tiled roof was a style characteristic of the nearby Val Degano, and this was the most charming example I had ever seen.)

Fortunately, the town’s one restaurant, Ristorante Ai Sette Nani, was open. Inside were several paintings of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a tribute to the restaurant’s name—one that seemed oddly appropriate after having just passed that storybook cottage with the green roof. There were only three menu items available—understandable, perhaps, given that it was a slow day and I was the only customer. I ordered the gnocchi di zucca but was dismayed when I glanced over at the bar area and saw the cook putting my plate into the microwave. Rustically misshapen—from the technique of dropping spoonfuls of dough directly into the cooking water—these pumpkin gnocchi had the potential to be delicious had they been fresh. As it stood, they were tough, doughy, and obviously reheated—a far cry from the delicate ones I had had several years earlier at Ristorante Al Fogolâr in Brazzacco.

One of the dishes on my “to-try” list that I hadn’t yet found on any menu was pendalons. I had read that this side dish of string beans and potatoes was native to the Val Pesarina, so I asked the waiter if they ever served it. They did, although he said that string beans were not currently in season. When I had finished my meal, I declined to order dessert; nevertheless, the waiter brought me a plate of crostoli—strips of fried dough dusted with powdered sugar, a traditional Carnevale treat.

As I was paying my bill at the counter, the cook (and apparently the owner/waiter’s mother) came out of the kitchen to explain to me how she prepares pendalons. Basically a potato purée mixed with string beans, hers are topped with a sauté of pancetta, onion, garlic, parsley, and chives. I took careful notes, so that I could recreate her dish at home.

Prato CarnicoAfter lunch, I took a walk to explore the tiny town. Along the highway, I passed the campanile pendente (leaning tower); its church was destroyed in an earthquake in 1700, and only the tower had been renovated. Then, finding a road leading down to the river, I crossed the bridge and wandered uphill through a residential area amid shady woods and winding roads.

Back on the highway later, I realized how far I had strayed from Prato Carnico. Instead of heading back, however, I took a gamble that I’d reach the next village, Pesariis, in time to catch my return bus. Speed walking most of the way, I made it with just five minutes to spare! Pesariis is known for its Museo dell’Orologeria, or “museum of watches.” I wished I had had time to visit, but the buses in this valley were so infrequent that I had no choice but to return to Forni Avoltri—via Comeglians again, where I had a full hour to wait for my connecting bus.

I left for dinner early, hoping that I would finish in time to attend that book-signing event. I had made a reservation at Ristorante Al Sole, located a short distance across the river. When I arrived, owner Tiziana Romanin immediately introduced me to Giacomo del Fabbro, president of the town’s Centro Culturale, who was hosting the event. He sat at my table for a few minutes before I ordered, as amused as everyone else seemed to be that an American was visiting their out-of-the-way village, and especially pleased that I was writing a book about Friulian cuisine.

Instead of handing me a menu, Tiziana suggested some of their specialties. I started with the cjarsòns, her aunt Lia’s recipe. Prepared with a potato-based dough, the pasta was filled with a mixture of fresh ricotta, raisins, crushed amaretti cookies, parsley, and cinnamon, and served with melted butter, cinnamon, and ricotta affumicata. To drink, she recommended a glass of Verduzzo, its honey and citrus notes pairing perfectly with the sweetness of the cjarsòns.

Next, I had the frico, which came with a slice of polenta, some saucy sautéed wild mushrooms, and a couple bites of veal stew. Though Tiziana had originally specified that the frico was going to be prepared con patate, what I was served actually contained no potatoes. Instead, it was a less common type called frico friabile: crunchy deep-fried cheese with the unique appearance of a porous sea sponge. I had tried this kind of frico once before, at a food festival in Arta Terme, and found it to be extremely greasy. Careful not to express any criticism, I discussed with Tiziana the various types of frico, and she eagerly brought me a thin wedge of frico made with potato and onion. This was the frico I had fell in love with several years earlier—crispy on the outside, soft and cheesy on the inside. To accompany this portion of my meal, Tiziana brought a glass of housemade red wine.

When I finished eating, I was in a hurry to pay my bill so that I could make it to the book-signing by 8:30pm. I tracked down Tiziana on my way to the front counter, and to my complete astonishment, she refused to let me pay for a thing!

Cucina della CarniaI arrived at the Municipio just in time. The room was already crowded with dozens of people seated in rows of folding chairs, but Signor del Fabbro spotted me and led me to an empty, reserved seat in front. During his opening speech, he introduced me as “a special guest from America.” The author was there, of course, along with a panel of scholars, but rather than focusing on the region’s cuisine, the discussion centered around the efforts of translating her cookbook into the Furlan language (each recipe is printed in both Italian and Furlan). I understood some of what was said, but not enough to fully hold my attention—my stomach was full, the room was uncomfortably toasty, and I was exhausted from my long walk earlier. When everyone stood up an hour later, I assumed the event was over (although, to my great embarrassment, I learned the next day that it had only been the intermission). I approached Melie Artico to autograph my copy of her book, and then, after not being able to find Signor del Fabbro to say goodbye, I just left.

