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On the day of Venzone’s Festa della Zucca, I made my way to the train station in Trieste with some degree of trepidation. The last time I had visited Venzone, I had been stranded during a transportation strike. At the end of an interminable afternoon of waiting at the station for trains that never showed up, I had managed to catch the last bus of the day back to Udine. Fortunately, on this particular day when thousands of people would be heading to Venzone, I learned that extra trains would be added to the schedule.

I changed trains in Udine and arrived in Venzone around 1:00pm. The streets within the medieval-walled village were packed beyond capacity. Townspeople dressed in medieval costumes roamed the streets. Walls of visitors blocked the narrow alleys, watching groups of jugglers and other performers. In addition to the usual vendors selling local craft items, a display of medieval weaponry attracted the attention of passersby. I was too short to see much over the crowds, so I wove my way to the piazza where many varieties of squash were on display. Prizes would be given out later in the day for the largest, heaviest, longest, most beautiful, and most unusual.

I was especially drawn to the works of pumpkin art, including a crocodile carved from a long squash and a mosaic of Venzone’s cathedral using bits of multi-colored rind. My favorites were the intricate floral carvings. Mesmerized, I watched a couple of chefs demonstrate their skill on a gigantic pumpkin that must have weighed hundreds of pounds.

Anticipating plenty of street food, I hadn’t eaten any lunch beforehand. I ended up ignoring all the savory food stands, making a meal of nothing but dessert samples. I wanted to include in my cookbook Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy some type of torta di zucca (pumpkin cake), but I had yet to settle on a recipe. I hoped to finally come to a decision today at the festival.

Most desserts were being sold in bite-size samples for €1 apiece. I tried several pumpkin cakes, all variations on the same ordinary yellow cake, some with raisins, others plain. Most were slices of what was labeled plumcake di zucca, though one was baked in cupcake form. There were more tarts than cakes on offer—tiny, round crostate as well as rectangles with a lattice crust—and even more varieties of bread and focaccia. In addition, I saw pumpkin strudel, krapfen (cream-filled doughnuts), and biscotti.

As I was filling up on these desserts, I was tempted by a sign for frico con la zucca (cheese and squash pancake), but the line wrapped all the way around the building. I just didn’t have the patience to wait. I’ve never really been one for crowds. The noise, being jostled by strangers, feeling trapped amid the chaos—it always made me long to escape.

Venzone is a remarkably tiny town, and so, despite the throngs of visitors, I was able to navigate the entire festival in an hour and a half. On my way back to the train station on the other side of the highway, I passed a couple of kids selling homemade cakes, tarts, and cookies outside their home. For €0.50 they gave me two pieces of torta di zucca.

On the train ride back to Trieste, my pumpkin dilemma suddenly became crystal clear. Instead of a recipe for pumpkin cake, I would recreate a version of pane di zucca that I had seen in abundance at the festival: braided loaves of pumpkin bread with raisins and walnuts. Here is that recipe:

1 small butternut squash (about 1 to 1-1/2 pounds), halved lengthwise
1 package active dry yeast (2-1/4 teaspoons or 1/4 ounce)
1/4 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup warm water (100° to 110°F)
2 eggs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon salt
3-3/4 cups all-purpose or bread flour
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
• • •
1 egg, beaten to blend

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Place the squash halves on a baking sheet. Bake until tender, about 40–45 minutes. When the squash is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the seeds and membrane. Scoop out enough flesh to measure 1 cup. (Reserve any extra for another use.) Place in a small bowl; mash well. Cool to room temperature.

2. In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast and a pinch of sugar in 1/2 cup warm water. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes. Whisk in the remaining sugar, mashed squash, eggs, melted butter, and salt. Gradually stir in the flour until the dough forms a solid mass; stir in the raisins and walnuts. Using a mixer with a dough hook attachment, knead for 10 minutes. (It may be necessary to occasionally scrape the ball of dough off the hook.) Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface; knead briefly by hand. (The dough should be smooth and elastic.) Form the dough into a ball; cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise until doubled in size, about 1-1/2 hours.

3. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into six equal sections; roll each into a 12-inch-long rope. Form three ropes into a braid, tucking under the loose ends; repeat with the remaining three ropes. Place the braided loaves on a baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise for 30 minutes.

