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Posts Tagged ‘Udine’

I was feeling so loopy after the complimentary sgroppino at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo the previous night that I had no trouble falling asleep. As I had predicted, the heat finally kicked on in the evening, and the room became quite warm. But despite the excessive heat and the rather firm bed, the sheets were softer and the blanket lighter than what I had grown accustomed to in my Trieste apartment, so I slept very soundly during my final night in Friuli.

In the morning, I awoke bright and early, ready to finally be on my way. Once showered and dressed, I headed downstairs to the breakfast room, where the buffet was spread with a substantial array of choices: fresh rolls, croissants, and pastries; several types of cereal; the obligatory packaged toast; fresh fruit; orange and grapefruit juices; and my favorite yogurt, the runny European-style Carnia brand, of which my preferred flavors were frutti di bosco (mixed berry) and albicocca (apricot). This morning I went with an apricot yogurt, a roll with some apricot jam, and a glass of orange juice.

As I sat eating my breakfast, I noticed two young men at a nearby table. They were clearly American, something I seldom saw in Friuli, and I was curious to find out their story. Typically, in the rare instance that I came across someone speaking English, I would find a way to strike up a conversation. But today there was no time to linger. I had a train to catch and still needed to finish packing, so I scarfed down my food and hurried back upstairs to my room.

I didn’t generally buy many souvenirs when I traveled, but this year I had taken to purchasing every Friulian and Triestine cookbook I could find, so I needed to make room for these, along with a few other items such as an Illy espresso cup, a hunk of ricotta affumicata, a box containing a pitina (salami dredged in cornmeal), and two spiny spider crab shells that I had persuaded waiters in Trieste and Muggia to wrap up for me to take home for a photo shoot. In my efforts to stuff everything in my bags, I ended up discarding three pairs of socks and two pairs of underwear that were all developing holes, although this didn’t noticeably lighten my load.

I did finally manage to cram everything in without needing the plastic grocery bag that I had carried my extra food items in yesterday when leaving Trieste. But my backpack was stuffed to the brim, my collapsible nylon tote bag overflowed, and my rolling duffel was unbelievably heavy, weighed down by my stack of cookbooks. As a test before I departed, I attempted a practice overhead press, to see if I’d be able to lift the suitcase onto the luggage rack of the train. I failed miserably! Maybe I would luck out, as I had on certain past trips, and a chivalrous Italian would step in to help me.

I checked out of Hotel Principe around 8:00am and crossed the street to Udine’s train station, where I boarded the train for Vienna. When I found my assigned seat, there were already three American girls in my train compartment. Considering how infrequently I had encountered Americans in this part of Italy, it was a bit strange to see two groups in one day. I soon learned that these girls were in college, on a fall break from an exchange program in London. They had just been sightseeing in Venezia and were now en route to Salzburg.

With no one offering to help me, I somehow managed to stow my duffel bag by lifting it to chest height, stepping onto the seat, and using pure momentum to hoist it onto the rack. I spent the early part of the journey chatting with the American girls. When they got off the train in Villach, Austria, I switched to a window seat, where I could watch the brilliant autumn colors of the passing countryside. I had expected the train to be packed, but it wasn’t, and I had the compartment to myself for the remainder of the trip. For lunch, I polished off the rest of the snacks I had brought from Trieste—some bread and cheese, a yogurt, and a banana—saving just the smallest bit of bread and cheese for my final breakfast.

The train arrived at Wien Südbahnhof by 2:00pm, right on schedule. Since I had never been to any of Vienna’s train stations before and was not very familiar with the city, I studied my map closely before arrival. As I often did when arriving in a foreign city, I pretended that I was on my then-favorite TV show, The Amazing Race, and navigating to my destination! From the station, it was a 15-minute walk to the nearest subway, and then after a few stops, a short walk to Hotel Austria, where I would stay one night before my flight home.