During the lecture, I had noticed raindrops beginning to pelt the room’s large window. By the time I left, the skies had unleashed a full-blown thunderstorm. Not having had the foresight to carry my umbrella, I pulled my light jacket up over my head and sprinted the few blocks back to Hotel Scarpone.

pendalonsHere is the recipe for pendalons from Ristorante Ai Sette Nani:

12 ounces string beans, cut into 1-inch-long pieces
1-1/2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1. Place a steamer rack inside a large pot; fill with 1 inch of water. Place the string beans on the rack. Bring to a boil over high heat; cover and steam until just tender, about 10–15 minutes.

2. Place the potato slices in a large pot, along with 1 cup water; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 20–25 minutes, stirring occasionally as the water begins to evaporate. Remove from heat; coarsely mash the potatoes. Stir in the string beans and black pepper. Season to taste with salt.

Topping:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta, onion, and garlic; cook and stir until the onion softens and the pancetta is brown and crisp, about 7–8 minutes. Add the parsley and chives; cook and stir until wilted, about 1–2 minutes. Serve the topping over the potatoes.

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DolomitesAfter a tasty breakfast of yogurt and granola, I left my hotel, Albergo Centrale, to explore the town of Forni di Sopra. The sky was clear, except for a few pillowy clouds drifting past the craggy peaks in the distance. It was now late July, and though much of Europe was suffocating under a stifling heat wave, cool Alpine breezes served to temper that warmth here in the Carnia mountains.

Anxious to get going toward my destination for lunch—a restaurant aptly named Polenta e Frico—I decided to begin my hike to the hamlet of Nuoitas a bit early. The journey took me northwestward, along the highway toward the Veneto. Since I had so much extra time, I walked slowly, admiring the view of the Dolomites, a massive, gray ridge poking up behind the green, forested slopes. When I reached the turnoff to Nuoitas, I idled awhile at the small bridge over the Tagliamento River, merely a trickle of a creek at this crossing. By the time I reached the hotel and restaurant, it was only 11:00am, so I found a seat outside to wait, savoring the quietude and brisk freshness of the sunny mountain air.

fogolar at Polenta e FricoAt noon I went inside, passing an unlit traditional fogolâr (hearth) as I followed the waiter into the dining room. Naturally, I felt obliged to order the polenta and frico (cheese and potato pancake), but there were still quite a few choices, including full and half portions for each dish. I settled on a half portion of polenta, frico, and sausage, although the serving was so generous, I could only imagine how enormous the full portion would have been! On the plate sat a thin wedge of frico atop a slice of polenta, with a small sausage on the side—and in what many would consider overkill, more than half the plate was smothered in a gooey layer of melted cheese. In an attempt to bring an ounce of healthfulness to my meal, I also ordered an insalata mista, which consisted of some rather bitter greens, cabbage, and tomato.

Forni di Sopra's Chiesa di San FlorianoMy return to Forni di Sopra took only 50 minutes, as I was hiking back at a swifter pace. After a brief rest in my room, I set out again, this time in the opposite direction toward the hamlet of Cella and the Chiesa di San Floriano. Located alongside the Tagliamento River, this 15th-century church had been deemed a national monument, famous for its fresco cycle by Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo and altarpiece by Andrea Bellunello. The church was closed, however, so I hung around outside, thinking I might wait until it reopened at 5:00pm.

As in much of Carnia this time of year, the wide, gravelly riverbed of the Tagliamento was practically dry, with only a shallow stream flowing through its center. Someone had built a crossing out of rocks, and I watched as several young couples stepped carefully across the slick stones. On the far side was a park, where I could see a lake, fountain, and children’s playground. As the afternoon wore on, the sky began to darken, ominous rainclouds forming over the western mountain range. I took that as a sign I should head back. Tomorrow there would be plenty of time to visit the church.

For dinner, I returned to Osteria Al Tulat for more of Chef Rocky’s cooking. The tiny dining room was much busier than last time, one large table being occupied by what appeared to be the chef’s family. As previously agreed, I let Rocky take full charge of my meal. First, he sent out a taste of marinated eggplant, a recipe he said was from Puglia. Next, he fixed me a plate of cjarsòns—not a traditional version, he explained, but his own original rendition. The greenish dumplings were made with a spinach-and-potato dough, stuffed with a mixture of game meat and radicchio, and topped with melted butter and grated cheese. A little on the heavy side, they lacked the sweetness and complexity of flavors that cjarsòns typically offer. Already quite full but not wanting to turn down his baccalà, I requested just a half portion. The salt cod was prepared alla Vicentina: a soupy stew cooked with potatoes, onion, and milk.

While Rocky’s creations deviated slightly from the region’s more traditional recipes, the essence of the cuisine was still there, and I left looking forward to one more meal at Al Tulat the following evening.

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Udine's Osteria Al Vecchio StalloOne evening, more than a dozen years ago, I was invited to a life-changing dinner at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo in Udine, Italy. Read my story “A Culinary Tale of Seduction” at bloggingauthors.com.

