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Posts Tagged ‘Pordenone’

Spilimbergo's Palazzo ErcoleThe early morning air was already hot and muggy, without even the slightest breeze to temper the oppressive heat. With only a couple more days left in Udine before the end of my five-week-long trip, I decided to revisit the town of Spilimbergo.

My hope was to find a restaurant that served balote: cheese-filled polenta balls, native to the mountains north of Pordenone. According to local tradition, when a young man wanted to propose marriage, he would present an offering of balote to the potential bride’s family; if the balote were immediately placed on the fogolâr (fireplace) to roast, it was understood that he had the family’s approval.

Spilimbergo's Palazzo di SopraI took the train to Pordenone and then caught a bus to Spilimbergo. Mike and I had driven through the town in May of the previous year, but since we were on our way to Carnia, with several stops to make en route, we didn’t have long to explore. This trip, I had plenty of time to visit the main sights. First, I set out to locate some of Spilimbergo’s famous painted palazzi. One of the most well-known was the Palazzo Ercole (a.k.a. Casa Dipinta), whose frescoes illustrated scenes from the mythical life of Hercules. Then, after a bit of an uphill hike, I found the brilliantly painted Palazzo di Sopra, home to Spilimbergo’s town hall. Set amid a neatly manicured lawn and framed by two tall palm trees, its white façade was decorated with intricate yellow designs and a Venetian winged lion of Saint Mark.

Spilimbergo's DuomoI was especially looking forward to seeing the frescoes on the exterior of the 15th-century Palazzo Dipinto, but when I reached the courtyard of the Castello di Spilimbergo where they were located, I was dismayed to find all the frescoes shrouded in scaffolding. My disappointment, however, was short-lived—my spirits soon lifted as I came upon the sunny Duomo di Santa Maria Maggiore, whose yellow Romanesque Gothic façade featured a pattern of circular cutout windows.

At lunchtime, I headed to Osteria Da Afro, as it was on my list of places specializing in Friulian cooking. Although it was past noon when I arrived, the restaurant was not yet open. I was told to wait in the lobby, where I spotted, through a crack in a partially open door, the staff gathered around a table eating their meal. Finally, I was shown to a table in the empty dining room. Despite my expectations, there were few Friulian dishes on the menu. The waiter explained that la cucina friulana was more of a winter cuisine and that they tended to serve lighter dishes in the hot summer months. Feeling inclined to agree with him on that point, I was quite content ordering the melanzane alla parmigiana and an insalata mista.

Since there were no other customers, the waiter was able to spend a good deal of time at my table answering some of my lingering questions. We talked about the restaurant’s preparation of baccalà (salt cod) and trout—and most importantly, balote, which they frequently serve in wintertime. He described their size (larger than a golf ball, smaller than a tennis ball), the type of cheese they are filled with (traditionally the local salted cheese called asìno, but cubes of fresh Montasio may be used instead), and how they are served (no sauce but frequently with sautéed mushrooms on the side).

After lunch, I took the next bus back to Pordenone, where I caught the train back to Udine. For the third day in a row, I decided not to go out for dinner but to eat in my room instead. At the COOP supermarket, I bought some bananas, kiwis, and yogurt (happily, my room at Hotel Principe had a mini fridge). Then, at the nearby rosticceria, I picked up some sautéed zucchini and a slice of frittata. It was a light picnic, which my body was really craving after a full month of rich, heavy meals.

baloteHere is my interpretation of balote, as described to me at Osteria Da Afro. Since asìno cheese is not easily available outside Pordenone province, I have substituted a mixture of cream cheese (for the creaminess) and ricotta salata (for the saltiness). The texture is not as soft and creamy as asìno, but it holds its shape nicely when being wrapped inside the polenta. Consider serving the balote with some sautéed mushrooms.

Filling:
4 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces ricotta salata, grated (about 1-1/4 cups)

In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese and ricotta salata. Divide the mixture into twelve equal parts, rolling each into a small ball. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Polenta:
4 cups water
1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt

Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a medium pot over high heat. Stir in the cornmeal and salt. When the water returns to a boil, reduce heat to low; cook and stir until soft, about 25 minutes. Pour immediately into a 9- by 13-inch baking dish; spread evenly. Let cool for 15 minutes, or until just cool enough to handle.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Slice the polenta into twelve equal portions. Scoop out a portion of polenta and roll into a rough ball. Flatten slightly, place one cheese ball in the center, and smooth the polenta over to enclose the cheese. (The polenta will be very sticky, so work gently.) Place the finished polenta balls in a greased baking dish. Bake until heated through, about 25 minutes.