While checking in, I requested a taxi to the airport the next morning, scheduling it for 5:00am since I had a super early flight. I was given the same room as before, small with a private bath down the hall. The shower and toilet were inconveniently located in separate rooms, though it was nice to have them all to myself. Covering the twin bed was a fluffy, yellow down comforter, and there was also a separate daybed/sofa and a mini fridge. When I had stayed there three nights at the beginning of my trip, I had had some difficulty with my key, but thankfully the hotel had since fixed the lock and the key now worked fine.

As soon as I had settled into my room, I headed back out in the hope of procuring an afternoon snack. Since my two days in Vienna five weeks earlier, I had been looking forward to returning to Buffet Trzesniewski, a tiny sandwich shop just off the Graben, where I had enjoyed an assortment of yummy finger sandwiches, prepared with egg salad and toppings such as shrimp, bacon, and smoked herring. But when I arrived again at the address, I was dismayed to find the shop closed for the day.

So I spent the next hour and a half wandering up and down the Graben, around Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), and to the Hofburg Palace. Along the way, I stopped at Café Demel and picked up a slice of sachertorte to go. At the beginning of my trip, I had made the rounds of several of Vienna’s historic cafes, including Demel, where a slice of dobostorte had been part one of my lunch that day. Part two of that indulgent lunch had been a slice of sachertorte at the famous Hotel Sacher. Having read about the feud between the two cafés over which sachertorte may be called the “original,” I wanted to experience both for myself.

With an early morning flight looming, I didn’t feel up for a late dinner. Plus, the greasy musetto in Udine the night before hadn’t settled well, and I just couldn’t stomach the thought of more sausage—or wienerschnitzel or goulash or meat of any kind. Nor did I relish the idea of sitting in another smoke-filled dining room. So I copped out and grabbed a slice of spinach pizza at Pizza Bizi on the way back to my hotel. It was only 4:30pm, but I wanted to try to get to bed early.

Back at Hotel Austria, I stopped at the guests’ computer desk in the lobby to check my email and was excited to find a message from my best friend. Once I had returned to my room for the evening, I set both my watch alarm and the hotel’s alarm clock for 3:30am, testing the latter to make sure that it functioned properly.

A short while later, I tucked into my slice of sachertorte for dessert. Like the one at Hotel Sacher, this cake was dense and a bit dry, perhaps even more so given that Demel’s consisted of only one layer compared to Sacher’s two and therefore contained half the amount of jam. My goal was going to be to create a moister cake following the recipe given to me by Pasticceria Penso in Trieste. In addition to adding ground hazelnuts to the chocolate batter, their trick was to douse each cake layer in Maraschino liqueur before glazing with the apricot jam and chocolate ganache.

With nothing left to do, I went to bed around 9:00pm and fell asleep within the hour. However, the room was extremely stuffy. I woke up around midnight feeling restless and sweating under the heavy down comforter. I stayed awake for a couple of hours trying to suppress my nervous energy. After finally falling back asleep, I managed to doze on and off until my two alarms sounded.

In the quiet of the early morning, I took a quick shower, dressed, ate that last bit of stale bread and cheese for breakfast, and set to repacking for the final time. I had stored my ricotta affumicata and pitina in the mini fridge overnight and needed to bury them in the bottom of my luggage. I knew that the cheese had been sufficiently aged, though without a label, I didn’t trust that it would pass through customs without being questioned. And I knew for certain that the salami was banned. But given that these items were crucial for my book, I decided to take the risk of smuggling them into the country. I managed to force everything to fit, placing my carefully wrapped spiny spider crab shells at the very top of my nylon tote bag so they wouldn’t get crushed.

Once I was all set to depart, I went downstairs to the lobby to wait for my taxi. I was a little early, but so was the cab, both of us arriving exactly at 4:50am. The ride to the airport felt a bit harrowing, taking a mere 15 minutes compared to the half-hour trip from the airport when I had first arrived.

