Fast Times in Friuli – Part III
by Paul Downs
Hope you all enjoyed our E-Select Super Tuscan last week, that Contrada was a great buy and has definitely helped bring back a few hazy memories from the last leg of my trip to Italy. I left you off after having just returned from a day trip to Venice.
“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”
The next day was spent sipping Prosecco back at The Cret, processing how amazing Venice was. It wasn’t crowded with tourists, there was no foul odor coming off the canal and we didn’t get duped into spending $130 on a few drinks at Cafe Lavena in St. Mark’s Square. Shocking, but true, the phrase “#winning” was only used once the entire time. We enjoyed the day of rest, lounging around Sequals living like Italians with not a care in the world.
The following morning, like clockwork, Lilo and the rooster woke us at the crack of dawn. After a few doppio espressos while sitting in the backyard gazing at the Alps, we headed to Casarsa for our first train trip alone. Of course, Aunt Mary was at the helm until she dropped us off at the station. There may or may not have been a gas station espresso/wine stop that morning… While waiting for the train we discussed who would be awake so we wouldn’t end up in Austria on accident. Not that that would have been the end of the world, but we didn’t have hotel reservations there.
Upon our arrival in Verona, we were greeted with two concepts that were completely foreign to us: a McDonald’s Bar that served pizza and pay restrooms. No, we did not eat at the McDonald’s, but I did make a point of checking out the menu and the food. Yes, it looked much better than what the fast food giant serves here in the States. I was slightly jealous, and then repulsed. Those of you who know me know of my aversion to McDonald’s – we just don’t get along. The pay restrooms were hilarious. First, you must have exact change…of course there are change machines conveniently located on the opposite end of the earth. Upon your return from getting change nearly a half mile away, you get in line to pay at a space age gate that appears to be a cross between a CTA turnstile and something out of Star Wars. Leaving was the tricky part. I watched a few people walk out before me, they seemed to just walk up to this magical space gate and it would open for them. I followed suit – and walked into it. After a moment that resembled the monolith scene from Planet of the Apes, I quizzically stared at the gate – my newest nemesis – randomly pressing buttons and pushing on it. Finally, a janitorial worker walked over and waved her hand over a panel on the gate – voila, it opened. I graciously thanked her, joked about being trapped, offered to buy her a glass of wine (which she politely declined) and walked away with my head hung in shame. Who gets stuck in a bathroom? Seriously? Besides, “these are not the droids you’re looking for,” right?
As we made our way to the main square, we were struck by how picturesque it was. A fountain in the center was surrounded by lush, green grass; parts of the old city wall artfully cast shadows across the plaza; and the Verona Amphitheater sat in the background as a reminder of how long this civilization has been there. Built in 30 AD, it precedes the Roman Colloseum by nearly 50 years. The Arena was built on land outside of the original city walls of Verona. It was initially constructed out of white and pink limestone from quarries in Valpolicella, a region famous for its namesake wines, ranking second in wine production only to Chianti. After standing for nearly 1100 years, the Arena was shaken by a devastating earthquake in 1117 AD. The outer ring of the stadium was almost completely destroyed, but the fallen façade was quarried and used to build other buildings. Even after the extensive damage caused by the earthquake and minimal repairs, it was a feat recognized by medieval historians as a “construction that was more than human.” The Amphitheater is still used today for musical performances ranging from classic operas and theater to Sting and Phil Collins.
We stayed across the street from Juliet’s tomb at the Best Western Capuletti. After checking in, we ventured out to explore all Verona had to offer. We strolled through the streets taking in sights, window shopping at luxury boutiques and slugging down wine along the way. Rain drops that seemed the size of golf balls started falling. Our plan to see Aida, the featured opera that week for Opera Fest quickly changed. First instinct was to head straight to a wine shop and back to the hotel. The first shop we went to was a very modern café. Their wine selection was disappointingly similar to what we have at the store. I wanted to try some new things! After glancing at their prices, I realized that this was surely a tourist trap – I was hardly going to pay more for Italian wine in Italy that I could get back home for less!