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prosciutto di SaurisThe next morning, I was awakened by a rooster’s crow and the heavy patter of raindrops on my window. Outside, all of Sauris was bustling to prepare for the opening of the Festa del Prosciutto. At booths lining the streets all through town, vendors diligently unloaded their wares, tents having been erected to shelter them from the downpour. Lazily, I decided to spend a few more hours indoors, where it was dry and cozy. Just as I had done the other day, I took my laptop downstairs to the bar and spread my work out at a corner table. This time, however, the bar soon became a busy thoroughfare. With new faces continuously passing through—men or women pausing in their work to say a friendly ciao or mandi (the traditional Friulian greeting) to old acquaintances—the buzz of excitement was palpable.

Around noon, as if on cue, the rain began to taper off, and masses of visitors flooded the streets. After dropping my computer off in my room, I ventured outside, where there was already a long line forming at the nearest food tent. Its large menu, posted high above the register, featured a number of cheese plates, each one served with a slice of polenta. Among the listings were fresh and smoked ricotta, formaggio di malga, and formadi frant, but it was the top item, frico, that caught my eye. One of the dishes that had sparked my obsession with Friulian cooking, frico is essentially fried cheese—in this case, a pancake made with cheese and potatoes.

polentaI waited a full half hour in line to order my plate. As I neared the front of the line, I could see two steaming cauldrons of polenta, the cooks standing watch, calmly stirring the bubbling mixture with wooden paddles as large as oars. When ready, the polenta was poured onto a board, quickly cooling into a two-foot-wide mass, and then sliced with a long piece of string. Unlike the bright yellow polenta in my fridge at home, this was darker—more of a goldenrod or yellow ochre color—and speckled with flecks of brown.

Festa del ProsciuttoAs I got closer, I could also see the frico being prepared. To my disappointment, they had been pre-made, each one packaged in a zippered plastic bag, and were being reheated in a microwave oven. With thousands of people expected to descend on the festival over this two-weekend period, I should not have hoped for anything more—how could such a small team of cooks be expected to prepare that many frico to order?—but I was nevertheless dismayed to find the center cold and the usually crisp exterior soggy. As I stood off to the side eating (though not truly enjoying) my lunch, a trio of musicians marched down the hill and into the tent. To the peppy oom-pah-pah tunes of an accordion, tuba, and guitar, people around me began tapping their feet, swaying, and belting out lyrics as if in a Munich beer hall.

salamiAfter I had finished eating, I spent the next couple hours exploring the various booths and food stands. Naturally, there was plenty of prosciutto di Sauris to sample, as well as many other types of salumi produced at the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris. Then, there were the cheese vendors. One in particular specialized in frant, a cheese made by mixing other cheeses in various stages of maturation. I tasted two varieties; unlike the pungent, golden-hued frant I had tried in Cividale, these were white in color and had a tangy flavor reminiscent of sharp cheddar.

honeyAll sorts of artisanal products were for sale, vendors having driven from the far corners of Carnia to display their goods. Stacked high on tables were jars of homemade salsa piccante, a spicy purée of carrots and other vegetables; honey flavored by acacia, chestnut, and rhododendron; preserves made from apples and berries; and fruit syrups in such tantalizing flavors as dandelion, elderberry, and red currant. Bins overflowed with mushrooms, including fresh chanterelles and dried porcini, while pint-sized baskets were brimming with wild strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries. Of course, there was also Zahre Beer, a local brand produced right there in Sauris.

Carnian liqueursAs popular as beer seemed to be at the festival, grappa was a close second. Throughout the region, fruits such as apples, plums, and berries are used to make distilled wines and liqueurs. One such vendor offered me a taste of something in a Dixie cup, but his accent was so thick that I couldn’t understand exactly what it was. Bottles of Elisir di Mora and Elisir di Lampone (blackberry and raspberry liqueurs) stood on display, so I guessed it was one of those. Knowing the alcohol would be too strong for me (wine is more my speed), I tried to decline, but the gentleman was very insistent. I politely took a sip and then discreetly threw it in the trash once I was out of sight.

In addition to the food, there were dozens of craft tables at the festival—the same ones that I would start to recognize at each of the festivals I attended that summer—selling everything from soap and candles to dried flowers and woodcrafts. At one booth, I chanced to overhear someone speaking English. This was such a rarity in Friuli that I felt compelled to introduce myself. It was a young girl traveling with her aunt and grandfather, who was originally from Carnia. The family was spending summer vacation at their farm in Cleulis, a village just south of Timau.

crostataAs I wrapped up my tour of the festival, I found myself at the bottom of the hill in a tent filled with scrumptious-looking pastries. There had been other desserts available elsewhere—the ubiquitous gelato and some cups of fruit salad—but I knew immediately that I would have to buy something here. While I felt tempted by the apple strudel, what ultimately drew me in was the selection of crostate ai piccoli frutti. Topped with jam and a neatly woven lattice crust, these extra-large rectangles typified Carnia in a dessert: rustic, sweet but not overly sugary, and full of the wild berries so abundant in the area. While some were made with a cornmeal crust, I chose a regular one with crust much like a spiced shortbread cookie and topped with blackberry-blueberry jam.

