Our Favorite Corner of Italy — to be Savored Not Just for its Food

This post is based on three wonderful trips in 2003, 2006 and 2011.

By Jean and Peter Richards

Valter Scarbolo is justifiably proud of his wines.

A far corner of Italy keeps drawing us back for its food, its heritage and its welcoming people.

History converges in the Friuli, a bountiful land of good food and drink bordered by Austria, Slovenia and the Veneto, sandwiched between the Carnia mountains and the Adriatic Sea. Celts, Romans, Lombards and Slavs have left their marks on its land, language and culture.

One of many treasures at Aquileia

Travel guides advertise the charms of summer with its soft beaches, azure sea, mountain adventures, cultural festivals and endless fieras. We prefer it in late winter when traffic is light, vistas are expansive, cultural sites are uncrowded and the landscapes and ports are coming to life.

A chance line in Faith Heller Willinger’s estimable guide “Eating in Italy” first drew us there in 2003. The Furlans, she wrote, are “the warmest and most hospitable of the Italians.” Three visits on, we heartily concur.

We don’t advocate this for a first trip to Italy, but as a destination for the traveler for whom a fine day might include a leisurely drive in the mountains or along a sparkling seaside, a stop to admire a Lombard temple, a magnificent mosaic or an 18th century villa capped by a meal of honest, tasty, deeply satisfying foods enjoyed in surroundings warmed by the fogular hearth on which they are cooked.

We take our time on the cobbled streets of town after town bordered by beautifully preserved Venetian-inspired buildings. We find a bench from which to watch men painting their fishing boats bright yellow and blue or to savor the sun intensifying colorful Trieste’s sloping landscape on an early Sunday morning.

Caffe degli Specchi, Piazza dell’Unita d’Italila, Trieste

Then there are the stone squares so central to life’s daily pleasure of coffee sipped in the sun outside a cafe. We would be hard pressed to claim which is best: the loggia in nearby Slovenian Koper overlooking the Venetian town hall or Caffe degli Specchi on Trieste’s Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia. Trieste, port city of legend, intrigue, James Joyce and Illy coffee, is the capital of the Friuli, but one part in the larger administrative region, Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Its pleasant cities and towns are a sampler of history. Pretty, pastel Palmanova with its nine pointed star formation is considered by some the best example of a planned Renaissance town. Medieval Cividale, first capital of the Lombard Empire, is the site of a rare 8th century Lombard temple. Bustling Udine traces its origins to a hill built by order of Attila the Hun and graced a millennium later by the designs of Andrea Palladio, whose influence carried forth in the 18th century grandeur of Villa Manin at Passariano di Codroipo, home of the last Doge of Venice.

We are often taken by surprise on a drive: the view across the Slovenian hills from the castle in Gorizia, the steeply stepped and deeply moving World War I memorial at Redipuglia, the sensuous Corso Vittorio Emanuele and mellifluous church bells in Pordenone and the delightful arcaded town of Spilimbergo where the lucky residents may have a flat in the castle ravaged 500 years ago by a fire still commemorated annually. Furlans don’t seem to forget. The past is important to them and they share it daily in life and at table.

The past keeps on giving at Aquileia, a charming spot en route to the island resort of Grado. Once an important Roman outpost, Aquileia’s fame now rests on the floor of its

Part of the great floor mosaic at Aquileia

4th century basilica where symbols of Christendom are laid out in one of the largest mosaics extant. The sea monster swallows Jonah, apostles fish an abundant sea; birds are poised amongst cockerels, hares and turtles in a mesmerizing panoply. Down the road, the Museo Archeological displays the remarkable artistry of intaglio, cameo, coinage, glass and life-like tomb figures salvaged from nearby fields. If the art at Aquileia doesn’t make the visitor giddy, the grappa produced at its distillery just might.

Visiting gastronomes increasingly appreciate the Friuli for its food — the kind that’s grown on farms, reared in pastures, aged in mountains and tended in vineyards, prepared with skill and offered with pleasure.