We picked up the pace, almost jogging as the rain drops started to become more frequent and the claps of thunder got louder. I remembered there was a small wine shop just down from our hotel. Eureka! We realized that they were just about to close when we got there. The owner was more than happy to wait for us to pick out wine and cheese. When I got to the counter, he immediately exchanged my two room temperature bottles of white for chilled bottles. This guy was great! He then grabbed the bottle of Nero D’Avola I had selected and firmly said, “No.” I looked at him, confused and slightly taken aback. Why the stern reaction? He elaborated. “No. Dirty. From Sicily. You like red? North has better red.” And with that, he picked a bottle from the shelf and rang it up before we could even protest. We walked out slightly confused and embarrassed. Looking back, that bottle of red he gave us was pretty darn good!
Because the opera was cancelled, many of the restaurants around the arena and our hotel had closed early for the night. The hotel desk recommended two places, one serving pizza and a higher end option. We decided we were going to splurge and made the two block walk to Al Bracere. The restaurant was very nice, white table cloth yet casual. Upon examination of the menu, it was apparent that they specialized in a local delicacy – horse. Stewed horse… grilled horse… horse carpaccio. One of the items on their specials menu was “Asino Ragu.” The English version of the menu offered us a better explaination, and a great laugh. Translated, “asino” means donkey. I can only imagine the person responsible for translating the menu had a sly smile on their face as they chose to call the dish “Ass Ragu” on the English version of the menu. That night, the girls ordered pasta dishes and I had filet of beef…I think. Sad we didn’t get to see an opera, we headed back to the hotel. We wanted to wake up early and make the most of the next day before heading back to Sequals.
The following day, we let ourselves be tourists. We went to a few churches, including Basilica San Zeno, the first basilica to have an African bishop. Our last stop before heading to a late lunch was Castelvecchio. Built between 1354 and 1376 AD, the castle sits on what historians believe to be the site of Roman fortress. It sits along the banks of the fast-flowing Adige river which once filled the castle’s moats. Castelvecchio is considered one of the most prominent examples of Gothic architecture. After making our way through every inch of the castle and seeing historic and religious relics dating back over 600 years, it was time to head to lunch.
Thanks to the New York Times, the only thing we really had planned for Verona was to have lunch at Michelin recognized Locanda 4 Cuochi. When we got there, we poked our head in the door of a seemingly closed restaurant. We were quickly greeted and seated outside, right on the main strip. The second the bread basket arrived and we tasted their breadsticks; we knew we were in for a transcendental meal. They were THAT good. My mouth is watering as I write this. I had a what can only be described as the best steak tartare I have ever experienced… gorgeous Fassona beef topped with freshly roasted pistachios with a tomato aioli. This was truly a 1+1=3 moment. The rest of our meal was equally amazing: homemade buratta with tonatto sauce; truffled potato soup with buratta; roasted chicken that looked like the world’s best grilled cheese; and a melt in your mouth roasted piglet. Thankfully there was no Eeyore with on the menu.
Pigs Are So Much More Than Bacon
After having another late night “Spanish dinner” upon our return from Verona, we turned in early. The next day was a big day for me. We were going to the Prosciutto Festival in San Daniele! Prosciutto di San Daniele (CAP $18.97/LB, regular $22.99/LB) is a prized style of Prosciutto that can only be made in San Daniele. The production of this delicacy is carefully regulated and depends greatly on resinous winds that descend from the Carnic Alps meeting brackish winds coming from the Adriatic Sea. Without the natural environment, producing Prosciutto di San Daniele would not be possible.
The town was set up to host hoards of people. There were stages set up in the plazas for entertainment, bars in the streets around every corner, and the whirring of slicers all around us. I made my way to a Montasio cheese making demonstration. Of course I had to know how they made the cheese that was the essential ingredient in a frico! After stumbling my way through the demo – thankfully I had enough knowledge of the cheese making process to follow along, because he didn’t speak a lick of English – and sampling Montasio of different ages, it was time for prosciutto. Tent after tent, producer after producer, we tasted our way through the streets of San Daniele.
Eventually we came to a booth that had a wall of Prosciutto hanging behind it, hooves and all. It looked like a pull tab raffle booth at a church carnival… and that’s exactly what it was! I had to enter for a chance to win an ENTIRE leg of Prosciutto! I bought 30 raffle tickets and passed them out to the group. We won several prizes: a single use packet of laundry detergent, a packet of instant yeast, 2 juice boxes, a can of white beans and the equivalent of a vending machine croissant. We weren’t the big winners that day, but the gentleman next to us was. He proudly carried his whole leg of Prosciutto away with a smug grin, looking over his should occasionally as if he were carrying a briefcase filled with rare jewels. San Daniele was quite an experience. Even on our way back to the car, we encountered some unexpected performers: Native Americans singing and dancing to hip hop influenced Native music and a Peruvian pan flute band. Pop culture is everywhere, it’s kind of scary.