When I emerged from the dessert tent, the crowds were growing even larger. Songs of two oompah bands, marching along different streets, fought for my ears’ attention as I made my way back to Hotel Morgenleit. Even though it was early July, the weather at this high mountain altitude had turned cool, and I was shivering without my jacket.

It was only 3:00pm, yet my room still hadn’t been made. I waited in the common room until the housekeeper was finished, then spent the rest of the afternoon writing in my room. I could still hear those competing oompah bands outside my window, but eventually I managed to tune them out and focus on my work.

Ristorante Alla PaceAt dinnertime, I went straight to Ristorante Alla Pace. Luckily, I had had the foresight to make a reservation, for the restaurant was nearly as jam-packed as the streets. I ordered the orzotto and an insalata mista. Prepared risotto-style, the barley dish was nicely al dente and soupy, topped with bits of crumbled sausage and sliced zucchini blossoms. For dessert, I couldn’t resist a slice of apple strudel—perhaps I was still reflecting on the one I had passed up earlier. With a filling of apples, raisins, walnuts, and pine nuts rolled up in paper-thin dough, the strudel was served warm and topped with powdered sugar, cinnamon, and a dollop of whipped cream.

As I hiked back up the hill toward my hotel, the street was still overflowing with people drinking beer from disposable yellow cups, the night air filled with music and laughter. Having read that there would be music and dancing until 1:00am, I crossed my fingers that my room would be quiet. I needed to get a good night’s sleep, for I had a demanding hike planned for the next day.

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frico con patateFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Frico con Patate (Montasio cheese and potato pancake) in honor of Luca Manfé, Friuli native and winner of MasterChef Season 4. Originally from Aviano in the province of Pordenone, Luca now resides in New York and aspires to open a restaurant there, which he would name Frico. Fittingly, the dish that propelled him into the MasterChef finals involved a frico made with Grana Padano. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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Chiesa di Sant'Osvaldo in Sauris di SottoThe day I had been waiting for was finally here! I would be leaving Udine for a three-week stay in the mountains of Carnia. I had hotel reservations in five of the major villages and had worked the timing to coincide with several local food festivals. First on my agenda was Sauris. In May 2004, Mike and I had spent the night there, at a quaint hotel in the hamlet of Lateis. This time I would be staying in Sauris di Sotto, where the Festa del Prosciutto was being held over a period of two weekends.

From Udine, I needed to take three buses to get to Sauris. With fairly tight connections in Tolmezzo and Ampezzo, I left early so that I would have plenty of options in case one of my buses was running late. I would soon learn that Friulian buses are some of the most reliable in Italy; even connections that seemed too close for comfort ended up working out, since the connecting bus often waited for the first bus to arrive before departing. The schedule was like a well-oiled machine.

The first leg of my journey went off without a hitch. I boarded the double-decker bus, sitting on the upper level for the best views, and precisely 50 minutes later arrived in Tolmezzo. There, I had a comfortable 10-minute wait for the next bus to Ampezzo. This bus was a regular-sized coach, and we were required to put our luggage in the compartments underneath. This was a nerve-racking proposition, because now I not only had to watch the street signs vigilantly to make sure I didn’t miss my stop, but I also had to make sure the driver didn’t pull away before letting me retrieve my suitcase.

Along the way to Ampezzo, the bus picked up two large groups of children. The first was a group of at least forty grade-school kids; the second group was slightly older, likely a sports team as they were carrying bags of athletic gear. The bus was now packed beyond capacity. Boys were crammed into the aisle, laughing and shouting at the top of their lungs, as kids of that age will do. I could barely see out the window and was growing even more nervous that I’d miss my stop.

Presently, we came upon yet a third group of kids, just as large as the first two. There was obviously no room left, so the driver got out to do some negotiating with the chaperones. The minutes ticked by, and I became worried that I’d miss my connection. Without a clue what was happening, I then watched as one group of kids began filing off the bus, while the waiting group piled on. Just as jam-packed as before, the bus finally took off. Luckily, I managed to ring the bell in time, for I was the only one getting off the bus in Ampezzo. All the kids on the bus, it turned out, were continuing on to Forni di Sopra.

Sauris di SottoRight on schedule, the bus to Sauris pulled up, and to my suprise, it was already full. On the bus were the same kids that had gotten off the earlier bus to make room for the group going to Forni di Sopra. The first driver had called the driver of the Sauris bus and asked him to make an out-of-the-way trip to pick up this group. While this was far more accommodating than I would expect from any driver in the U.S., it meant that I had to squeeze myself onto a standing-room-only bus with my suitcase. This bus didn’t have a luggage compartment underneath, but luckily there was a free seat behind the driver—no one could sit there, because there were cases of water bottles stacked in front of it, but it was just the place for my bag—and one of the children generously gave me his seat next to it. In addition to the kids that had been on my original bus, there was yet another group, even larger than the first three, going to Lateis.

