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Ristorante Alle Vecchie CarceriThe morning after the Arta Terme festival, I returned to Udine. My bus pulled in promptly at noon, and my plan was to enjoy a leisurely lunch somewhere in the city and spend the afternoon practicing la dolce far niente. But after dropping off my bags at Hotel Principe, located conveniently next door to the bus station, I made the impromptu decision to return to the station and grab a bus to San Daniele. The ride would take only 45 minutes, and I would arrive just in time to have lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, Ristorante Alle Vecchie Carceri.

On my previous visit, I had shown up—in typical American fashion—precisely as the restaurant was opening to find myself the only customer. This time, however, the restaurant was filled with happy diners, the air abuzz with conversation. Since it was rather late, not to mention busy, I was seated all by myself in the courtyard, which was disappointing at first but ultimately turned out to be quite pleasant and peaceful. Vines of ivy covered the gray stone walls of the former prison, while a border of pink flowers in terracotta pots awarded the impression of a Mediterranean garden.

To start, I was served the chef’s complimentary appetizer 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. This was followed by an antipasto plate of white asparagus tips, ricotta affumicata, anchovies, capers, and more wafers of frico croccante. Next, I had intended on trying something new but could not bring myself to pass up the irresistible cjalsòns: round, plump ravioli, shaped rather like flying saucers, with a filling 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. To finish, I ordered the torta di mele, an individual apple cake, served warm and topped with toasted pine nuts, whipped cream, and a drizzle of vanilla and caramel sauces. As an added touch, the plate was garnished with an artsy stencil of powdered sugar in the design of two forks.

San Daniele in CastelloAfter lunch, I took a walk to the Chiesa di San Daniele in Castello and was pleased to find the church open (unlike my last visit). Under a pane of glass in the floor, I was able to view some of the ruins of the medieval castle that once stood on this site. Next, I revisited the tiny Chiesa di Sant’Antonio Abate, a true gem of a church, often referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of Friuli” for the vividly colored fresco cycle by Pellegrino da San Daniele.

Back in Udine that evening, I returned to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo for dinner. Of all the restaurants in the city, I found their menu to offer the greatest variety of traditional Friulian dishes, and it had become a personal challenge to work my way through their daily-changing menu.

To begin, I ordered gnocchi di Sauris, which were essentially gnocchi di pane (bread dumplings similar to German semmelknödel) with the addition of some chopped prosciutto di Sauris. In the style typical of Friulian gnocchi, they were served in melted butter and topped with ricotta affumicata; however, like much of the gnocchi served at Al Vecchio Stallo, I found them to be rather heavy and bland. Next, I had the pitina all’aceto balsamico, a variation on the traditional salame all’aceto, where slices of salami are sautéed (often with onions), simmered in vinegar, and served with polenta. This version used pitina, a cured meat from the mountains of Pordenone province that is often made with mutton, goat, or venison. The seasoned, ground meat is rolled into balls, dredged in cornmeal, and placed above a fogolâr (fireplace) to smoke. The pitina comes out gamey and smoky, and the vinegar in the dish helps to cut the fattiness.

Here is my version of salame all’aceto, which may be prepared with any type of salami you like:

Salame all'aceto2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
8 ounces salami (about 2 inches diameter), sliced into eight 1/2-inch rounds
1/4 cup red wine vinegar

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion; cook and stir until it begins to soften, about 8–10 minutes. Add the salami slices; cook until brown, about 3–5 minutes on each side. Add the vinegar. Reduce heat to low; simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Serve with polenta.

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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.

Filling:
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
Sugar
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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