When I got to the airport just after 5:00am, the ticket counter was still closed. Eventually things began moving, and I allowed myself to settle in for the journey home. I caught my 7:25am flight to London Heathrow, where I almost didn’t make my connection due to a crazy-long line at security. Fortunately, my connecting flight had been delayed by a half hour, so I just made it. Eleven or so hours later, I arrived in San Francisco, my final trip to Friuli at an end. Now it was time for the real work of publishing Flavors of Friuli to begin!

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Since I had gone to bed so early the night before, it had taken me hours to fall asleep. When I finally drifted off, I experienced a bizarre dream: my fiancé playing with marionette puppets that had floppy pieces of sushi at the end of the strings! I awoke at 4:30am, full of nervous anticipation over my impending departure. With my brain anxiously running through mental checklists to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, I lay there in the dark for two hours, waiting for my alarm to go off.

Once I had showered and dressed, I crossed the street to Pasticceria Penso one final time to find the Stoppar family busy preparing the day’s sweets. Italo and his son Antonello were putting the final touches on a batch of sachertortes. Italo’s other son, Lorenzo, was rolling out puff pastry for apple strudel, and Uncle Giovanni was busy frying another batch of krapfen (doughnuts).

They persuaded me to wait for them to come to a stopping point so we could take some photos together. So I hung out there for an hour, at which point Antonello began scrabbling around the kitchen, pulling out a random selection of oversized tools: a large chef’s knife, an even bigger rolling pin, a giant wooden paddle, an enormous whisk, and a copper pot. He doled out the props, handing me the pot and whisk, and we paraded out of the kitchen into the shop, where we posed for a series of silly pictures (which I sadly never did receive copies of).

As always, Antonello’s mother, Rosanna, offered me a gift to take home—this time a putizza (spiral cake filled with raisins, nuts, and chocolate). I tried to politely decline, explaining how overstuffed my bags already were, but she was very persistent. I didn’t want to seem rude, so I accepted. Saying goodbye wasn’t easy, since the family had practically taken me in and made me feel at home in a very short period of time. But I had a train to catch, so I hugged them each one last time and made my exit.

Back at my apartment, I collected my uneaten food items—the last of my bread and cheese, an apple and banana, a small yogurt, and the remaining pastries from Penso (one piece of sachertorte and one domino)—which would serve as my lunch on the train today as well as snacks on my long train ride to Vienna tomorrow. I was so loaded down, even with my extra collapsible tote bag, that I had to put all this excess food in a plastic grocery bag. There was absolutely no room for the putizza, nor the two bags of fave dei morti given to me by Rosanna the day before, so I left these in my room as gifts for the housekeeping staff.

I checked out of Residence Liberty and made my final trek to Trieste’s train station, where I successfully avoided the long line at the counter by buying my ticket at the automatic ticket machine. I had planned on doing some reading during the hour-long ride, but my book was buried in the bottom of my backpack and would have required some serious unpacking to dig out, so I spent most of the journey nibbling on bread, cheese, and apple and staring out the window at the rapidly passing countryside.

I arrived in Udine shortly after noon. Before leaving the station, I purchased my ticket for the train to Vienna, which would be leaving early the next morning. I made sure to get a seat reservation, as I had heard on the news that Trenitalia recommended reserving in advance due to the busy All Saints’ Day holiday weekend.

I checked into Hotel Principe, which had become my usual lodging in Udine, given its super friendly staff and convenient location almost directly across the street from the train station. The weather was rather nippy, and there was nothing much to do in the city, as all the stores and sights were closed for the afternoon and many were closed all day—either for the holiday, or perhaps just because it was Monday. So I opted to stay in and rest. My relentless pace over the past month had caught up to me, and I was feeling overwhelmingly exhausted.

However, the pre-travel jitters left me unable to truly relax. I was ready to skip ahead to tomorrow morning so I could be on my way. I unpacked what I needed, spreading my things out on the second bed. (Yet one more thing I liked about Hotel Principe was that I always had a double room with two beds!) Then I tried to do some writing but embarrassingly ended up playing Solitaire on my laptop instead. I watched a little TV and flipped through some of the cookbooks I had bought in Trieste. I was so bored at one point I resorted to scrolling through ringtones on my cell phone just to kill time.

