By Jean and Peter Richards
Spring is a good time to savor the flavors of the Friuli where the warmth of an Italian welcome is always in season.
The natural resilience of the people of this long-besieged landscape manifests itself magnificently in the gastronomy influenced by the historic necessity to use every last scrap and to maximize taste: seafood boreto, pickled turnip brovada and powerful grappa.
We like this northeast corner of Italy in late March ahead of the seaside tourist season just as the daffodils open and the Carnian mountain slopes turn lushly green. We go there to sip the refreshing local wines and eat grilled meats and roasts, seafood, the first spring asparagus, the spectacular radicchios of Gorizia and Treviso and desserts like strucchi filled with nuts and dried fruit.
Fusion is no new trend here where the descendants of Celts, Gauls, Romans, Etruscans and Huns have been mixing it up through the ages with great success. Younger cooks are moving in more global directions, not always with similar success. Two restaurants where we had previously enjoyed wonderful meals fell far short this trip under the influence of mindless innovation.
Fortunately, most Furlans know better than to rush headlong into a trend. Fine meals in the Friuli can often be had that would be worthy of a major urban setting and that cost far less here than they might elsewhere. In general, the Italians are not greedy and don’t jack up prices of coffee, wine and bottled water the way the French do.
Every few years we stay at the Grand Hotel Astoria in Grado and try to sample as much as we can from Grado on the Adriatic to Clodig in the Carnia. In Italy we like to have our main meal of the day at lunch. Rarely do we eat as well for as little anywhere as we do in the Friuli. Lunch for the two of us generally runs in the 50-60 euro range. Fish restaurants are more expensive.
Our choices are generally selected because they have been suggested by enthusiastic eaters, food professionals in the area, stumbled upon by accident or found in one of the lists distributed by similar restaurants, in a guide or on an internet site.
Some meals are satisfying; some meals are memorable. Some people are lucky to live in a place time has passed by. It almost seems some days as if work is a way to kill time before a very good lunch.
The recommendable highlights for 2015, in no particular order, are:
Osteria Villafredda, Via Liruti 7, 33017 Tarcento, where we shared the 31€ Menu Tipico with silky, delicate lardo and cotello, an herbed frittata with fried cheese, a lusty but well-balanced barley soup with beans, the local ravioli known as cialcions (or cjalcions) of Carnia, sliced pork medallions with sweet herbs and a very good strudel.
We also shared on the al la carte menu a fine salad of a shredded radicchio with shaved duck ham, an inventive and refined artichoke mousse with the local Montasio cheese in the sauce and veal kidneys with mustard sauce. The bill with wine, water and a sorbetto was 68€.
Trattoria Gostilna Devetak at San Michele del Carso on the Slovenian border has kept its standards and passed them on to the next generation. The hills are dotted with signs indicating the battlefields of World War I. The restaurant is rustically Karst with art nouveau touches in the lighting and woodwork. The food draws from the mountains, Austria and Eastern Europe.
Tapelspitz, a nod toward Austria with pork, brisket, tongue and a tartare with yogurt and mustard — a bollito misto without the broth. It was very good.
The first white asparagus on the first day of Spring tenderly cooked and served with a perfectly poached egg on one side and a creamy cheese sauce on the other.
Mlinci con La Supeta, the restaurant’s Dish of Memory, a flavorful stew of tender chicken breast with lasagna-like pasta and paprika. It is memorialized on a plate which came with the entrée – a ceramic souvenir tradition which began 51 years ago as a promotion by some restaurants in Italy organized to save the old recipes. Unione Ristoranti del Buon Riccordo adds new plates yearly and people collect them. This was our first. The entrée was 15€ including the charming plate illustrated with a cartoon chicken.
Homemade tagliatelle sauced with wild boar was followed by apple strudel with poppy seed and pine nuts, which was unusual and not quite to our taste, and a sweet, unleavened dough filled with jam and served with vanilla sauce. With water, wine and coffee, the bill came 67.30€. Homemade grappa was offered.