4. Preheat oven to 350°F, placing a pan filled with water on the bottom rack to create steam. Brush the two loaves with beaten egg. Bake until golden brown, about 30–35 minutes.

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My only plan for the day was to take the train to Cormòns for lunch, which left me the entire morning to spend in Trieste. The air was surprisingly thick and muggy, the dark, overcast sky threatening rain. I worked up a sweat as I took a long stroll around the city center, stopping at several food shops along the way. Most memorable was Trieste’s oldest bakery, Pasticceria Bomboniera, founded in 1836. The bakery’s elegant hardwood displays, black-and-white marble floor, and crystal chandelier offered a glimpse into the grandeur of a bygone era. I bought two pastine (bite-size pastries)—sachertorte (chocolate cake with apricot glaze and chocolate ganache) and dobostorte (layer cake with chocolate buttercream and caramel glaze)—as well as a putizza, a Triestine spiral cake similar to the gubana found elsewhere in Friuli. I wanted to compare Bomboniera’s putizza to that from Pasticceria Penso. (As I came to learn, the primary difference is that Penso adds melted chocolate to the dried fruit and nut filling, while Bomboniera uses chocolate chunks.)

After dropping off the pastries at my apartment in Residence Liberty, I suddenly realized I was running a bit late. I speed-walked all the way to the train station, making it there in 15 minutes instead of the usual 20, and caught the train to Cormòns moments before it departed.

Upon arrival in Cormòns, I set out on the 45-minute trek from the station to La Subida on the outskirts of town. The foreboding clouds had begun to pass during my train ride, and by the time I was nearing La Subida, the sun was shining brightly in the blue sky. Vineyards blanketed the rolling hills, which were beginning to show the first signs of autumn color.

I had eaten at Trattoria Al Cacciatore de La Subida once before, and it had been my most memorable Friulian meal ever. It was a peaceful July afternoon, and I had sat outdoors, along with just one other table of diners. Owners Joško and Loredana Sirk had been free to spend a great deal of time chatting leisurely with me about Friulian cuisine and my cookbook project. This time, however, the restaurant was packed. Both owners were super busy, so their daughter Tanja was waiting tables instead. A young, petite woman, Tanja wore a beaming smile that projected the tranquil joys of life at a country inn.

As a complimentary appetizer, she brought me a taste of ricotta di malga on a bed of polenta and arugula, some crispy frico chips, and a glass of Prosecco. Instead of handing me a written menu, Tanja rattled off the choices of the day. While I was fairly proficient at reading and writing Italian, my conversational skills were far from fluent. I typically understood enough to get by while traveling and even conduct the occasional one-on-one interview, but the rapid-fire speed of normal speech often left me feeling rather stupid. So on this occasion, when I vaguely recognized an antipasto that I had not tried on my previous visit, I immediately went with that. The dish was a mound of minced venison over a bed of arugula, with potato purée and topped with three slices of meaty porcini mushrooms.

Next, I ordered the gnocchi di susine, a dish I was already quite familiar with, having eaten my share of the heavy plum-filled dumplings in other restaurants. These, in contrast, were light and not overly doughy at all. On the plate sat a pair of gnocchi, each one just slightly larger than a golf ball. Instead of being stuffed with a whole prune plum, as I had seen elsewhere, these were filled with a spoonful of juicy diced plums. When I cut into the dumplings, red juices burst forth with an audible squirt. More diced plums and a semi-circle of toasted bread crumbs garnished the plate, giving it the appearance of a smiley face. Sugar and cinnamon were served on the side to sprinkle as desired.

For dessert, I opted for something less decadent than the sweets I had been eating as of late: sorbetto al sambuco, a light and refreshing elderflower sorbet. Tanja also brought a plate with three different types of cookies and a bowl of candied pistachios. As I was enjoying my dessert, Loredana stopped by my table to say hello—she remembered me from my visit in July. Before I left, Joško spotted me and came over as well.

On my way out the door, I realized for the second time that day that I was running late. I had less than 45 minutes to catch my train back to Trieste. Once again, I speed-walked the entire way to the station, managing to get there with 5 minutes to spare. At least I could say I had burned enough calories to justify indulging in those slices of sachertorte and dobostorte later that evening!

