Posts Tagged ‘pasta’

Gianna Bellina ModottiAround mid-afternoon on the following day, I took a long walk from my hotel to meet Gianna Bellina Modotti, who ran a cooking school out of her home on Via Palmanova. I fell in love with the elderly woman at first sight. She was tiny, with curly, white hair, sparkling eyes, and a warm smile that lit up the room. Immediately, I wanted to adopt her as my nonna.

Signora Modotti had invited me to attend a cooking class that afternoon as her guest. I was disappointed that the subject was not going to be Friulian cuisine, which was naturally her specialty. Instead, the famous Sorelle Simili were in town teaching a course on pizza and pasta. The twin sisters, Margherita and Valeria, grew up in Bologna, working at the family bakery and later opening their own cooking school. In addition, they traveled throughout Italy teaching cooking courses and were the authors of several popular cookbooks.

Sorelle SimiliThe sisters, also elderly, were slender, wiry, and a bit hunched over from decades of kneading bread. The pair began the lesson by demonstrating their technique for making pizza dough, and with Signora Modotti and her daughter assisting, they turned out several different kinds in a matter of hours: tomato and mozzarella, zucchini and stracchino (a soft, creamy cheese with a slight tang, similar to cream cheese), potato and stracchino, and apple and stracchino. The apple pizza was the most unusual of the bunch; sprinkled with sugar and a splash of rum, it would definitely qualify as a dessert.

Sorelle SimiliIn addition, the sisters prepared a calzone-like focaccia farcita all scarola that was stuffed with escarole, raisins, capers, pine nuts, olives, and anchovies, as well as a pasta dish from their native Emilia-Romagna, roselline romagnole. For the latter, the sisters demonstrated their herculean strength by rolling the pasta dough by hand using a rolling pin as long as a broom handle. I was amazed at how paper-thin they were able to roll the dough without using a machine! The dough was cut into rectangles and layered with slices of prosciutto cotto (cooked ham), mortadella, and Fontina. After a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano, these were rolled up jellyroll-style and sliced in half. Cuts were made in one end of each roll to give it the appearance of a flower. Finally, the little “roses” were baked in a béchamel sauce laced with a little tomato paste.

By the end of the five-hour class, my brain was exhausted from struggling to follow the instructors’ Italian, and I was perspiring from the heat of Signora Modotti’s basement kitchen. Even though it was past my dinnertime, I was quite sated from all of the delicious pizza and pasta samples. Nevertheless, I stopped on my way back to Hotel Principe to indulge in a refreshing gelato di limone.

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Following another satisfying breakfast buffet at Udine’s Hotel Principe, I set out for the bus station, conveniently located just a few steps down the street, and caught an early bus to San Daniele del Friuli. After we passed a string of roadside factories in suburban Udine, the views became more scenic, at least in a barren, wintry sort of way. An outline of towering, rocky mountains—barely visible through the haze—served as a backdrop to russet-gray fields and distant church spires. Hilltop towns speckled the landscape, and homes with cream-colored stucco walls and red-tiled roofs lined the narrow streets as we rode through. The countryside seemed to echo the muted colors of an early Renaissance painting: rust red, terracotta orange, polenta yellow, olive green, peachy pink, and chocolate brown.

Forty minutes later, the bus climbed its final hill and pulled into San Daniele’s Piazza IV Novembre. From there I followed the main road upward until I reached Piazza del Duomo. It was Christmastime, and a giant tree graced the center of the square. Angels adorned the façade of the pristine, white Duomo di San Michele Arcangelo, which had been renovated in the Palladian style during the 18th century. Inside were some fresco models that the artist Tiepolo designed (although never painted) for the Chiesa della Fratta.

Circling behind the Duomo and its campanile, I followed a sign to the castello and ended up in a shady park on the site of a former medieval (and possibly late Roman) fortress. The Chiesa di San Daniele in Castello contains some archeological excavations of the castle, but that morning the church was closed, so I sat for awhile on a bench overlooking the countryside, everything still gray in the morning mist.

