Fast Times in Friuli – Part I

by Paul Downs

I recently returned from a few weeks gallivanting across northeastern Italy with my good friends Sondae and Faith. The following is a multi-part blog comprised of bits and pieces of our planning process and adventures, edited where necessary, of course. Surely any blanks have been filled in by the bottomless glasses of vino and the combination of cheese and prosciutto coursing through my veins.

 Back Tracking

It all started one night in November 2012. A chill in the air had red wine on everyone’s mind. Sipping and snacking brought the Holiday Season to the forefront of conversation and we began to discuss our plans for the coming months. Recipes, pairings, gift ideas… “Time for another bottle,” I heard Sondae say. I popped open the bottle of Rigoloccio Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($12.95) that Vee recommended and poured a glass. After a few sips, Sondae said, “This makes me want to go visit my Aunt Mary in Italy so bad.” We started talking about her Aunt Mary, whom I had briefly met before. I told Sondae that I had never been to Europe and sheepishly admitted that I didn’t even have a passport. The evening progressed and our conversation shifted back to the upcoming Holiday Season.

The next day, as I sat pecking away at my keyboard, a call came through to my desk. I picked up and Sondae blurted out, “I talked to Aunt Mary this morning. We’re going to Italy at the end of June. Faith is coming with us. Put in your vacation request now.” It suddenly became real – time to get that passport! Over the following months, we discussed, planned, dreamed, fantasized, re-planned and ultimately decided that we wanted to live like Italians while we were there. No plans. No reservations. No preconceived ideas of the perfect Italian vacation. Just go with the flow and enjoy every moment, encounter and experience to the fullest.

All we knew was that we were going to spend two amazing weeks in Friuli-Venezia Giulia – one of Italy’s five autonomous regions. It is self governing, it must financially support itself and it has its own dialect of Italian – Friulan. The region is bordered by the Carnic Alps to the north, the Julian Alps to the east, the Livenza River to the west and the Adriatic Sea to the south. Croatia, Austria and Slovenia are all just over an hour’s drive away. This was going to be the trip of a lifetime.

 A Twist of F8

Fast forward a few months. The big day finally arrived. It was time to head to Philadelphia to catch our flight to Venice. We arrived at O’Hare and boarded the domestic leg of our flight at gate F8. Surely the fact that we were leaving from gate F8 was a good omen. We were mistaken. After over an hour sitting on the plane, our flight was cancelled. Acting quickly, I managed to get the last seats on the next flight to Philadelphia in hopes of making our connecting flight. Maybe we would have an amazing tail wind and get in early! Our hopes were dashed as we landed in Philadelphia hours later only to watch our flight to Italy take off without our butts in their assigned seats.

Some blessings come in disguise. The three of us, defeated and frustrated, called one of Faith’s friends, Vicky, who promptly picked us up at the airport and began the daunting task of lifting our spirits. After all, we would be  on the same flight the following day and landing in Italy only one day later than planned. After spending a day seeing Philadelphia (including fulfilling my request to see the famous stairs up which Rocky Balboa ran!), we headed to Monk’s Café. Monks is simply one of the most impressive bars in the country, if not the world. It boasts a selection of Belgian beers that is second to none and an owner, Tom Peters, who happens to be the only American to be inducted as a Knight of Honor in Le Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs (the Knighthood of the Brewers’ Mashstaff, a 400-year-old Guild in Brussels, Belgium). Monk’s truly is one of the “Top Ten Places to Have a Beer Before You Die.” In 2002 Peters had the
opportunity (and chutzpah) to convince the Van Steenberge brewery to bottle its famous sour ale under a private label. He knew that this was, hands down, the best old brown ale in the world. Schaefer’s proudly carries this world class beer selection under the private label that Peters worked out with the Steenberge brewery – Monk’s Café Sour Ale.

After a world class lunch at Monk’s, (you must try the mussels) we headed back to the airport under the impression that our flight would take off as planned that evening. The previous day was behind us; today was a new day, right? Let’s just say that we were wrong and fast forward to our superhero friend picking us up at the airport at 1am after being on two planes and then being told that our flight was cancelled. My companions managed to calmly chat up the airline staff while I made a bee line to the wine bar in the neighboring terminal. We began to think we would never get to Italy.

The following day was spent with a couple of Faith’s friends and their absolutely adorable children. We were lucky to meet the kids – and their abuela! It’s amazing what the laughter of a child can do. It can ease the weariest, most frustrated traveler’s mind. So can comfort food, no matter where it’s from. Tasting the love that a Colombian grandmother put into making arepas and beef caldo for her grandchildren was all I needed to put my mind at ease. Following lunch that day, walking the dog was the most relaxing thing in the world. After 2 days in Philadelphia, we resigned ourselves to go with the flow. With that, we crossed our fingers and headed to the airport – again. Third time’s a charm!