The road to Sauris was long and steep, with nearly continuous hairpin turns the entire way. As we began the winding ascent, the schoolkids began getting carsick left and right. The chaperone nearest me handed out plastic bags and guided the sickest kids toward the front of the bus. One poor child threw up right next to me; he partially missed the bag and got vomit all over himself. It was a relief when we arrived at Lateis and the carsick group could get off.

Albergo MorgenleitIt was then just a short ride back down the hill from Lateis and up again toward Sauris di Sotto. Although I immediately recognized the town when we arrived, I still needed to ask someone on the street to point me in the direction of my hotel, Albergo Morgenleit. My room there turned out to be fairly spacious and comfortable, with a large bed and a desk where I could work. I was to stay here five nights and would have plenty of extra time for writing. The only view was through a couple of small windows, looking out toward the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris. When I checked in, the hotel was fully booked with yet another group of kids; I was told they were leaving in a few days and that I could move to a terrace room across the hall if I wanted. Looking back, I wish I had taken the hotel up on its offer, but once I got settled in, I felt it was a chore to have to move.

After unpacking my bags and organizing my notes on Sauris, I headed out to find some lunch. The mountain air was cool and a little breezy—much nicer than I had expected and a huge relief to get away from the sweltering heat of Udine. The pace of life seemed much more tranquil, too, despite the incessant hammering as tents for the weekend’s festival were being erected.

There were only two restaurants on my list for Sauris di Sotto, and since one of them was closed that day, I ended up at Ristorante Kursaal, where chef Daniele Cortiula—protégé of the late Carnian chef Gianni Cosetti—had made it his mission to continue the legacy of Carnian cuisine. The restaurant was split into two levels, with a casual osteria downstairs and a more elegant dining room with a prix fixe menu upstairs. Both rooms were empty, and so I seated myself at a table downstairs.

I began my meal with the cialzòns (alternate spellings include cjarsòns and cjalsòns), which were filled with fresh ricotta, raisins, and herbs. Drowning in a pool of melted butter, they were topped not with the usual ricotta affumicata but with shavings of aged Montasio cheese.

It was here that I began to question the pronunciation of this dish. Until this point, I had always heard it pronounced with an English “ch” sound, as in chawl-ZOHNZ or chahr-ZOHNZ. At Kursaal, however, the waitress pronounced the word with a hard “k”: kee-awl-ZOHNZ. Over the next several years, I continued to be perplexed over the true pronunciation of the word, having heard as many disparate pronunciations as there are spellings. I finally concluded that the true Furlan pronunciation begins with a “k” sound, despite several variations in endings (-ZOHNZ; -CHOHNZ; -SHOHNZ), and that the “ch” variation that I had previously heard may in fact be simply an Italianization; since there is no letter “j” in the Italian alphabet, it may be that the letters “cja” were spoken as “cia,” which are pronounced in English as cha.

Next, I ordered the frico, which was quite possibly the best I had ever had. Served with grilled polenta, the frico was formed into a six-inch pancake. The outside was crisp and golden, while the inside had the velvety softness of mashed potatoes, with just enough cheese to melt in your mouth but not so much that it oozed grease. Cortiula also tossed bits of diced speck into the mix for added flavor.

For dessert, I indulged in a slice of torta di pere e noci: a light, crumbly square of yellow cake, baked with chopped walnuts and a slice of pear set into the top. The cake was served with a sprinkle of powdered sugar and a drizzle of chocolate sauce.

After lunch, I mustered enough courage to go meet Cortiula. I was a tad nervous, for I had made an embarrassing blunder in an email to him earlier that year. I was writing to inform him of my cookbook project and upcoming visit; somehow I got my vowels mixed up and addressed him as the female “Daniela” rather than the male “Daniele.” I made no mention of my error and couldn’t tell if he remembered, but still I felt that his reception was a bit chilly. Nevertheless, he agreed to prepare a couple of Carnian dishes for me that evening.

Prosciuttificio Wolf SaurisIn the meantime, I took a long stroll to explore the village. First, I headed to the Prosciuttificio Wolf Sauris, a barn-like factory that has been producing its special brand of smoked prosciutto since 1862. A tour bus sat outside waiting for a group of older folk to finish their guided visit. Upon inquiring, I was told that they only offer guided tours to large groups; however, there was a group scheduled for Friday at 3:30pm, and I was invited to tag along.

Next, I discovered the Tessitura Artigiana di Sauris, a shop specializing in traditional Carnian textiles. I selected and purchased four handwoven placemats—which I would later use as props when photographing my recipes—and then paid a visit to the onion-domed Chiesa di Sant’Osvaldo.

At the tourist office, I saw a flyer advertising an excursion to two local malghe, or “dairy farms,” high up in the mountains above Sauris di Sopra. The hike was scheduled for Saturday and would take six hours round-trip, with the closest malga being about an hour and a half away. I wasn’t sure I’d be up for a six-hour hike, but I thought perhaps, one of these days, I could undertake the hike to the first malga on my own.