Here is my recipe for gnocchi di susine:

For the Dough:
2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and quartered
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons salt
1 egg

Place the potatoes in a large pot filled with water; bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until tender, about 20–25 minutes. Drain the potatoes and place in a large bowl; mash well. Cool to room temperature. Add the flour, salt, and egg; mix thoroughly to form a soft dough.

To Prepare:
1/2 cup sugar, divided
6 medium plums (about 1 to 1-1/4 pounds), pitted and cut into 8 wedges each

Roll the dough into four dozen balls. Flatten each into a 3-inch circle; sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and top with a plum wedge. Wrap the dough around the plum and seal tightly. (At this point, the sugar will begin to draw the juice out of the plums; placing the filled gnocchi on a wooden board will help prevent them from getting soggy.)

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Working in batches, place the gnocchi in the water, taking care not to overcrowd the pot. Once the gnocchi have risen to the surface, cook until the dough is tender, about 10 minutes longer; remove them promptly with a slotted spoon.

To Serve:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
Ground cinnamon
Sugar

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the bread crumbs; cook and stir until golden brown, about 3–4 minutes. Add the gnocchi and toss to coat with bread crumbs. Divide the gnocchi among serving dishes. Drizzle with the excess butter and bread crumbs; sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar.

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This was the day I had been looking forward to ever since my arrival in Trieste. My baker friends at Pasticceria Penso had invited me to watch them prepare one of Trieste’s specialties, putizza. Similar to the gubana found elsewhere in Friuli, putizza is a spiral cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate.

When I arrived bright and early at the bakery, however, brothers Antonello and Lorenzo informed me that the big event had been postponed. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed. As consolation, Antonello offered me a few treats: a curabiè (half-moon shortbread cookie dusted with powdered sugar; of Greek origin), a torta granatina (triangle of chocolate mousse), and a tiny marzipan peach.

I hung around the bakery for a bit, nibbling on the cookie, regrouping and trying to formulate another plan for the day. Finally, I decided to head to Gorizia. When I last visited this city on the Slovenian border, I was discouraged to find that many restaurants were closed, though I did eventually happen upon a tiny working man’s trattoria, where I enjoyed a hearty lunch of pasticcio and goulasch. Perhaps today I would discover a new place to eat.

When I got to the train station, I found the line at the ticket counter to be exceedingly long—apparently all of the automatic ticket machines were broken. By the time I finally arrived in Gorizia, it was nearly noon. I headed straight to the restaurant Ai Tre Soldi Goriziani. To my tremendous relief, it was open.

To start, I ordered the cestino di frico, a “bowl” of crispy, fried cheese filled with polenta and porcini mushrooms. Then, for my main course, I had the goulasch alla Goriziana. There were plenty of other local dishes on the menu and I had already eaten my fair share of goulasch on this trip, but I was too intrigued by the description “alla Goriziana” to turn it down. I was curious to learn whether the goulasch in Gorizia differed from that found in Trieste and the rest of Friuli. Upon tasting it, I determined that this Hungarian-style beef stew was fairly similar to one I had recently eaten in Trieste, in that it was prepared with tomatoes, an addition that, while not entirely traditional, is common throughout Friuli. To further assert the dish’s Friulian spirit, slices of grilled polenta were served alongside the paprika-laced stew.

Although I was quite full, I couldn’t resist ordering the palacinke alla marmellata for dessert. Palacinke may enfold any number of sweet fillings, from fruit preserves to ricotta cheese to pastry cream. I was pleased to find that these crêpes were filled with apricot jam—my favorite!

Here is my recipe for frico croccante, fried Montasio cheese in the shape of a basket. You may fill them with anything you like: polenta, mushrooms, fresh herbs and greens, prosciutto…the possibilities are endless! If Montasio stagionato is not available, you may substitute any aged cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano.

4 cups grated Montasio stagionato, divided

Preheat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle 1 cup Montasio cheese into the skillet, making a 6-inch circle. Cook until the edges begin to turn golden brown, about 5 minutes. (Watch carefully as the cooking time will vary depending on the precise temperature of the skillet.) Gently remove the frico from the pan and drape over an upside-down glass or bowl. (Allowing the frico to cool in the skillet for a couple seconds off the heat will help the spatula release the cheese from the pan.) The frico will harden in less than a minute, at which point it can be removed from its mold. Repeat with the remaining cheese.