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PordenoneMy jet lag seemed to be subsiding, for I was finally able to get a decent night’s sleep. Perhaps it had been wise of me to keep the air conditioning on all night, to help mitigate the stifling July heat. I needed to get up early and was afraid of missing my alarm, so I had slept with the tiny clock on my pillow all night long. When it buzzed at 6:30am, I awoke to an overcast sky but was hopeful that the clouds would part by the time I arrived in Pordenone.

The train from Udine took just over a half hour, and I was thrilled to arrive under a cloudless, blue sky. When I was in Pordenone the previous year, my photos of the city’s main landmarks were backlit by the sun and therefore absolutely worthless for publication. I was counting on re-shooting those photos today. Unfortunately, I would have to wait until afternoon, since the sun was still rising behind the Municipio building.

My second objective today was to hunt for an obscure cheese called asìno, produced exclusively in the mountains of Pordenone province. Looking for any kind of market where I could inquire about it, I eventually found one that was open, a rosticceria that also sold a wide variety of salumi and cheese. The owner said he didn’t carry asìno and suggested I look for it in Maniago, a town to the north at the foot of the Dolomites, not far from the Parco Naturale Regionale delle Dolomiti Friulane.

When I left the store, empty-handed, I pondered his advice. A fairly small town, known primarily for its production of knives, Maniago had somehow escaped my radar. I didn’t know whether it would be possible to go there by bus. In fact, I didn’t even know where Pordenone’s bus station was located. I figured my best bet would be to head back to the train station for information. There, I found a large city map posted outside, indicating the bus terminal in Piazza Risorgimento—clear across the city. As it was already mid-morning, I wasted no time in getting there. I found the piazza, full of idling buses and with a hole-in-the-wall biglietteria on the far side. When I entered, I quickly read the monitor: the bus to Maniago was departing in one minute. I scrambled to buy tickets, andata e ritorno, not having a chance to confirm exactly when there would be a return bus that afternoon. I made it onto the large, blue coach just seconds before it pulled out of the terminal.

The ride took a full hour, through flat plains, over bumpy backroads, past the barbed-wire fence surrounding the Aviano Air Base. Now a NATO air base, Aviano has had an American presence since the end of WWII. This would explain why the chatter I overheard around me on the bus was as much in English as Italian.

ManiagoWhen I arrived in Maniago, I immediately checked the schedule for the return bus times. Fortunately, the buses ran approximately once every hour, so I had plenty of flexibility. Since this was an unplanned trip, I had no map of the town, so I merely set out following the crowds. It happened to be market day in Maniago, and people had come from villages near and far to shop in the outdoor stalls that lined the streets of the town center. The enormous Piazza Italia was also filled with stalls, selling mostly clothing, shoes, and housewares.

Within minutes I had found myself a cheese shop, and sure enough, they carried asìno. It came in two varieties, classico (standard) and morbido (soft), and I bought an etto (100 grams) of each to take with me.

As it was now precisely 12:00 noon, I began thinking about lunch. Without a map or list of restaurants like I usually come equipped with, I had no choice but to simply wander around the town center. Strangely, I found only one restaurant that was open. It was actually more of a wine bar with a lunch menu posted outside listing nothing but grilled meats. The bar was packed with rowdy, drunk old men, and so I pushed myself past them toward the dining area. When I asked if they were serving lunch, a rather surly woman informed me that they were but not until 12:30pm and that I should wait in the bar and have a drink. The wait was only 15 minutes, but I felt so uncomfortable that I left to explore the town some more. Surely, I thought, there must be someplace else to eat.

I ventured further away from the center of town but still didn’t stumble upon any restaurants. I ended up all the way across town, where there happened to be a food market—several stands selling fruits and vegetables, a few more selling cheese, a fish market, and a rather large rosticceria truck. It was nearly 1:00pm by now, and the vendors were beginning to close up shop. I was starving and realized I needed to grab something soon before I missed my chance altogether. The rosticceria didn’t have much left to offer, but I was able to buy a small container of sarde in saor (marinated sardines).