My room was freezing, equally cold as past wintertime visits. I knew the heat would kick on later, but those midday hours, when guests were most often out and about, were typically the coldest. During many of my winter stays there, I more often than not found myself crawling into bed and taking a nap before dinner. Today I hadn’t worn myself out hiking through hill towns or exploring villages, but I still allowed myself to lie down awhile.

I left for dinner a little early, so that I could wander around a bit while it was still light out. On my way out, I stopped to chat with Michela at the reception desk, as well as Lucinda, who was in charge of the breakfast room. They are both such nice people and always seemed so pleased to see me. They knew about the cookbook I was writing, since I had often made Hotel Principe my home base during my research trips, and were interested in my progress. Chatting with them lifted my mood considerably, and I felt invigorated stepping out into the chilly late afternoon air.

I headed straight to the city center and, on impulse, ducked inside the Duomo, where a small service was in progress. Half the church’s interior was blocked off by scaffolding, renovations clearly in progress. I quietly skirted the nave until I reached a shadowy tunnel of curtains that allowed visitors to view the Tiepolo masterpieces being restored.

From there, I took a short detour through Piazza della Libertà, just to gaze at the Venetian-style square one last time—to impress upon my memory all the details, as I didn’t expect to be back for a long time. (In fact, I never did return to Udine, since subsequent health problems have made travel impossible for me.) The pink and white stripes of the Loggia del Lionello were illuminated by spotlights and stood out vividly against the now darkening sky. Tons of people were out strolling the streets, a disproportionate number wearing witch’s hats—I had nearly forgotten that it was Halloween!

After meandering up and down Via Mercatovecchio, admiring the window displays and browsing briefly in the bookshop Libreria Ubik, I veered westward, heading in the direction of the cobblestone Via Viola and my destination, Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo. I arrived not long after the restaurant opened to find the elderly nonna of the family having dinner at her usual corner table.

For my final Friulian meal, I was tempted to order my all-time favorite, frico con patate, but instead went with another traditional dish, musetto e brovada. Musetto is a fatty, cartilaginous sausage made from pig snout, skin, and various other bits of pork all mixed together with white wine and spices. Its traditional accompaniment is brovada, turnips fermented for a month in grape marc. I had tried both several times before but not for over a year, since brovada is a seasonal dish and wasn’t available during my most recent spring and summer trips. I wanted to instill the taste memory so that I could effectively recreate a short-cut brovada at home, as well as find a suitable substitute for musetto (I ended up using cotechino, which is more readily available in the U.S.). While neither musetto nor brovada would have qualified as my favorite dish, I didn’t remember either being this unpleasant. Cut into chunky, round slices, the musetto was greasy, sticky, and downright mucilaginous. The brovada was just as sour and vinegary as ever, its flavor definitely an acquired taste—though my own version of 48-hour marinated turnips ended up being pretty spot-on.

As an accompaniment, I ordered a side of grilled eggplant, zucchini, and red bell pepper. I also treated myself to a quartino (quarter liter) of the house red wine. When I had finished my meal, the waiter brought me a small wine glass of what I later learned was called sgroppino, as a complimentary treat for Halloween. The drink was like a liquidy lemon sorbetto with a light sprinkling of cocoa on top, but I also detected a flavor that I couldn’t quite place. It wasn’t until I had returned to my hotel room and sat down to enjoy my sachertorte and domino for dessert that it occurred to me that the mysterious flavor was alcohol—likely prosecco and grappa—for I was suddenly feeling rather drunk!

Photos of sachertorte and krapfen courtesy of Pasticceria Penso.

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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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Udine's Torre dell'OrologioFive weeks of intense travel had nearly come to a close. It was my second to last morning, and while at breakfast, I learned that the temperature in Udine had reached 41°C (106°F) the day before. Having weathered nearly a week of record heat, I was feeling utterly exhausted. Each day, I had taken a bus or train to a different town and walked until my legs gave out. For four evenings in a row, I had eschewed dinner out, choosing instead to have a light picnic in the cool of my hotel room. Today, I succumbed entirely, deciding to do absolutely nothing at all.