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ricotta affumicataThe dark clouds that had crept over Trieste the previous afternoon unleashed a torrential storm during the night. It was still pouring when I left early in the morning, getting soaked on the 20-minute walk to the train station. Fortunately, I had plenty of time to dry off on the train, which arrived an hour and a half later in Udine.

I had a number of errands to do there, namely to purchase some local products to use in photo shoots for my cookbook Flavors of Friuli. My first stop was Formaggeria La Baita, to buy some ricotta affumicata, a smoked ricotta cheese that serves as the traditional Friulian garnish for dishes such as gnocchi and cjarsòns.

pitinaNext, I stopped by Macelleria Michelutti for a pitina, a type of salami traditionally made from mutton, goat, or game such as venison, and native to the mountainous areas of Val Tramontina and Val Cellina in the northern part of Pordenone province. Since pigs were once scarce here, it was not practical to encase the ground meat in pig intestines, the typical method for preparing salami. Instead, the meat was formed into balls and dredged in cornmeal, then left to smoke over a fire for several days.

Osteria Al Vecchio StalloAfter that, I bought some white polenta at Tami Galliano Alimentari and then browsed the cookbook section of my favorite bookstore, adding yet another Friulian cookbook to my growing collection. I also paid a visit to Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo to pick up a copy of their new book, Vecje Ostarie Al Vecchio Stallo, that co-owner Maurizio Mancini had promised to give me the next time I was in town.

All morning I had been stopping in every bakery I passed, as well as going out of my way to visit several more. One of the recipes I was considering including in my cookbook was torta di zucca (pumpkin cake), a dessert found in several of my Friulian cookbooks but apparently not so easily found in restaurants or bakeries, at least not during any of my trips so far. To my disappointment, I had no better luck that day in Udine but still held out hope that I would find plenty of pumpkin desserts at the Festa della Zucca later that week in Venzone.

When I had finished all my errands, I went for lunch at Hostaria Alla Tavernetta. I had been there twice before, for dinner—once by myself on Valentine’s Day, when I was mistakenly served musetto e brovada instead of the goulasch that I had ordered, and a second time with my friends Steno and Liviana—but on a handful of other occasions, the restaurant appeared to be perpetually closed.

Today, I was pleased to find Alla Tavernetta open. I started with the frichetto appetizer, what I assumed would be a “little” frico (cheese and potato pancake) but was as large as any main course portion I had ever seen. There are many methods of preparing frico; this one contained mostly cheese and only a small amount of undercooked grated potato. I also ordered the cjarsòns: large, square ravioli filled with apple, ricotta, and raisins. I enjoyed the sweetness of the fruit, but overall they were a little bland. To complete my meal, the owners served complimentary plates of almond biscotti and dark chocolate chunks.

After lunch, I took the train back to Trieste, where I spent the rest of the day holed up in my apartment, warm and cozy and dry!

frico con patateHere is my version of frico con patate. I like the texture that the mashed potatoes give it: velvety soft and oozing with cheese on the inside and golden crisp on the outside. If Montasio cheese is not available, you may substitute Parmigiano-Reggiano for the Montasio stagionato and fresh Asiago for the Montasio fresco. Serve with polenta.

1 pound white potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 cups shredded Montasio fresco
1 cup grated Montasio stagionato
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon olive oil

Place the potatoes in a large pot filled with water; bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until tender, about 20–25 minutes. Drain the potatoes and place in a medium bowl; mash well. Cool to room temperature. Stir in both Montasio cheeses, salt, and black pepper. Divide the mixture into four equal parts. Form each into a round mass and then flatten into a 4-inch disk.

Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. One at a time, cook each frico until crisp and golden brown, about 3–4 minutes on each side. Drain any excess oil from the skillet, leaving about 1 teaspoon for cooking the next frico. (To expedite the process, use two skillets or a large griddle.)