I took my picnic to a park bench near the Duomo di San Mauro Martire. Here, I devoured the sardines (using toothpicks, as the rosticceria had no plastic utensils to give me), which were cooked in the Venetian style, marinated with vinegar and onions. I also tasted my two types of asìno. Both were quite salty, though the morbido was softer and more delicate in flavor, rather like a salty cream cheese, while the classico might be compared to a soft ricotta salata.

PordenoneAfter my picnic lunch, I caught the next bus back to Pordenone, where the sun was positioned perfectly for me to get my “blue sky” shots of the Municipio and Duomo. Now that I was no longer searching for cheese, I was able to focus my attention on the many painted palazzi along Corso Vittorio Emanuele. The façades of these buildings featured colorful frescoes, some faded and peeling, others having been restored to their original brilliance.

When I arrived at Pordenone’s train station, I had just missed a train to Udine, but fortunately another one was due to arrive in a half hour. I made myself comfortable in the tiny, stark sala d’attesa, pulled out my journal, and began to recount the events of the day. The room was nearly empty, save for the hard, plastic seats that lined the walls and a guy who must have been in his early 20s, slumped back in his chair, feet spread wide, arms crossed. Even though I was 35 at the time and generally didn’t expect the kind of unwanted male attention that I had received on my solo trips to Rome and Florence at the age of 24, I still kept my focus on my journal-writing. In fact, I barely noticed him until he tried to strike up a conversation with me. I responded politely, though with pronounced indifference. When he asked if I was alone, however, my alarm bells began to sound. Remembering an uncomfortable evening in Rome when a young, persistent Romeo had followed me into a restaurant, ate dinner with me despite my best efforts to decline, and pressured me relentlessly—though in vain—to let him drive me to the Fiumicino airport later that night (I had a super early flight the next morning and was going to spend the night at the airport), I decided the best course of action would be to lie. With an engagement ring on my finger as backup, I concocted a story about being on vacation with my fiancé, explaining adroitly that he was under the weather and resting back at our hotel. To my great relief, this fabrication thwarted his obvious efforts to hit on me, although he may still have had some misguided delusion of hope, for he persevered in his attempts at chit-chat. He was in the middle of showing me photos of himself—with his girlfriend, no less—at Villa Manin, when my train pulled up and provided me with a timely escape.

For dinner that evening, I returned to Osteria Alle Volte, located just off Piazza della Libertà, down a set of steps from Via Mercatovecchio into a cave-like dining room with stone walls and a vaulted ceiling. I had eaten here several times in the past, and while no meal truly blew me away, there were always interesting renditions of Friulian classics on the menu. Tonight, I ordered only one dish: spaghetti alle chele di granzoporo alla busara (spaghetti with crab claws in tomato sauce). I had hoped to try the scampi alla busara (langoustines in tomato sauce), but the restaurant would only prepare the dish for two or more people. Spaghetti seemed to be a satisfactory alternative, given that the sauce (tomatoes cooked with garlic, white wine, bread crumbs, and parsley) would be identical. The pasta, however, was garnished with just two crab claws—a measly portion, in my opintion. I was even more disappointed to discover that one of the claws was merely an empty shell. I’ll never know if this was an intentional act—to shortchange the American girl on her crab claws—but it would be a couple more weeks before I had built up enough confidence to complain about a substandard meal.

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PordenoneIt was now May—the type of sunny spring morning that soothes you with warm breezes and energizes you with the scent of anticipation. The previous evening, I had arrived in Udine after my routine 5-hour train ride from Milano. Mike would be joining me in about a week, but for now I was on my own. After a leisurely breakfast of frutti di bosco yogurt and a roll with apricot jam, I crossed the street to the train station for my first trip to Pordenone.