After our extended stay in Philly, we were more than ready to land in Venice. We were craving dirt cheap house wines and espresso. We yearned to hear someone say something in any language other than Philadelphese. We boarded the plane tired. We had drinks. We watched bad movies. We took little pills. We couldn’t sleep. “Flight crew, prepare for landing.” We were finally there.

Ciao Mary!

After a mad dash to get off the plane, we set our sights on getting a real espresso. The first sip was magic. It was so rich, so caramelly, so sweet. The milk was rich and lactic – much different than what I was used to at home. Heck, I don’t even put cream in my coffee, but for some reason it just made sense.

Once we made our way to the car, we realized why we could only bring a carry-on and a small bag. Fitting four American adults in a Fiat, three of whom had luggage – was not an easy task by any measure. Just like Italian clothes, Italian cars are not made to fit Americans. Once we got the doors closed, we began our trek north from Venice to Sequals. An hour into our ninety minute journey, Aunt Mary said, ” Facciamoci un aperitivo.” We knew what that meant – we were in trouble. Aperitivo is a wonderful Italian custom, one which would thrive in the States if we were to adopt it. Picture closing up shop from 11am-3pm to sit outside, sipping wine, laughing, talking and snacking – every day, without fail. 

We stopped at Il Chiosco La Ghiaia ( http://www.ilchiosco-laghiaia.it) for aperitivo. This was a gorgeous open air stand with fresh pastries, apples, honey and a kitchen pumping out fresh, local, homemade food. Behind the stand were vineyards and orchards as far as the eye could see. They made their own wine. They grew their own apples. This was really a hands-on operation! Aunt Mary insisted on ordering a spread for us to snack on with our bottles of wine. Yes, it was 11 am and yes, I said bottles.

Smokey slices of speck, perfectly grilled polenta, local honey and what looked like Saganaki, minus the “Opa!” We had been in Italy for two hours now, and this was the first of many special moments for me. This was when boy meets frico. I fell in love, instantly enveloped in a warm, cheesy haze. Frico is a Friulan specialty. In the US, the word “frico” is often used to refer to a parmesan crisp. In Friuli, it is on a whole different level.

Traditionally made with a local cheese called Montasio, it is simply melted in a pan with a bit of butter and lightly browned. Any saganaki lover would instantly gush for this. Usually a frico is served with polenta, or made with cippolini onions and potatoes incorporated into the gooey cheese. This local specialty is only popular in Friuli, ask for it elsewhere and you may get a few funny looks.

I spent weeks preparing my liver, training if you will. I doubled my wine consumption, made sure that I was having wine with dinner every night. I thought I was prepared. After not sleeping on a transatlantic flight, I came to find out that I was not. It was day one and we quickly realized that we were going to have a hell of a time keeping up with this vivacious sixty-three year old. 

After having a bottle of wine each at the roadside kiosk from heaven, we finished    our journey into town. Upon our arrival in Sequals, a town of just under 900 people, we were greeted by shouts from Aunt Mary’s neighbors as we drove through the winding streets, “Ciao! Buon giorno! Benvenuti!” The townspeople were genuinely excited to have visitors; they wanted to take us in as their own. We instantly felt at home as we unpacked the car in front of the house. As soon as we were settled, it was time for some Prosecco on the balcony as we looked out onto the Alps in the distance. Holy cow, we really were staying in the foothills!

We spent the remainder of the day walking around town, getting to know the lay of the land and investigating every coffee shop and bar to decide where home base would be, we headed to dinner at Albergo Belvedere (http://www.albelvedere.it/). This was the nice restaurant in town. We enjoyed an excellent meal with stellar wine. Yes, at this point pieces of day one are a bit hazy. On our way home after dinner that evening, I came across of group of Austrian kite boarders at the restaurant just around the corner from Aunt Mary’s house. Of course I wanted to make some new friends, so I joined them for a few drinks. Cue the first, and hopefully only, two day hangover I’ve ever had. The following day was spent sitting in the backyard of Aunt Mary’s villa, gazing at the mountains in the distance, sipping ginger ale and daydreaming about what adventures were to come.

             Keep your eyes peeled for part 2 of this 3 part series on my adventures in northeastern Italy. Next time: life in a mountain town, the Adriatic coast, Venice and Verona. Until then, Ciao!

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