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Santuario di MonrupinoIt was a picture-perfect day, with crystal clear skies and only the slightest autumn chill in the air. Hoping to explore the Carso a little more, I left Trieste midmorning and caught bus #42 to Monrupino. My plan was to visit the Santuario di Monrupino and then have lunch at Ristorante Furlan. I arrived around 10:00am and wandered up the tree-lined road toward the white campanile towering above the surrounding stone walls.

Built on a hill above the ruins of a prehistoric fort, this medieval church is the site of the Carsic wedding ceremony, the Nozze Carsiche, which takes place in August every two years. This rite is based on the traditional marriage ceremony of the late 19th century and today attracts thousands of observers. The festivities last four days, beginning with the bachelor and bachelorette parties, followed by the transport of the dowry to the groom’s house. The party culminates on Sunday with the wedding ceremony at the sanctuary, where around five hundred people participate, all dressed in traditional costume. This is followed by a bridal precession to the town of Repen (Rupingrande), where the bride is given away to the groom’s family at the Casa Carsica. After the ceremony, guests are served a traditional veal stew called zvacet at the reception dinner.

Monrupino parish houseEntering the courtyard, I passed the parish house, one of the oldest structures in the Carso. Adjacent to this gray stone building was the small but imposing Santuario. Inside the church, I was greeted by an older woman whose Italian I struggled to understand. When she switched to English, I learned that she was originally from Alabama and had lived in Monrupino for forty years. It appeared that she was a caretaker of sorts at the church, but before I could ask how she came to live there, she disappeared abruptly with a curt explanation about how she needed to go do her ironing. She also mentioned, on her way out the door, that my restaurant would probably not be open today.

I still had a long time to kill before lunch, so I found a smooth rock to sit on, in the grounds behind the fortified walls of the church. I read for about 40 minutes, then meandered back down the hill to the town. I found Ristorante Furlan quite easily, but as the woman had predicted, it was in fact closed for lunch.

The bus schedule showed a return bus to Trieste in 15 minutes, but to my considerable annoyance, it never came. Neither did the next one an hour later. It was only upon closer inspection of the sign—for the fourth or fifth time—that I realized that the bus to Trieste didn’t actually stop in Monrupino but in the next town over, Repen. The timetable also indicated that the bus did make a stop in Monrupino going in the opposite direction toward Opicina, so I waited another 20 minutes for that bus.

By this time, I was feeling somewhat lightheaded and nauseous, from sitting for so long in the direct sunlight as well as from hunger. I greatly regretted not having packed any snacks. Luckily, the bus to Opicina came as expected, with a perfectly timed connection for Trieste. I arrived back in Piazza Oberdan just before 2:00pm, with the urgent need to find something to eat as soon as possible.

There were several restaurants on Via G. Carducci leading away from the bus stop. The first one I passed, at the corner on Via C. Battisti, had no free tables. The next offered buffet-style food at its bar, but the stand-up counter was also too crowded. Another didn’t have any local dishes on their menu, and despite my gnawing hunger, I was determined to find some traditional Friulian/Triestine food. After all, researching the region’s cuisine was my sole reason for this trip! I walked up and down the street, finally ending up back at the first restaurant, Buffet Marascutti, which had all but cleared out by then.

Founded in 1914, Marascutti is one of the oldest buffets in Trieste. Across from my table, several enlarged black-and-white photographs spanned the gray stone walls, giving the place a decidedly old-world feel. I ordered the rotolo di spinaci: slices of boiled pasta “strudel” filled with spinach. I understood the waitress to say that it was served with a little brodo di carne (meat broth), which is the traditional presentation for the dish. Consequently, I was puzzled to find a pork chop on my plate in addition to the strudel. I was positively famished by this time, so the extra food was a welcome surprise!

As I left the restaurant, I could see dark clouds approaching from the north—evidently the storm I had seen forecast on TV the night before. I took a little detour on my way back to my apartment: first, a limone (lemon) and yogurt gelato at Gelateria Zampolli, and then a brief stroll through the department store Coin.