This is the land of cucina povera, but it is rich beyond measure in ingredients that take their character from the earth and cooks who know how to use them. It is often the women who are the curators of a hearth-based heritage determined to maximize taste and minimize waste.

Furlans can make pasta out of almost anything that can be ground into flour pasta that can be twisted, cut into ribbons, made into pockets, roasted, filled with meat, sauced with potato, dotted with artichokes, speck or the fruits of the sea.

Wolf Petris outside his mountain smokehouse in Sauris

Almost every meal starts with a large plate of hand cut prosciutto; not just any prosciutto, but that said to be the best in Italy whether it be the sweet, dark pink of San Daniele or the delicately smoked specialty of Sauris. Elfin Wolf Petris lives in the Carnia near the top of a mountain trod once by Celts and now reached by switchback roads. He smokes pig and makes a cheese so good it is said that it rarely escapes the Friuli. Signor Petris doesn’t have to leave his smokehouse. Those who know go to him. His prosciutto is indescribably delicious: delicately smoked, rich in flavor and almost silky to cut. His pancetta makes one long for winter’s hearty treats year round. His salami is essential to the trio of ingredients from which one of the most unusual, delicious and celebrated specialties is made: polenta accompanied by warmed slices of salami and sauced with a red wine vinegar reduction.

The best version we have had was at an inn in the hills operated by five generations of family. Long before the “slow food” movement started, the Devetaks in San Michele del Carso welcomed diners with the admonition that “eating a meal at a table is a pleasure, don’t ruin it by hurrying.” After the first bite, one wouldn’t want to.

Lunch opened with a classic soup with celery and pork cooked on a wood burning stove for six hours accompanied by nutty crisp wafers topped with sesame and was followed by the polenta and salami, a roe deer goulash and a veal fillet with a sauce in the sweet-sour tradition of the regional fare. Those who come for dinner at the Gostilna can reserve for the night at the inn.

Pausing to chat with friends at Caffe degli Specchi, Trieste

Furlans value veal and roast it superbly. It was a highlight of a most pleasant stay in one of the cottages of Azienda La Subida in Cormons where a third and fourth generation of Sirks welcome guests to their considerable place in the country and run one of the best restaurants in Friuli: Al Cacciatore. They also produce very agreeable wines.

At Al Piave in Corona, the chef and his wife blend local ingredients to make food that celebrates flavor and honors tradition. The appetizer at one Sunday lunch would have been worth the trip: carpaccio of goose followed by deer with horseradish sauce, wild boar and pork filet with pink peppercorn.

Osteria Terra & Vini at Brazzano di Cormons exemplifies the blend of modern marketing and tradition-based fare. We stumbled on it when we passed its nearly full parking lot one lunchtime, caught a glimpse of its pleasant appearance, turned around to look in and grabbed the last farm table in the pretty, bright room. There was no menu and we had no idea of the price as plate after plate came: carpaccio of veal on a bed of peppery rocket with a splash of an orange tinged sauce, gnocchi with wild boar, zuppa di fagiole, roasted goose leg and an irresistibly creamy gelato drizzled with freshly made hot chocolate sauce. If the meal was a bit of a surprise, the bill was more so a mere 64 € for two with drinks and cover in Spring 2011 when Drago Viller was newly installed in the kitchen. Osteria Terra & Vini is owned by Livio Felluga whose vines span 135 hectares in the hills around Cormons and whose wines grace the tables.

Valter Scarbolo outside La Frasca

Furlan winemakers are becoming internationally recognized.

Valter Scarbolo is one. The wines from his vineyard in Pavia di Udine are becoming well rated as is the food at his restaurant La Frasca. We made a reservation for lunch because an Austrian acquaintance recommended it highly. As we were turning in to the parking lot, a driver bumped our car from behind and another vehicle crashed into his. The accident was minor. The paperwork took an hour by which time we had lost our appetites. Then the delightful Mr. Scarbolo appeared.

