Udine, the second city of Friuli Venezia-Giulia (FVG), is somewhat overshadowed by its beautiful, literary, acutely self-conscious and slightly “tristesse” sister, Trieste. More inland, it’s not far from the foothills of the Giulian Alps and close to verdant vine-covered hills of the Collio. The sea plays much less of a part in both life and food, and the city feels more Venetian than Slavic/Austrian.
Yet it’s precisely this relative lack of mitteleuropanisch glamour that helps the city, for in June, we heard virtually no English, and the few tourists present were Austrian or Italian. Moreover, Udine (as is Trieste) is well-located by bus for the Roman and early Christian ruins of Aquileia, and those of Grado, a wealthy beach resort filled with some fine 1960s-1970s seaside apartment blocks. The patriarchal city of Aquileia itself was an important Roman centre, said to be on par with Antioch, Milan, and Trier. Grado, similarly, had its own patriarch (we had the pleasure of sampling a grappa Due Patriarchi which celebrates the curious schism). Both have lovely cathedrals that hint at their importance in days of old.
Udine’s food was rather heavy (for the summer), but distinctive and terroir-infused: cjarsons, a ravioli with a complex filling of sweet things, herbs, and/or nuts, in a melted-butter and aged ricotta sauce; the delicious gnocchi di susine, a potato gnoccho with a ripe pitted plum in the middle, which softens as its cooked, again a mix of savoury and sweet; frico, a disc of montasio cheese that is fried until most of the fat renders out, leaving it crunchy or chewy, depending on the variety; and lastly, the lovely San Daniele prosciutto, second only to that of Parma. All quite different from the distinctive sausage, cabbage, or marinated fish cuisine of Trieste; or the intensely fishy food of Venice. A favourite place was the enoteca La Spezeria Pei Sani, dating from 1939 but with recent new (and very hip) owners. Great wines, very knowledgeable and friendly, awesome meatballs, stun-negronis. For more substantial food, the Osteria al Vecchio Stallo was very likeable and warm-hearted, even if the food was simply good (again in the middle of winter, this old horse-changing stall would probably come into its own).
Cormons is the centre of the Collio wine zone and is close to Udine (the other main wine zone is the Carso, near Trieste). We didn’t explore the town’s enotecas but did spend time walking through the surrounding hills and vineyards, basing at the superb inn and restaurant La Subida (1 Michelin star). It was at La Subida where we had exquisite orange wine of Gravner: the 1998 of Friuli’s autochthonous ribolla gialla grape (made before he started using Georgian amphorae in 2001) from nearby Oslavia. We also had La Castellada’s excellent ribolla gialla, again from vineyards near Oslavia. Oslavia, a good 2 hour walk away over the vineyards in the heat proved out of reach, and we missed Stan Radikon’s intense, but temperamental (owing to a no sulphur approach), production. The food at La Subida was memorable, particularly a goose ragu nestled in a basket of semolina, which softened in the sauce to become like a pasta.
Eric Asimov’s blog on the NY Times has quite a lot on the orange wines of Friuli, particularly on Gravner and the other pioneers.
For food in FVG, as in most of Italy, a great starting point is Italy for the Gourmet Traveller by Fred Plotkin (2010, Kyle Cathie Limited, London). He covers the cuisine, wines, and towns/villages of Italy, and gives restaurant recommendations, which are, at least, a starting point. A few will perhaps have changed owners or even gone downhill, but fortunately things in Italy change but slowly…