I spent the rest of the afternoon working on the computer, transcribing my notes from the past few days. For dinner, I had some leftover potatoes and string beans, which I heated in the ridiculously tiny microwave, on a saucer that would only fit when wedged in at a sharp angle. I also had a can of tuna and thought I’d throw together a tuna melt sandwich. The problem was that the apartment didn’t come with a usable skillet. Well, actually there was one, but I hadn’t used it because it was full of gashes and its non-stick coating was peeling off. The only other cooking vessel available was a medium-sized pot, the one I had been using to boil and sauté vegetables. It was just large enough to hold a slice of bread, so I layered on some cheese and then half the can of tuna, topped by another slice of bread. It was only then that it dawned on me: how was I going to flip the sandwich when the wide spatula couldn’t maneuver down inside the deep pot? So as it happened, my tuna melt swiftly turned into a tuna explosion!

strucolo de spinazeRotolo di spinaci may also be referred to as a rollata or strucolo (Triestine dialect for strudel). It can be prepared with either traditional pasta dough or potato-based gnocchi dough. My version here uses pasta dough. If Montasio stagionato is not available, you may substitute Parmigiano-Reggiano or any other aged cheese.

Filling:
1 pound fresh spinach leaves
1 cup fresh ricotta
3/4 cup grated Montasio stagionato
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• • •
Pasta Dough:
3/4 cup semolina flour
1 egg
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
• • •
1/2 cup beef broth, heated

For the Filling:
Place the spinach (plus 1–2 tablespoons water if using packaged, prewashed spinach) in a large pot over medium-low heat. Cook, covered, until wilted, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain the spinach thoroughly, squeezing out all excess liquid. Coarsely chop the spinach and place in a large bowl; cool to room temperature. Stir in the ricotta, Montasio cheese, salt, black pepper, and nutmeg. Refrigerate for 1 hour, or until ready to use.

For the Dough:
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, egg, olive oil, and salt. 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.

To Prepare:
Roll the dough to form a 12- by 18-inch rectangle. Spread the spinach mixture over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border on all sides. Starting with one short side, roll up jelly roll style, sealing the ends tightly. (Moisten the dough with a little water to help seal, if necessary.) Wrap the strudel inside an 18-inch-square piece of cheesecloth, tying the ends securely with string.

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Place the strudel in the water; cook for 1 hour, adding more water as necessary to keep the strudel submerged. (If the strudel is not entirely covered by water, you may turn it over after 30 minutes to ensure even cooking.) Remove the strudel from the cheesecloth. Cut into 1-inch slices; serve with the warm beef broth.

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Val RosandraHaving lived, at the time, over fifteen years in San Francisco, I sorely missed seeing the gorgeous hues of autumn foliage. So when I traveled to Trieste in October of 2005, I found myself in a perpetual state of awe over the reds and oranges that were beginning to transform the countryside. Longing to immerse myself in the great outdoors, I planned a hike through the Riserva Naturale della Val Rosandra.

I set out early to do a few errands first: the produce market for some apples, the salumeria for a wedge of latteria cheese, and the tiny supermercato for my new favorite olive bread. Then, after dropping off my groceries and packing a picnic lunch, I swung by Pasticceria Penso to deliver the gift of Vitovska wine that I had purchased the day before at Osmiza Škerk. In return Antonello gave me a slice of sachertorte for the road.

I took the bus to the small town of Bagnoli at the mouth of the Val Rosandra, a huge gorge slicing through the mountainous Carso region. Numerous hiking trails had been cut through the forests of the nature reserve, and I set out on what seemed to be the most well-trodden path.

Val RosandraThere was no map, but I followed the trail until it emerged onto a ridge overlooking the gorge. From a distance, I could just make out the 118-foot waterfall that fed into the Rosandra Stream. The bora wind whipped through my hair as I struggled to keep my footing on the slippery gravel. The path hugged the cliffs, rising and falling with the curve of the mountain, until it descended once again deep into the woods.

Though the foliage was only just starting to turn, I still saw plenty of reds and golds mixed with the verdant evergreens. I crossed the stream near the ruins of an ancient Roman aqueduct, in an area I suspected to be very close to the Slovenian border. Then, I followed the path as it climbed the ridge on the other side of the ravine, the rough path giving way to a wider, paved road.