The ride was short, about 30 minutes. I could tell we were approaching the city as the train crossed the Noncello River and began to slow down. Walking through the streets toward the centro storico, the feeling was urban, modern, and uninspiring. Once I reached the main thoroughfare, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the mood changed. Elegant shops and endless porticoes lined this bustling yet somehow tranquil street. Most remarkable were the Venetian-style palazzi, whose façades were decorated with vivid frescoes. Some were in disrepair, the paint faded and peeling, but others had been restored to their original brilliant colors. At the end of the Corso, stylish city folk took their espresso breaks in an al fresco café facing the Palazzo Comunale. This town hall building, also known as the Municipio, featured two pinnacle-topped towers and a clock with symbols of the zodiac. Across the piazza towered the campanile of the Duomo di San Marco. Inside the church, the congregation was preparing for the inauguration of a restored 18th-century organ.

It was still early, so I continued walking a little further toward the river, which was bordered on both sides by a stretch of trees. Under the bridge, ducks were napping in the shade alongside the emerald green waters. Here, it felt like a bucolic oasis as the city’s noise and traffic faded away. I sat on the bank and rested my legs until I heard the church bells chime noon.

Vecia Osteria del MoroEarlier, the wrought-iron sign of Vecia Osteria del Moro caught my eye, so I headed straight there for lunch. I was also attracted by the menu posted outside which listed many traditional dishes; inside, however, I found there to be no written menu at all. Instead, the smartly-dressed waiter rapidly recited a list of three or four choices each of antipasti, primi, and secondi. I always find great pleasure in perusing a menu at my leisure, taking my time to make a decision, so these no-menu situations typically leave me rather flummoxed. While the casual style is something I appreciate in theory, in practice my brain tends to exert all its effort in translation—so that by the time the list is finished, I’ve already forgotten many of the choices.

Being the season for white asparagus, my ears perked up at the mention of an appetizer of those tender ivory stalks wrapped in prosciutto, as well as a pasta course of three mezzalune stuffed with asparagus and cheese. I also had the baccalà alla Vicentina, which was served with grilled polenta. It was a familiar dish, typical of the province, Pordenone having been part of the Venetian Republic longer than the rest of Friuli. Unfortunately, this version was tough with lots of bones.

On my way back to the train station, I took a detour to find the unusual campanile of San Giorgio—a tall, Doric column capped by a statue of Saint George atop a ball. Then, from Pordenone, I took another train westward to the town of Sacile.

SacileBuilt at a fork in the Livenza River, the town sits amid a small network of canals and bridges, shaded by willow trees and Venetian-style palazzi. It was quite a walk from the station into the centro storico. Just like Pordenone, the streets were lined with graceful porticoes, but here there was much more greenery about. No wonder Sacile was once dubbed the “Garden of the Serenissima,” suggesting a resemblance to the region’s former capital, Venice.

By this time of day, all stores were closed. There was an air of calm about the town. The breezes off the river felt refreshing in the mid-afternoon sun. As I approached the Duomo di San Nicolò, I noticed a series of yellow markers hanging across the river; as it turns out, kayaking is very popular here. Further on, as I stood admiring the tiny, hexagonal Chiesa della Madonna della Pietà, I noticed the soft melody of birds chirping in the trees. How appropriate, considering that Sacile hosts an annual festival of songbirds called the Sagra dei Osei.

Back in Udine, I headed out for dinner. The air now held that indefinable scent of impending rain. The sky was growing dark, as it should at 7:00pm, but I sensed a storm in the near future. Not wanting to get caught in a downpour, I hurried to the nearest familiar restaurant, Osteria Alle Volte, where the dishes are always refined and interesting, even if not traditional Friulian. Down a set of steps from the street, the dining room gave the impression of an underground cave, with stone walls and a vaulted ceiling. To start, I ordered the timbale di polenta e Montasio, a precisely molded mound of warm polenta and cheese, surrounded by rolled slices of icy cold smoked goose breast, drizzled with balsamic vinegar, and served on a bed of arugula. Next I had the cjalsòns—four large half-moons of pasta filled with a tangy cheese, swimming in melted butter, and topped with ricotta affumicata.

When I emerged from the subterranean dining room, the streets were damp and the air still moist from the showers that I had fortunately missed. Groups of men wearing olive green Alpine hats milled about the Piazza della Libertà. Preparations were underway for the upcoming weekend’s beer festival; however, I had a different agenda—the next day I would be going to Arta Terme for the Festa dell’Asparago di Bosco, del Radicchio di Montagna e dei Funghi di Primavera.

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