I did briefly leave my room midmorning, so that housekeeping could come in. I strolled for about an hour, wandering around Udine’s centro. I was hoping to find an air-conditioned bookstore to browse in, but being Sunday, nearly all the shops were closed. Already, the temperature sign at Via Zanon read 30°C (86°F), and there seemed to be nowhere for me to go to find some shade. I found a bar at Piazza della Libertà and bought a panino made with bresaola, mozzarella, and fresh focaccia. That would end up serving as both my lunch and dinner.

I spent the entire afternoon in my room, writing sections of my book Flavors of Friuli. It was a productive day, though by dinnertime I was beginning to feel claustrophobic and disoriented. My room was on the ground floor of Hotel Principe, with windows facing out into the parking lot. For privacy, I kept the dark metal shutters closed at all times. Since I couldn’t see outside—and also because I hadn’t done anything physically tiring for a change—it didn’t seem conceivable that it was already evening. After eating the second half of my panino, I went out for another walk to reorient myself. Though not quite dusk, the sun was lower in the sky, casting a warm peach glow over the rooftops. It appeared that the whole city had come out for a pre-dinner passeggiata, reveling in the ever-so-slightly cooler evening air. After getting a gelato (cioccolato and stracciatella again), I melded with the crowd, savoring my last night in Udine.

The following morning, I took the train back to Milano, with the usual hectic 10-minute connection in Mestre. While I always traveled light—carrying only a rolling duffel and a small backpack—somehow I had acquired what felt like an extra 20 pounds of stuff. My bag was filled with cookbooks that I had purchased along the way (including one huge coffee table book), and I now had a third bag filled with miscellany that would no longer fit in the suitcase. Maneuvering all this up and down stairs in the stations, lugging it onto trains, and heaving the largest bag onto the overhead storage rack was no small feat. I was relieved to finally arrive in Milano.

Duomo di MilanoI was staying again at Hotel Speronari, just off Piazza del Duomo. My room was on the third floor, with no elevator. These are the last stairs I will have to climb, I consoled myself. After checking in, I paid a visit to the Duomo, then walked to Via Solferino and the gastronomia Più del Pane Callegaro. There, I picked up a picnic dinner of assorted mini quiche, with toppings of eggplant, tomato, zucchini, and potato. On the same street, I found a bakery and bought some treats to take with me: an American-style lemon bar, a mini apricot crostata, and two unusual-looking apple cookies. These would be my breakfast and snack at the airport the next morning.

I tried to go to bed early, but found myself tossing around all night. For once, the room had an electric fan, which I positioned next to the bed, but even with the window wide open, the fan could only recirculate the hot, suffocating air. I slept in 15- to 30-minute increments, afraid of missing my alarm, finally getting up at 4:30am to take a quick shower in the bathroom down the hall. Once I had dressed and repacked, I was on autopilot, a routine I had repeated so many times in previous years: awaken the receptionist on night duty, check out, walk 10 minutes in the eerie darkness to Piazza San Babila, and catch the shuttle bus to Linate Airport. Soon I would be back home in San Francisco.

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Do MoriWhenever I traveled to Friuli–Venezia Giulia, I could never bear to leave without visiting the neighboring Veneto region and my favorite city in the world: Venezia. My five-week-long trip of summer 2005 had almost come to a close, and I was taking the train from Udine into my beloved La Serenissima for the day. After three previous visits to Venezia during Carnevale (of which only one was intentionally planned to coincide with the event), I found myself desperately longing to encounter fewer crowds. The Biennale film festival was scheduled to begin the following day, however, so I was inevitably doomed to battle another sea of tourists.