For dinner, I returned to Ristorante Kursaal, which was still surprisingly empty. The first dish Cortiula prepared for me was toç in braide: a bowl of soupy polenta topped with a sauce of thinned ricotta, a pile of sautéed mushrooms, and a drizzle of toasted cornmeal in browned butter. Next came a plate of blècs: buckwheat pasta cut into triangles and topped with sautéed mushrooms and grated Montasio. Depending on the season, the thick, chewy pasta can be served with any number of toppings, from meat to vegetables to cheese.

As I ate, the waitresses intermittently passed through the dining room but seemed to avoid making eye contact with me. All of our exchanges were short and terse, even though I expressed a genuine interest in the preparation of the two dishes. Were the women merely tired and bored, or were they being intentionally brusque? This was quite unlike my typical experience here; most of the time, I had found Friulians to be exceptionally gracious. While the meal more than satisfied my hunger—it helped me to further appreciate the region’s history by experiencing its traditional cucina povera (cooking of the poor)—I was beginning to feel a dissatisfaction creep up on me. With the staff treating me so coldly and the room still devoid of other diners, I felt lonelier than I had in many years.

Back at Hotel Morgenleit, instead of retiring directly to my room as usual, I wandered around the halls and stumbled by chance upon a game room. While browsing the bookshelves—being particularly intrigued by a cookbook entitled Cucina & Vini Friulani nel Mondo—the room was suddenly stormed by a couple dozen screaming young boys. Although I yearned for company, this was not the company I desired, so I borrowed the book and fled to my room for the night.

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Montasio cheeseI had planned on an excursion to Lignano Sabbiadoro, but when I awoke, it was pouring rain—not ideal for a day at the beach. This was probably for the best, I concluded; the town was hosting the European Youth Olympic Festival that week, and it might be wise to avoid the crowds. Instead, I spent a couple hours doing errands in downtown Udine. I took some photos at my favorite cheese shop, La Baita, and then made the rounds of the city’s bakeries, inquiring about some of the desserts that I still had questions about.

Perhaps the greatest success of my morning was at the TIM store, where I needed to resolve once and for all the problems I’d been having with my cell phone. On my most recent trip to Italy—two weeks in Florence and Venice the past December with my mom—I was inexplicably unable to recharge my TIM card. I had tried several branches in both cities, and after hours of waiting in line and much frustration, my account still appeared to be frozen. While I could place and receive calls on my remaining credit, I knew the credit would eventually run out.

Here, in Udine, I was expecting to have to purchase a brand new TIM card. I had nearly completed the process of buying one, when I explained the problem I had had in December. The guy at the counter took a look at the old card; at first it read zero credit, but when he checked the computer, it showed the correct amount of 25 euros. I asked to add 5 euros to it, just to prove that it wouldn’t work—but to my astonishment, it did work this time! To this day, I still don’t know what the problem had been on my previous trip.

When I left the TIM store, rain was coming down in torrents. I stopped by Hotel Principe to pick up my jacket and then crossed the street to the train station. Plan B was to take the train to Codroipo and, hopefully, find my way to Villa Manin, which had been closed when Mike and I paid a visit the previous year. The villa is located in the town of Passariano, about 3 km outside Codroipo. There were supposed to be three buses per day running between the two towns, and with any luck, I’d be able to catch one of them.

First, though, I needed to find some lunch, and I had one restaurant in mind: Osteria Alle Risorgive. Thanks to the street maps that I had printed off the Internet, I was able to find my destination with no problem—and it was open! There was no menu posted outside, but a chalkboard in the entrance advertised salame all’aceto and frico. The waiter gave me a verbal run-down of the daily pastas, but I requested merely those two dishes from the chalkboard. Glancing at my petite figure, he politely warned me that the frico was grande, but I was not going to be intimidated by a large frico.

As I sat waiting for my meal to arrive, I surveyed the restaurant’s rustic interior: white stucco walls, arched doorways, dark wooden ceiling beams, and red-checkered tablecloths. A fogolâr (fireplace) occupied one corner, pots and cooking utensils of iron and copper hanging over the hearth. Around the dining room was an assortment of collectible items, including hand-carved wooden bowls, an old-fashioned wooden radio, and various straw baskets. Outside, the rain was beginning to taper off, though I could still hear the low rumble of thunder in the distance.

My salame all’aceto arrived first: two slices of cured sausage sautéed in vinegar and served atop two squares of crispy, grilled polenta. The frico came next—a better description would have been grandissimo! It was indeed huge, perhaps a pound or more of melted cheese, golden and crisp on the outside, oozing with grease on the inside, and no indication of potato whatsoever, which was very unusual for frico served in the style of a thick pancake like this. Typically, the cheese-only frico is lacy, wafer-thin, and crisp in its entirety (or else porous like a crunchy sea sponge, in the case of the less common frico friabile). I put forth a valiant effort but ultimately made only a dent in the mound of cheese—and even so, ended up with a monster of a stomachache later that afternoon!