“You must come. You must eat,” he insisted. “It will be better.”

Artichoke soup, La Frasca

Eat, we did — creamy artichoke soup with a shrimp set a top and perfect spaghetti with cream, shaved artichoke and white meat of chicken.

“You must try the wines,” he insisted, setting three bottles on the table. He was especially proud of a 2008 called “My Time.” Even we could discern the qualities which had moved Robert Parker recently to rate it a 92 and other Scarbolos nearly as high. We would be hard-pressed to choose which we enjoyed more — the fine lunch and wines or our genial host that day.

The enthusiasm of the hosts is one of the joys of dining in the Friuli. Show the least interest and an explanation likely ensues. That’s how we learned that radicchio is no

Fabulous radicchio at Al Parco, Buttrio

simple chicory and that the compact, white veined maroon variety flattened before us and warmly dressed in vinegar, speck and onion was from a prized source in nearby Gorizia. That alone would have been sufficient to ensure our return to Al Parco, a trattoria appropriately named for its in-town setting in Buttrio.

Appetizers of Furlan fried milk and Montasio cheese in phyllo were followed by a superb spaghetti in cream sauce with the season’s first white asparagus and a moist, crispy skinned, flavorful chicken quarter lifted straight from the fogular to our plates already holding a creamy polenta. Crostlli, the fried dough sometimes called angel’s wings, were a warm, crunchy, sugary Lenten accompaniment to the house coffee and a very nice dessert wine, Meroi Verduzzo.

“I made you a good bill,” the maitre d’ said. He did55€ including drinks.

Tending the fogular

Osteria La Pergola in San Daniele had moved since we last enjoyed a lunch when it was the Antico Osteria, but when we inquired about it at a pizzeria near the old location, a customer cheerfully offered to lead us to its new place outside of town. It had lost none of its rustic appeal. Veal polpettine, little meatballs on pureed zucchini, fabulous taglioliniwith prosciutto and cream, breast of duck perfectly grilled, sliced and drizzled with olive oil and balsamico, finely breaded lamb chops grilled, a salad and hot, crunchy fried chunks of potato.

Duck breast, Osteria la Pergola, San Daniele

Brovada is a staple of Furlan fare. Sale e Pepe in Stregna, where Teresa Covaceuszach introduced us to this pickled turnip at lunch at her homey place in the hills where the soups and stews were just the ticket on a chilly day. Teresa’s warmth and volubility added to the pleasant respite.

Seafood is a specialty at the aptly named Alla Buona Vite in Boscat beyond Belvedere, about 10 kilometers from Grado. Scallops were prepared to perfection, the frito misto was bountiful and fresh and the large hot and cold antipasto was a feast in itself. The first white asparagus roasted and sprinkled with Parmesan washed down nicely with their family’s Pinot Griglio. The house lemon-vodka sorbetto slipped down the throat with refreshing ease.

The vexing problem: deciding on a flavor at Gran Gelato, Cervignano

Tempting as desserts may be, we often can’t resist taking our post prandial sweet at Gran Gelato in Cervignano where even in winter the fiori di latte (flower of milk) or fragola (strawberry) are freshly made and enjoyed while considering the possibilities for the next day.

Grappa is the usual drink with which to begin and end a Furlan day — a bracing corretto splashed into a morning coffee or a welcome digestive at the end of the evening. The Nonino family in Percoto is widely credited with refining grappa by making it from the leavings of a single varietal and then packaging the results beautifully in a clear chemist’s bottle. Its popular UE sells for about 14€ at the distillery, but its small production of the an even smoother Picolit brings 100€ a half liter, a price which would stun generations past if they knew. Nonino also makes a very pleasant herby Amaro, less bitter than many.

