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This piece was originally published on BloggingAuthors.com.

For more than a decade of traveling throughout Italy, I had been captivated by the country’s many charms—its ancient art and architecture, breathtaking scenery, and irresistible cuisine. It may sound a bit cliché, given the overabundance of American Italophiles, but no place else in the world held the same allure in my eyes. It wasn’t, however, until my first trip to Friuli–Venezia Giulia—a tiny region in northeastern Italy—that my Italian affair truly began.

I had traveled to Udine, one of the region’s major cities, for a business meeting at the Ledragomma GymnastikBall factory. (I was, at the time, working as a Pilates instructor and writing a book of ball exercises, Balance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates.) When the company’s owner, Steno Dondè, learned of my interest in cooking, he generously invited me to dinner. I was eager to try some of Friuli’s traditional cuisine, so he suggested Udine’s oldest restaurant, Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. Converted from an old horse stable, the restaurant has been serving food for more than one hundred years. It was here that I was seduced—not by Steno, but by our meal.

First we ordered the cjalsòns, a type of filled pasta from the mountainous area in northern Friuli called Carnia. While there are countless recipes for cjalsòns, 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. The pasta was topped with ricotta affumicata, a smoked cheese that is one of Friuli’s specialties.

This was followed by frico con patate, a potato and cheese pancake typically prepared with the local Montasio cheese. Served with a side of polenta, the wedge of frico was crispy on the outside and oozing with melted cheese and mashed potato goodness on the inside. That evening, I fell in love with both dishes—and the course of my life was forever altered.

After returning home to San Francisco, I couldn’t get that meal out of my mind. Fast-forward several years, and I was traveling in Friuli once again—this time having decided to write a cookbook, Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy. My research consisted of eating my way through the region, savoring as many of Friuli’s traditional dishes as possible, including gnocchi di susine (plum-filled gnocchi), orzotto (barley cooked “risotto-style”), jota (bean and sauerkraut soup), goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew), brovada (pickled turnips), and gubana (dried fruit- and nut-filled spiral cake). I never expected that one meal could change my life, but that dinner at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo opened a door for me to thoroughly explore and experience a culture, one that I have found to be utterly and seductively delicious.

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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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