On my way to the restaurant, I had not noticed any bus stops, but after my fat-filled lunch, I felt a nice, long walk would help burn off some calories. A bicycle/pedestrian path ran alongside the road, which was lined with nothing but cornfields. Although the rain had stopped completely by now, the air was moist and heavy, the sky filled with dark gray clouds.

Villa ManinThe walk took just over a half hour from Alle Risorgive. Once I reached Villa Manin, I stopped first at the tourist office (at that time, the headquarters of the Agenzia Turismo FVG was located in Piazza Manin) to pick up some brochures. I had already collected so many that I would need to leave them at Hotel Principe until my return in three weeks, when I would ultimately mail them home.

This time Villa Manin was open, and while I knew that the palace was now a contemporary art museum with rotating special exhibits, deep down I somehow still expected a royal palace like Castello di Miramare. The only bit of true baroque grandeur was the Camera di Napoleone—the room Napoleon Bonaparte occupied during his brief stay at Villa Manin—complete with diminutive bed and furnishings. Throughout the rest of the palace, walls decorated in typical 17th-century trompe l’oeil made a sharp contrast to the expressionist and postmodernist works of art on display. It was an odd juxtaposition, to say the least.

Osteria Al Vecchio StalloBack in Udine that evening, I went straight to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo for dinner. Even though the dining room was empty—save for the elderly signora who was back in her usual corner spot—each table bore a placeholder marked Riservato. Since the reservations were never for any earlier than 8:00pm, and because the staff knew quite well by this point that I wasn’t one to linger over my meals, I was seated at a reserved table. I ordered the braciola di maiale (pork chop) with a side of zucchini trifolati (sautéed zucchini). The pork chop was gigantic, though dangerously pink in parts and so tough that I nearly sprained a finger trying to cut into it. The meal was redeemed, however, by the baby zucchini, which were thinly sliced and deliciously savory.

As I was leaving, I finally got to meet the mysterious third Mancini brother. So far, I had become well acquainted with two of the brothers: Mario (the chef) and Maurizio (who ran the cash register). I knew there was a third brother named Enzo, but I had never seen him until this evening, when he came to dine with his family. Enzo explained that the three brothers had owned Al Vecchio Stallo for about twenty years, although the restaurant’s history dated back more than a century. The brothers were excited to announce that a book was currently being published about the restaurant, and I was pleased to learn that it would be available in time for my fall trip, planned for October 2005.

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Radic di montThe next morning it was apparent that I was no longer the only guest at Hotel Gortani. The breakfast room was crowded with visitors who had come for the Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna e dei Funghi di Primavera. After a sumptuous breakfast of prosciutto, cheese, and two types of cake—raisin brioche and chocolate-marbled pound cake (called kugelhupf in German but referred to as “plumcake” by many Italians)—I returned to Piano d’Arta.

In both directions, along the wisteria-lined road, tables were being set up to display all sorts of arts and crafts: hand-knit scarves, animal figures carved from the volcanic rock of Mt. Etna, copper kitchen utensils, and lavender-scented soap and potpourri. Wildflowers seemed to be a particularly common theme, appearing on hand-painted ceramic plates, beaded ornaments, and wooden plaques for the home.

morel mushroomsTucked 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, was an avid mycologist himself and made daily excursions into the forests to collect mushrooms, herbs, and berries for his wife to serve in their restaurant.

frico friabileAround noon, as the sun peeked out from behind a patch of ominous rain clouds and a band struck up the tune “New York, New York,” I embarked upon a tasting spree of Friulian specialties. Bypassing a grill station loaded with ribs and sausages, I headed first for the frico cart. Frico was one of the first Friulian dishes I had tried several years earlier and may be given credit for sparking my interest in this region’s cuisine. There are two main varieties—crispy fried cheese wafers often served in the shape of a bowl and pancakes prepared with cheese and potatoes—but here in Piano d’Arta, I was introduced to yet another type called frico friabile. Instead of frying the cheese in a skillet, the cook 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. Unfortunately, while I simply adore frico made with potatoes, this version dripped with grease and tasted strongly of cooking oil.

frittelleI 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 this was not possible 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.

To conclude my feast, I ordered a plate of cjarsòns—half-moon-shaped ravioli filled with herbs, raisins, and chocolate and served with melted butter, sugar, cinnamon, and ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta cheese). It was my guess that, given the quantity served to visitors that day, the cjarsòns were not homemade but produced in the small Latteria Cjarsòns factory at the bottom of the hill.

Fully sated, I spent the afternoon exploring the environs. Down the hill and across the Bût River, a Japanese-style pagoda housed the Terme di Arta thermal baths and spa. The spa building was closed for renovation, but I lingered on the bridge, listening to the roar of the currents and enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face.

ZuglioA 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. Before heading back I rested for awhile on a bench overlooking the river. The valley was abloom with purple, red, yellow, and white wildflowers and surrounded by forested mountains. A few snowy peaks were visible in the distance. While I sat there, a dozen cars pulled up and parked at the side of the road; as the families got out, I watched them don backpacks and head up the path toward the hilltop church of San Pietro.