The Devetak family has joined the movement to bring back traditional breads. Cheese sticks were thin and crispy, crostata was crunchy. The heritage breads were presented as part of the “Let’s Save the Bread” campaign undertaken by 20 restaurateurs in the region who are “raising the alarm to save the traditionally naturally leavened fresh bread.” The manifesto went on to say, the “market is overrun with frozen bread, often produced outside of Italy. Bread that is reheated just before going on to the shelves, and sold as fresh. And, there is worse to come: it’s made with flours mixed with self-raising substances to drastically reduce the preparation time. This means the job of of the yeasts continues in our stomachs, so the digestion process after eating this type of bread (and sweet buns or pizzas) is long and hard…….We have to turn back to the traditional, fresh, digestible bread made as it has been for thousands of years: grain, flour, natural yeast and water.” Their passion is contagious.
It was so nice to see people doing something well over a sustained period of time and generations.
de Toni, Piazza Duca d’Aosta, 37, Grado. A very good restaurant for fritto misto and fish prepared well and served in an attractive setting in the old quarter. Not just a tourist place in a resort town. Our bill was 49€ for a fritto misto, a grilled orate, a salad, and water.
Al Parco, Via Stretta del Parco, 7 33042 Buttrio. There is no sign visible at the entrance gate to this handsome stone edifice in a park-like setting. Fred, the loquacious Albanian-born waiter, gives good advice and says rightly that “the food here is very traditional, very simple and very good.”
Flower of radicchio of Gorizia with spek sautéed to golden with a warm sweet-sour vinaigrette, one of the most beautiful and most satisfying appetizers in the culinary heavens. Spectacular.
Prosciutto with fried zucchini flowers. Sweet prosciutto with tempura-like flowers that were hot, crisp and crunchy.
Carpaccio of deep red, very fresh, thinly sliced venison with with tiny flecks of raw horseradish, a drizzle of olive oil, a raspberry, blackberry and kumquat and pomegranate seeds had a fresh and delicate taste, not a bit gamey. A large portion. Served with a piece of crostada. It was interesting, new to us, and delicious.
Homemade and very thin tagliatelle with green and white asparagus in a cream sauce sprinkled with cheese. We had glasses of Pinot Griglio Meroi to begin and Sauvignon Meroi with the venison.
Fred said, as he has before, that he would make us a good bill and he did. “It came to 300, but I made it 60.” We happily paid.
Trattoria Barcaneta in Piazza Marii, 7, Marano Luganare, a particularly pretty fishing port where Claudio Moretti presides at his restaurant with a precision bordering on brilliance. It was an extraordinary lunch and one we would not have had had without a recommendation from the waiter at another restaurant. The dishes are interesting and composed of fresh ingredients simply dressed, but it was one of the few times in our half century of eating out when every single ingredient was perfection. Nothing was overcooked; nothing was under dressed; nothing was amiss. Flavors, even when unusual, worked.
Insalata di piovra con rosa di Gorizia e brovada crudo: thin slices of chilled octopus with Goritzian radicchio and shreds of pickled turnip. Very lightly dressed in oil.
The little plate of lightly battered tiny shrimp and fish chef offered as an adjunct may have been the best fritto misto we’ve ever enjoyed. They were piping hot and crunchy, a rarity.
Codine di gambero su letto di peperoni: prawn were delicate yet with a distinct, fresh flavor and served on a slight squiggle of pepper sauce. Possibly the star of the day.
Filetto di orata scottato con radicchio di Treviso et crema di aceto balsamico; an interesting combination with the tart radicchio.
Spaghetti di Gragnano con fasolari (a red fleshed mollusc) e aspargi (green and white).
Gallinella di acqua (water hen) in umido con polenta. There is a local fish for which that name is used. Lumps of firm, white flesh. Whatever it is it was served in the most beautifully seasoned stock and with a slice of polenta. The bill was a bargain at 95€ and included two glasses of wine and coffee.