Do MoriWhen I got off the train, I headed directly for the Rialto. Instead of choosing a single restaurant at lunchtime, my plan was to nibble on cicchetti throughout the day at my favorite bacari. My first stop was one of the best in the city, Do Mori, where I savored crostini with baccalà mantecato (puréed salt cod), a crab claw, and a baby octopus, all washed down with a refreshing midmorning glass of prosecco.

scallopsAt the nearby fish market, I wandered through the crowded aisles, wishing I had an apartment where I could take some of the beautiful seafood home to cook (that dream would come true one December five years later). I did purchase some scallop shells, which I needed for my recipe capesante gratinate (scallops baked with a bread crumb topping). Even though the oven-safe shells that I had bought at a gourmet food store back home were usable, they had been bleached an unnatural shade of white, their enormous size dwarfing the scallops within. The ones I picked up in Venezia were the real thing, fresh from the sea, with all the markings in pink and mauve that a scallop should have.

Cantinone Gia SchiaviI crossed the Rialto Bridge and made my way through Piazza San Marco to the Accademia Bridge, which led to one of my favorite sestieri, Dorsoduro. I had stayed in this relatively quiet neighborhood twice before, and my heart was still brimming with wistful memories of hidden alleys, misty canals, and the most tantalizing cicchetti at Cantinone Già Schiavi. Their vast selection of crostini, for which they are best known, included toppings of baccalà (both mantecato and alla cappucina); tomato, brie, and anchovy; and fluffy herb-flecked ricotta with sun-dried tomato. Knowing that I had one more stop on my bar-hopping lunch, I settled for just one bite—tuna salad sprinkled with cocoa—and another glass of prosecco.

By early afternoon, the late July sun was becoming unbearably hot. Not a single breeze blew in from the lagoon to ease the scorching temperatures. In an effort to cool off, I treated myself to a gelato (cioccolato and stracciatella) on my way to the Chiesa di San Vidal, where I bought my mom another CD by her favorite string ensemble, Interpreti Veneziani.

Ai Promessi SposiThe throngs of tourists in San Marco proved to be too much for me, so I decided to wind my way back through the less populated calli of Dorsoduro and Santa Croce. By the time I reached the Cannaregio sestiere, it was already 3:00pm. My final cicchetti stop of the day, Ai Promessi Sposi, was still open, though empty. Seeing as I had been snacking on and off all day, I only wanted a few more bites. I requested a crab claw, a little eggplant, some baccalà, and one canocia (mantis shrimp). The man at the counter told me to find a table, and he would bring me my plate. When he did five minutes later, the plate was twice as large as I had expected, piled high with food, and heated in the microwave. He had given me four crab claws (these were deep-fried and not nearly as exquisite as Do Mori’s), a huge serving of marinated eggplant, and a mammoth portion of baccalà (this one prepared with potatoes, olives, and anchovies). He had forgotten the canocia, but I wasn’t about to point that out. I just ordered myself a third glass of prosecco and decided to call this meal an early dinner.

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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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Marano LagunareI awoke early to catch the 8:00am bus to Marano Lagunare, a small fishing village located along Friuli’s southern coast between Grado and Lignano. The trip took just over an hour from Udine, which gave me several hours to explore before lunchtime. The smell of salt air and freshly caught fish greeted me as I arrived at the harbor. Houses of robin’s egg blue, salmon pink, and sunflower yellow lined the narrow streets of the town’s old center, while boats of blue and white sat docked along the canals. As I ventured south along the water’s edge, however, the pastel colors vanished, revealing a less attractive, though perhaps more authentic, scene: fishing boats crusted with mud, rusty cranes, garbage-filled dumpsters, and backhoes hauling buckets of dirt.

Marano Lagunare Riserva NaturaleI circled back toward town, passing through a nondescript residential section on my way to the Riserva Naturale Valle Canal Novo, a protected nature reserve encompassing the marshy wetlands that surround Marano Lagunare. Unfortunately, the visitor’s center happened to be closed that day, so there were no guided tours. But it was possible to enter the park via a wooden footbridge that extended over the water into the dense thicket of reeds, home to countless forms of native wildlife.