When I returned to my hotel, all was quiet. I had hoped to have dinner at another of the hotels offering a tasting menu that weekend (the Hotel Park Oasi), but when I tried to make a reservation, I was declined on account of my dining solo. So, I decided to eat in my own hotel—after all, when I had returned the previous night after my feast at Hotel Gardel, the restaurant at Hotel Gortani was absolutely packed. Apparently, however, the hordes of tourists that had descended for the festival had only stayed one night, and so I was once again the only guest.

The restaurant offered no menu and no choices—not only was I alone in the dining room but I was completely at the mercy of the cook. Dinner started with a bowl of tagliolini in a bland cream sauce with what appeared to be bits of processed fish. This was followed by a grilled chicken cutlet, entirely devoid of seasoning and served with roasted potatoes. The mixed green salad was, I’m sorry to say, the only redeeming part of the meal.

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Welcome to my blog! One of the most difficult aspects of writing my book Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy was choosing which pieces to include. Obviously, there were many, many details of my travels (specific meals, days spent sightseeing, characters I met along the way) that never made it into the book. Well, I’ve decided to share these personal stories with you now.

I’ll begin with my story of how it all began. I was a full-time Pilates instructor, preparing to self-publish my first book, Balance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates. Having been obsessed with Italy for as long as I can remember, I was always looking for an excuse to travel there. So when it occurred to me that the Gymnastik Balls I had been using for the exercises in my book were made in Italy, I immediately contacted the company and set up a meeting with the owner. It just so happened that the company, called Ledragomma, was located in a small town outside Udine, right in the heart of Friuli.

So it was in February 2000 that I made that first trip to Friuli. I flew into Milan’s Malpensa airport and took a train the next morning to Udine. The owner of Ledragomma, Steno Dondè, had recommended a hotel on the outskirts of town called Hotel President. It was quite adequate in all aspects except for the fact that it was so far away from the city’s center—and any decent restaurants. But that didn’t matter so much at the time—I was just thrilled because it was the first time I had splurged on a room with its own bathroom!

Steno (or Signor Dondè, as I called him then) picked me up the following morning and drove me to the Ledragomma factory in Osoppo where I watched vats of oily, green liquid transform into large, rubber balls. A giant cage held hundreds of variously colored balls piled high to the ceiling. We had our business meeting, formal and brief, getting by with a mix of both Italian and English. The outcome of the meeting was an arrangement with their U.S. distributor to help subsidize the first printing of my book (it’s now in its third printing) in exchange for displaying their logo on the cover.

Italians seem to have a very personal approach when it comes to doing business, and so after our meeting, Steno invited me to join him for lunch. He drove me to a town called San Daniele del Friuli, known for its world-famous prosciutto di San Daniele. We stopped at a small place called Prosciutto Al Paradiso and enjoyed a huge platter of prosciutto, accompanied by bread and olives and glasses of Merlot.

As we talked, Steno discovered that cooking was one of my favorite hobbies and that I was especially interested in Italian food. When I had described the uninspiring plate of spaghetti al ragù that I had endured at Pizzeria Da Carmine the previous evening, he determined to introduce me to true Friulian cuisine. We made plans to meet later that week for dinner. Although I didn’t know it yet, this meal would turn out to be a turning point in my life.

The restaurant Steno took me to is one of the oldest in Udine, called Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. Occupying a 17th-century building that used to be a horse stable, the osteria has been serving food for at least a hundred years. It was a rainy winter evening, and the osteria was packed with people coming in out of the cold. After we were seated at a rustic table covered in a red-checked cloth, I let Steno order for me.

I began with cialcions (also spelled cjalsòns or cjarzòns), a filled pasta from the Carnia mountains in northern Friuli. While there are countless recipes for cialcions, most are either sweet or a combination of sweet and savory. The version at Al Vecchio Stallo was on the savory side, filled with herbs and providing only a hint of sweetness from the cinnamon and butter. They were topped with ricotta affumicata, a smoked ricotta cheese that is one of Friuli’s specialties.

Next, I had frico con polenta, a fried cheese and potato pancake served with polenta. Cut from a skillet-sized pancake, the wedge of frico was crispy on the outside and oozing with melted cheese and mashed potato goodness on the inside. Being a sucker for melted cheese, I was instantly captivated.

The next dish, however, was not love-at-first-bite. As a side dish, or contorno, Steno ordered one of his favorite comfort foods—brovada. At the time my limited language skills didn’t allow me to understand what I was eating, but it was sour and vinegary and I didn’t care for it at all. Later, when I was able to consult my dictionary, I learned that the dish was made of turnips. Further research taught me how they were fermented for a month in the residue leftover from pressing grapes for wine. I’ve since developed a bit more of an appreciation for brovada, although it’s not something I’d go out of my way to eat.

Our meal ended with sorbetto di limone—a rather runny lemon sorbet in a glass that I suspected was spiked with something along the lines of grappa. (Looking back, I believe it may have been the Venetian cocktail sgroppino, or at least a variation on it.) And so concluded my first Friulian dinner. It would be another four years before I would start working on Flavors of Friuli, but the seeds were planted and I was hooked.

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