Distilleria Domenis in Cividale seems favored by the local cognescenti for its smoothness and taste. Some of their drinks are Kosher. The rabbi comes in from Trieste. Sec Olo sells for about about 25€ at the distillery surrounded by their extensive vineyards. Domenis’ popular single shot tubes packaged in attractive cigarillo sized packets of ten make fine, easily transportable gifts.

Distilleria Aquileia produces a variety of liqueurs as well as grappa. The pear (Pera) is intense.

It’s difficult to have a bad meal in the Friuli. In dozens, we’ve had but one. So pleasant have our experiences been that we mourn special losses. We still think of cheerful Lydia della Rovere and the parpadelle with artichoke she served at Da Romea in the chair- making town of Manzano during our first visit to the area almost a decade ago. Three years later we found Da Romea closed.

If anyone epitomized the welcoming Furlan host in our experience, it was Dante Bernadis, “Shorty” to even the newcomer. Of all the meals we have shared in the Friuli, this was the most memorable. It began with an aperitif of Pinot Grigio and amuse-bouche of fried cheese formed like tempura shrimp and prosciutto. So detailed was his decoding of the menu that we wanted it all and left the choices to him. Salami and polenta arrived with sauteed onions under a white wine and vinegar sauce. Faraona Lardellata con verza e olio di cacao was an exquisite pintade (guinea hen) sauteed to perfection and presented on lettuce accompanied by a light and fresh Tokai Carlo Prado from Cormons. Velluta di bieta alla quaglia was two fried tiny quail legs standing in a thick, creamy chard sauce. Perfection itself.

Tagliolini con salsiccia was accompanied by a tasting of Merlot di Ermacora 2001 Colli Orventoki. Two hours had elapsed in the pleasant surroundings. It was time to order the meat course. Signor suggested the goose leg and with a twinkle added we could order according to taste “the right or the left.” The coscia d’oca croccante al forno con patate al rosmarino was crunchy, rich and exquisite.

Only the leisurely pace made it possible to accommodate the sweet. Signor Bernadis insisted: a slice of orange marmalade tart, a coupe of ginger and pineapple sorbetto and a tasting of his recommended dessert wine, Verduzzo di Buschetto.

When lunch was over he gave us a lesson in grappa particularly recommending Domenis as Faith Willinger had predicted he would.

When we repaired after four hours to the now empty bar to pay the 108.50€ bill, all we could think was that this fabulous meal would have cost a fortune elsewhere. Blasut closed before our next visit. “Shorty” has not been forgotten even though we have since shared many other memorable meals in the Friuli.

Trattoria Gostilna Devetak , San Michele del Carso (+39 0481-882488). Closed Monday and Tuesday and at lunch on Wednesday and Thursday.

La Subida, via Subida, 52 34071 Cormons (+39 0481 60531) Restaurant Al Cacciatore. Closed Tuesday and Wednesday and for lunch on Monday, Thursday and Friday.

Al Piave, 6 via Cormons, 34070 Mariano del Friuli (+39 0481 69003). Closed Tuesday.

Osteria Terra e Vini, Via 24 Maggio, 34071 Brazzano di Cormons (+39 0481 60028). Closed Sunday evening and all day Monday.

Trattoria La Frasca, Viale Grado, 10 33050 Lauzacco (+39 0432 675150). Closed Wednesdays.

Al Parco, via Stretta 7, Buttrio (+39 0432 674025). Closed Tuesday evening and all day Wednesday.

Osteria La Pergola, via Venezia n. 57/a, 33038 San Daniele del Friuli (+39 0432 954909). Call for hours.

Sale e Pepe, via Capoluogo 19, Stregna (UD) 33040 (+39 0432 7241118). Hours change seasonally.

Alla Buona Vite, Via Dossi, 15 Boscat (+39 0431 88090). Closed Thursday out of season.

Gran Gelato, Via Udine 47, 33052 Cervignano del Friuli. (+39 0431 34923)

Copyright © 2012 Jean and Peter Richards

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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