Though it was only 11:00am, the intense July heat was beginning to tire me out. I returned to the central piazza and found a shady bench in full view of the Torre Millenaria. For over an hour I sat there, watching the comings and goings of village life—elderly couples out for a stroll, women pulling shopping carts of groceries, children frolicking around the tower steps.

Trattoria alla LagunaFor lunch, I headed to Trattoria Alla Laguna (a.k.a. Vedova Raddi), located in a three-story building of rust red stucco overlooking the harbor. I started with the frutti di mare gratinati, a plate of mussels and scallops baked in their shells with a bread crumb topping. Next, I was excited to try their signature dish, risotto alla Maranese, but was disappointed to read on the menu that they required a minimum of two persons for the order. From past experience, I knew that this was not uncommon. Nevertheless, I explained that I was writing a cookbook on Friulian cuisine and asked politely if it might be possible to have a single portion of the dish. The owner graciously acquiesced—and the risotto was delicious! Served with calamari, shrimp, mussels, and local wedge shell clams called telline, the risotto was prepared al dente in a perfectly soupy fish stock that tasted of the ocean.

Between courses, the owner came over to chat. He explained that all his seafood was locally caught in the lagoon and, strangely, that many Americans would come to visit each year around Easter. I imagined that “many” may have been a relative term, given the few Americans I had ever encountered in Friuli—and since Marano Lagunare was not at the time listed in any of my English-language guidebooks.

Shortly, the owner returned with a huge guestbook for me to sign. He revealed that the book was for his “famous” guests and pointed to one signature in particular by a dignitary from Iran (I never quite caught exactly who he was). The owner went on to boast that when he was a child, and his father ran the restaurant, Ernest Hemingway dined there quite often. I felt honored, though somewhat baffled, that he had requested my autograph, too.

Marano LagunareAfter lunch, my plan was to take the boat to Lignano Sabbiadoro, the region’s largest beach resort. It was a pleasant 40-minute ride across the lagoon, sunny but with a cool breeze floating over the water. In the distance, scattered amid the marshes, were tiny, thatched fisherman’s huts called casoni.

Lignano SabbiadoroCompared to Marano Lagunare, Lignano was huge. I only had an hour before my return bus to Udine, so I didn’t get to explore the resort town as fully as I would have liked. The beach itself was approximately five miles long and serviced by more than forty bathing houses, all renting umbrellas and lounge chairs to vacationing sunbathers. It was now peak season, and thousands of those colorful umbrellas dotted the soft, golden sand, all lined up in flawless rows. I walked partway down the beach to an enclosed jetty that extended out over the sea. The sapphire blue water was shallow and calm, and I wished that I could go for a swim myself.

Lignano SabbiadoroStanding there alone, surrounded by families, couples, groups of friends—everyone attached to someone else—a certain melancholy began to set in. I was, for the most part, quite comfortable traveling alone and rarely felt awkward even going into restaurants by myself. As an only child, I had grown accustomed to keeping myself company and generally enjoyed the solitude. But every so often, as on that day in Lignano, I wished that Mike (my now husband) had been able to come on the trip, so that I would have someone to lounge on the beach and splash in the sea with.

I walked back past highrise hotels, tacky gift shops, and gelaterie, most of which were closed at that late hour of the afternoon. Near the bus station, I did find one gelateria that was open, and I treated myself to a double scoop of limone (lemon) and yogurt. The sun was beating down, and I was glad to finally board the air-conditioned bus.

Before returning to Hotel Principe, I took a walk into Udine’s centro. It was so swelteringly hot that I knew I wouldn’t feel like having a big dinner that evening. Deciding to eat in again, I picked up some apricots, strawberries, and a tomato at the produce market. Then, I found a bar that sold tramezzini and bought a sandwich with turkey to go. I ate my picnic dinner early, in the cool of my hotel room, watching the news on TV and trying to figure out my plans for my final three days in Friuli.

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