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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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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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