Here, with the chilly wind blocked by the limestone peaks above me, I found a warm spot in the sunshine to sit and eat my picnic lunch—cheese, olive bread, an apple, and that yummy slice of sachertorte. There were very few people on the trail that day. I had passed several hikers near the entrance to the park and another few along the initial rocky ridge. Since then, I had enjoyed complete and utter solitude.

Val RosandraAs I continued on my way, the paved road leveled out. I noticed the occasional sign marking a bicycle path, as well as an unmarked building that looked like a refuge of some sort. Unsure of where this road would lead, I plodded forward, winding around the mountainside and passing through tunnels. Eventually I was able to spot the town of Bagnoli in the distance across the gorge. The visibility was excellent on such a clear day, and from this vantage point, I could even see all the way to the Gulf of Trieste and the sea beyond.

I had been hiking for about two hours at this point, and I began to wonder if it was wise to continue in the same direction, whether the path I had been taking would eventually circle back to its starting point or if I had better begin retracing my steps back across the ravine. A map or some signs would really have come in handy just then.

Fortuitously, I passed a young woman walking her bike, and I asked her whether this road continued full circle. It did not, but she told me that up ahead there was a shortcut leading down to Bagnoli—but she warned me that it was quite dangerous, with steep slopes and slippery rocks.

I decided to follow her direction. The trail was not well marked, but I found the narrow path cut into the bushes, heading downhill on my left. She wasn’t kidding about the steep and slippery part! Wishing that I had brought my good hiking boots on this trip (though the boots I was wearing still had some traction), I managed to baby-step my way down the mountain without falling on my butt. An hour later, I emerged not too far from where I had started in Bagnoli—and I made it to the bus stop with only five minutes to spare before the next return bus to Trieste!

Buffet Da PepiI spent the afternoon back in my apartment, looking through the cookbook of Triestine desserts that Antonello had loaned me. Around 5:00pm I headed out for an early dinner at Buffet Da Pepi. Once again, I had the piatto misto, the pig-shaped platter of assorted types of pork, accompanied by a heaping portion of sauerkraut. And, of course, a glass of local red wine.

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Gorizia's Chiesa di Sant'IgnazioI awoke around 3:00 in the morning to the harsh sound of wind rattling the window panes. Even with ear plugs the noise was so jarring I couldn’t go back to sleep. This was the bora wind I had read so much about, the cold northeast wind that is particularly strong along the eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea, from Trieste to the Albanian border.

Despite my grogginess, I decided to get up early and head out to the train station. The weather in Trieste had taken a dramatic turn toward winter. The mostly clear sky was streaked with feathery brushstrokes tinted sunrise pink. The gusty bora had not let up, and I shivered as the winds tore through my light fall jacket.

I took the train to Gorizia, with no plans but to check out restaurant menus and bakeries and eventually find somewhere to eat lunch. It was a Monday, when many restaurants were closed, but I had a list culled from my library of travel books (particularly my favorite, Osterie e Frasche del Friuli-Venezia Giulia by Ermanno Torossi) of places that should be open. Two of them were a mile or so away from the city center in opposite directions, so I ended up spending about 2-1/2 hours trudging along the city’s many tree-lined streets, the sidewalks blanketed with fallen leaves and chestnuts.

To my dismay, every single restaurant on my list turned out to be closed. Feeling defeated, I headed back toward the train station to return to Trieste, but on the way, I stumbled upon a small trattoria that was packed with diners. Trattoria Al Piròn had the distinct vibe of the blue-collar working man. Aside from the waitresses, I was the only woman in the whole place. There was no menu, just a few prix fixe selections. For my primo piatto, I had the pasticcio: a lasagna layered with artichokes and bechamel sauce. My secondo piatto was goulasch: two large hunks of beef in a spicy paprika gravy. For a side dish, they served a plate of peas sautéed with bits of smoked pork.

piselli in teciaIn the provinces of Trieste and Gorizia, vegetables are often cooked “in tecia,” a term that refers to the cast-iron skillet traditionally used. Here is my version of piselli in tecia:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 ounces pancetta, chopped
1 pound shelled fresh or frozen peas
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and pancetta; cook and stir until the onion softens and the pancetta is brown and crisp, about 10 minutes. Add the peas. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, covered, until the peas are tender, about 8–10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the parsley and black pepper. Season to taste with salt.

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