Tavernetta di Sara & Diego at Via Madonna del Mare, 2 , Trieste, is charming. It has half a dozen tables and a local clientele. The steak on rocket with shaved Grana Padano, recommended by Adam Begley in an article in 2011, was excellent. We also shared a fittingly filling tagliatelle with guanciale. Lunch was 60.50€, including two glasses of wine and water, We followed with a pleasant walk and coffee outside the famed Caffè Degli Specchi on the Piazza Unità d’Italia.. The two coffees cost 5€ and were worth every penny for the views of people and buildings.
Trattoria ai Bragossi, via Conte di Grado, 21, Grado, is a pleasant and good place to try boreto, a local specialty that evolved using the seafood that fisherman had left over from the catch or for which there was no market. A cheerful Austrian and Bragossi regular at the next table aided our choices: pepata di cozze, mussels in a light broth, 10€; boreto di seppie, cuttlefish in its own ink,15€; and boreto di cappelonghe, razor clams, 15€
Total 50€50 with water, 2 covers and 2 glasses of wine.
The Spaghetti House, Via Gradenigo, 27, Grado. The name put us off. We never would have entered this terrific little restaurant if it hadn’t been for Albert the Austrian’s recommendation the evening before. The art of grilling fresh vegetables is perfected here as is the preparation of spaghetti with garlic, pepper and oil and spaghetti vongole. Our only regret was that it had not made our list earlier. It just goes to show, one should never be put off by a name even if it does conjure up images of a similarly named chain in Asia. It was a fine meal with a flavorful bowl of large croutons for the bread basket. The bill was a mere 30€. Albert and friend waved from across the room and said next time to have the boreto with buffalo mozzarella.
Alla Buona Vite, Via Dossi, 15, Boscat. It was another Austrian whom we met on a previous trip who introduced us to this restaurant a few winters ago. This time we went for lunch:
Tagliolini with green asparagus and shrimp, a light and fresh fritto misto, white asparagus gratinée and panacotta served in a canning jar topped by a strawberry confit and with fresh strawberries from Sicily on the side. 63.50€ with wine, water and coffee.
We were so enthusiastic we made a reservation for lunch the following Sunday. That was a mistake. It was very busy on Sunday and that appeared to affect the quality of the food. The best thing that day was the little plate of fritto misto offered as an aperitivo and a portion of spaghetti vongole. Still, we will certainly return.
Trattoria alla Posta, Frazione Clodig 22, Grimacco, Frazzione Clodig, an hour and a half’s drive into the beautiful valley of the Natisone from Grado is not likely on the average visitor’s itinerary. It should be. This Slovenian border hamlet has a great cook. Maria Gilda Primosig wasn’t open the last time we drove into the mountains to find her, but this time we made a reservation and had a lunch which paid homage to the deep traditions of the Furlan culture and the creativity of the proud and self-described Lady Chef.
We let senora Maria have full rein, as did the other two diners, for a tasting menu supplemented by one glass of red Merlot and one glass of a white Tokai.
The slice of San Daniele prosciutto astride a warmly wilted Treviso radicchio with a sweet-sour dressing was a fine opener.
Senora told an elaborate story about the bread in the shape of a chick, but we couldn’t understand most of it. It did have to do with Easter. The chick was served with a scoop of ricotta and herbed spaetzle.
Potato soup with fennel and a dollop of pink ricotta, a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds and a sprig of fennel was spectacular.
Pasta (cjalcions) with a light cheese sauce was followed by a steamed artichoke. Small, feathery light gnocchi were interspersed in its leaves after having been tossed in a tomato sauce. We love artichokes but thought the tomato sauce did not pair well and that the favor of the very good gnocchi was lost under the sauce and within the leaves.
Guanciale de miale — a small piece of long-braised pork cheek. Very good.
A pleasant, refreshing lettuce salad was enlivened by a vinegar which we were instructed to spray on the leaves.