From the park, stairs led down the hillside, but instead I backtracked and found my way to the Portone di Tramontana—better known as Il Portonàt. Built in 1579 by Palladio, it is the only gateway into this once fortified town that remains undamaged. From there I visited my favorite church in San Daniele, Chiesa di Sant’Antonio Abate. A rose window shone from the Venetian Gothic façade, and the inside walls and ceiling were painted with vividly colored frescoes by Pellegrino da San Daniele.

It was getting close to lunchtime, so I headed toward my restaurant of choice, Ristorante Alle Vecchie Carceri. Having perused the menu outside the door, I was, as usual, enticed by the offering of cjalsòns. Inside, the simple yet sophisticated décor—white damask linens and emerald green accents throughout—belied the building’s history as an old Austrian prison.

A complimentary appetizer consisted of a small mound of polenta topped by two wafers of frico croccante (Montasio cheese crisps), a pile of ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta cheese), and a sprinkling of poppy seeds. Next, I ordered a plate of mixed salumi, which included prosciutto di San Daniele, several types of salami, and an assortment of pickled vegetables served over baby spinach. I must mention the bread basket, which was one of the most varied and interesting I’ve ever experienced. Everything was freshly baked: soft rosemary rolls, a whole wheat twist with walnuts and currants, an herb roll flecked with green, and thick homemade grissini.

Their cjalsòns were the best I had tasted up to that point. (My absolute favorite cjalsòns are from Ristorante Salon in Arta Terme!) These were round and plump, shaped rather like a flying saucer. The filling was made with mashed potatoes, caramelized onion, and raisins. The cjalsòns were served in a generous pool of melted butter and topped with cinnamon, sugar, and ricotta affumicata. Cinnamon sticks and piles of raisins garnished the plate.

For dessert, I ordered the “sformato al cioccolato con cuore fondente e composta al pompelmo rosa.” Inside this mini chocolate cake was a molten center that oozed out when pricked with my fork. The cake was served with two thin wafer cookies, a dollop of whipped cream, a sauce of bitter pink grapefruit peel, some red currants, and a dusting of cocoa and powdered sugar. Like all their presentations, this plate looked as artfully designed as it was delicious—a perfect end to my first day in San Daniele!

Here is my version of the cjalsòns from Ristorante Alle Vecchie Carceri, recreated from the recipe given to me by owner Rosanna Clochiatti:

Pasta Dough:
1 cup semolina flour
1/4 cup boiling water, plus extra as needed
1 tablespoon olive oil

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, boiling water, and olive oil. Transfer the dough to a clean surface; knead until the flour is fully incorporated and the mixture becomes smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. (If the dough is too dry or crumbly, lightly moisten your fingers with water during kneading until you reach the desired texture.) Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 30 minutes.

1/4 cup raisins
12 ounces white potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel
1/4 teaspoon salt

1. Place the raisins in a small bowl and cover with water. Let soak for 30 minutes; drain. Place the potatoes in a medium pot filled with water; bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes and place in a medium bowl; mash well. Cool to room temperature.

2. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion; cook and stir until golden brown and caramelized, about 30–40 minutes. Purée the onion in a food processor; stir into the mashed potatoes.

3. Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the parsley; cook and stir until wilted and beginning to brown, about 2 minutes. Stir into the potato mixture, along with the drained raisins, sugar, lemon peel, and salt. Refrigerate for 1 hour, or until ready to use.

To prepare:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup grated ricotta affumicata
Ground cinnamon
Raisins (optional)
Cinnamon sticks (optional)

1. Working in batches, feed the dough through the rollers of a pasta machine until very thin (setting #7 on most machines). Cut out 3-inch circles from the dough. Place 1 heaping tablespoon filling on half the circles. Moisten the edges with water; cover each with another circle of dough, sealing the edges tightly.

2. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Working in batches, place the cjalsòns in the water; cook until they rise to the surface, about 1–2 minutes. Drain.

3. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat; remove from heat. Add the cjalsòns and toss to coat with butter. Divide the cjalsòns among serving plates; drizzle with any excess butter from the skillet. Top with grated ricotta affumicata; sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Garnish with extra raisins and cinnamon sticks, if desired.

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Served in nearly every restaurant throughout northern Friuli, cjalsòns are one of the region’s best-loved specialties. The word derives from the same root as the calzone from Naples, and the numerous spelling variations include “cjalcions” and “cjarzòns.” Pronunciation also varies with location. The dish has been mentioned in documents as far back as medieval times, but due to the involved preparation and sometimes lengthy ingredient list, cjalsòns were originally prepared only for Easter celebrations.

Cjalsòns are a type of stuffed pasta with a multitude of possible fillings. In every lush valley of the Carnia mountains, each cook prepares his or her own unique recipe, merging herbs and spices and creating a distinct shape and form for the dough. While there are generally two varieties—sweet and savory—the flavors often tend to overlap. The sweet cjalsòns may be filled with apples, pears, crushed biscotti, dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, and spices, but often contain savory herbs such as parsley, basil, and marjoram. Likewise, the savory cjalsòns have undertones of sweetness, combining such unlikely ingredients as potatoes, raisins, onions, cocoa, spinach, jam, and cheese. Both sweet and savory cjalsòns are served in melted butter and are typically topped with smoked ricotta cheese (ricotta affumicata) and a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon.

To continue my cjalsòns-tasting adventure, I visited a couple more of Udine’s restaurants. The first, Osteria con Cucina Sbarco dei Pirati (“pirate’s landing”), was a little disappointing. I was intrigued by the overly-festooned exterior, particularly the hand-written signs that were scattered all over the front windows and listed the specials of the day. Inside, the dining room was decked out like a pirate ship with random scraps of loot hiding in every nook and cranny. Life preservers hung from the walls, pots and pans blanketed the ceiling, and the large, wooden tables were covered with red-checked paper. Accordion music blared from a speaker, and the air was dark and smoky. (This was before the 2005 law that banned smoking in all bars and restaurants.)

Without even waiting for a menu, I ordered the cjalsòns, which were prominently advertised in the window. They came unadorned—no cheese, no cinnamon, no sugar—just six half-moon-shaped ravioli in a pool of melted butter. Although I will never know for sure, I suspected they may have been frozen and prepackaged. There is a company in Carnia that manufactures frozen cjalsòns, and while they are respectable enough for frozen ravioli, they just can’t compare to fresh, homemade ones. I left Sbarco dei Pirati promptly after my meager meal and headed directly to Gelateria dell’Orso to cheer myself up with a cup of cioccolato and stracciatella gelato.

The next day, Ristorante Al Vapore offered a sweeter cjalsòns experience. Located off a nearly hidden alley, the restaurant was completely empty when I arrived at 7:00pm. I’m used to being one of the first diners in a country where locals typically eat no earlier than 8:00 or 8:30, so that was not unexpected. But I was surprised to learn that the Austrians and Slovenians, being the city’s primary tourist demographic, usually eat dinner much earlier, around 5:00 or 6:00pm. (I guess the surprising part was that the restaurant was actually open to serve them at that time!) So I had the entire upper floor to myself. The goldenrod-colored walls were smartly adorned with paintings and various artwork. Decorating my table was a romanesco cauliflower (the green, pointy kind that looks like a small tree) hung with tiny, silver Christmas ornaments. Behind me on a table was a model of Venzone’s Duomo di Sant’Andrea constructed entirely out of lentils and cannellini beans.

Of course, I ordered their “cjalcions,” along with the verdure alla piastra. The plate of mixed vegetables included zucchini, eggplant, and yellow bell peppers and was nicely seasoned with oil and vinegar. The cjalcions, however, were the star of the meal. Much sweeter than any I had tasted to date, these fat pouches were stuffed with ricotta, spinach, pine nuts, and raisins—and given that they were topped with the requisite sugar and cinnamon, I felt no need for dessert!

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