Like My Name Was Dolomite
The day after San Daniele we were set to volunteer at Zedan Ranch, a local horse rescue established in 1993, but they didn’t need any additional assistance that day. Many of their volunteers are Americans from the nearby Aviano Airforce Base. We enjoyed an afternoon of music and belly dancing from a local dance school before heading back to Sequals to plan the following day in the Dolomites. We knew we wanted to get lunch in the mountains and I was dead set on going to meet the people who make Dolomiten Koenig, or King the Dolomites cheese (CAP $12.97, regular $15.99).
We woke up early to make the drive into the mountains, climbing towards the clouds, staring at mountain peak after mountain peak. When we drove through the small lake town of Barcis we fell in love. Never had we seen water that color – so turquoise, so clear – and as we later found out, so cold! After driving for nearly two hours, we stopped at a small roadside restaurant that had nothing in view except for a mountain spring water bottling facility across the way. We could tell this meal was going to be special. Everything on the menu was a local specialty. Even though I have used the phrase “pillows of love” to describe gnocchi before, this is the first time that I’ve actually tasted and felt the airy-ness that is love! Our lunch was phenomenal, but dark clouds rolled in and made us decide to head back rather than chance getting stuck in a storm. Besides, we had to make a trip to Spilimbergo that evening to take Lilo to the vet. The poor guy had something stuck in his paw that we couldn’t get out.
Make Frico Not War
Maniago and Spilimbergo are both very special towns. Maniago has a very different, more modern vibe than Spilimbergo. It is recognized as the knife making capital of Italy, boasting knife shops on every corner – like Starbucks here – and even a knife museum. The weekly outdoor market in Maniago is truly impressive. Sprawling over countless city blocks and across squares, the streets were closed to automobile traffic and flooded with bustling market goers.
Spilimbergo (Aunt Mary’s mother’s home town) is known for its mosaics as is Sequals. The amazing frescos on exterior walls of castles and churches are in the process of being recovered after having been white washed during the plague years in an attempt to keep the plague out. We ventured into a church that was built in 1282 AD, I wish I had pictures of the interior, but out of respect I refrained from taking any. As we were walking through the streets of Spilimbergo, Faith pointed out a shirt in a store window. It simply said “Make Frico Not War.” Yes, I bought it.
After Lilo’s vet visit it was time for some wine so we stopped at a local bar and ordered a bottle. As we enjoyed the day and recounted some of our favorite moments in Italy, a young girl, no more than six years old, walked up and started talking to Aunt Mary. After a few minutes of conversing in Italian, she asked Aunt Mary, “Why do your friends talk so strangely?” After a good laugh, Mary explained that we were visitors from the United States. Sveva, our young new friend, immediately ran off to find her coloring book so she could give us custom made souvenirs. On the walk back to the car we passed a clothing shop with a shirt that I really liked hanging in the window. When we went inside and asked if they had my size, the shop keeper chuckled and informed me that it would take 3-4 weeks to get it and that they don’t usually stock “American sizes.” All I could think was, “but I fit in that Fiat!”
Eventually our time to head back to the States came. We spent the day before our departure tooling around town, saying our good byes and getting Italian haircuts. Why not leave in style, right? The morning of our flight, we woke up at the crack of dawn, one last time to a dog and rooster going back and forth as if they were a married couple bickering. We packed up the car and headed to The Cret for one last espresso and pastry before we began the never ending journey home.
The rest, as they say, is history. We arrived back in the US on the Fourth of July, a fitting day to return from an international adventure. We were glad to be home, but longed to be back in Italy. Even after two weeks, it was still a culture shock. Heck, I ordered an espresso in Italian at an airport kiosk in Philadelphia. Needless to say, the café worker was confused, and even more confused by the five Euro bill I held in my hand while ordering. It was time for a nap and sweet dreams of Italy. If anyone is heading to Friuli, stop in at the store and I would be more than happy to chat your ear off about how amazing it is. There is a chance that Aunt Mary will be visiting Chicago in October this year. If so, I will do my best to get her up to the store on a Saturday for a bit. Everyone who meets her comes away a better, happier person – you’ll see. And yes, Sondae, Faith and I have already started planning our next adventure “Italy 2015.”