Strucchi, dumpling style ravioli filled with nuts and raisins and warmed in butter was simply incredible.
The food was 25€ a person and the beverages, coperto and coffee accounted for another 11€ of the 61€ bill. Our Lady Chef offered us and the other diners, a young couple from Monfalcone, homemade nocino liqueur at the bar. Rarely is a digestive a bad idea and this was a very good one even if the road down was narrow and winding. While we sipped, Senora Primosog talked about her foraging and growing the more than 40 herbs on which she relies. She appeared to do everything herself from gathering the food to setting the tables, cooking, serving and no doubt doing the dishes. This is a place, as so many seem to be in the Carnia, where those who know go.
The reassessments of restaurants mentioned in the January 31, 2012, article archived on this blog:
La Pergola (formerly Osteria Al Ponte) in San Daniele has passed to a new generation of cooks intent on further updating. We did not enjoy the radicchio and San Daniele ham overwhelmed by a mustardy dressing or the multi-colored ravioli where the emphasis was on appearance rather than taste. Lamb chops were okay, but unevenly cooked. We passed on dessert and thought lunch this time at 72€ was expensive relative to quality.
Terra & Vini, Via XXiV Maggio, 34, 34071 Brazzano di Cormons, is an osteria of the Livia Felluga vineyard. Our previous experience might have been hard to match under any circumstance, but this experience fell far short. They never give us a menu here so we left the choices to the waiter. There were different cooks this year. The selection was white and bland: cheese slices, cheese balls, thin slices of veal dotted with diced pepper and sautéed zucchini cubes on mache, potato gnocchi with chopped veal and a very good slice of spinach soufflé. A tasting portion of beef cheeks and polenta was competently prepared, but unusually characterless. Still we would try Terre & Vini again as it may just have been an off day. Lunch with drinks and tiramisu came to 65€.
Al Piave, Via Cormons 6, Mariano del Friuli. We had a wonderful lunch at Al Piave some years ago, but this one was disappointing. The service was slow, the roast veal was stale and pasta with artichoke had a gooey cheese sauce. The portions are ample and the food is substantial. Perhaps Sunday lunch was not the best time to go. We might try it again. Bill was 63.20€ including wine, water and coffee.
Local and simple:
Pizzeria La Ciacolata, Via Caprin, 35, Grado. The Margherita at 6€ was big enough for the two of us (but younger eaters would probably order two) and as good as one from Naples, which is where the staff hails from.
Pappa e Cicci on 352 route on Cervignano. The calamari fritti was above average, French fries below. It was old fashioned, pleasant and okay. The San Daniele ham board at another table looked appealing and pasta may have been a better choice in this homey place. Lunch for two, 29€.
Gelateria Gran Gelato, Via Udine, 47, 33052 Cervignano del Friuli. Some days we have to double back to get the Gran Gelato but we wouldn’t think of not having a post prandial scoop. Try all the flavors. It’s the only solution in this popular place where a scoop is only 1.20€ and please tell the Senora that “the old Americans” sent you.
Chocolat, Via di Cavana, 15, Trieste. Only in Italy would a cup of pure chocolate ladled smooth as silk from a pot cost 1€30. The chocolate can be had in a glass, spiced with cinnamon or ginger or topped with really thick whipped cream. This convivial spot is also a confectionary. It was worth going to Trieste again just for this experience.
Prosciuttifico Prolongo, Viale Tempo e Trieste, San Daniele, is just outside of town. There are many places to buy the famous ham in San Daniele, but this producer won us over by accommodating our small needs with grace and good cheer. The products are excellent.
One final note of praise for Italy:
On our way to the Friuli we stopped for lunch at an Autogrill at the Cremona Sud exit on the A21-E70 autostrada. The food at the restaurant looked good. We ordered tagliatelle with funghi (mushrooms) and a plate of prosciutto. Both were very good, better than you would get at most Italian restaurants in most American cities. Just another reason we love Italy.
© 2015 by Jean & Peter Richards