Believe it or not, there are certain regions in Italy that don’t get the praise and glory they deserve. Perhaps because of their inability to properly market themselves or maybe because they decided to focus only on one segment of tourism. Whatever the reason, it does not change the fact that they are equally beautiful and have fantastic hidden treasures.
One of these regions is Friuli Venezia Giulia – yes, I know it is a long name and you probably never heard of it, but I can assure you that this place has it all: mountains, beaches, gentle hills, culture and history, great craftsmen and of course sublime food and wine. After some persuasion I was finally able to send some clients to this region and they absolutely loved it.
OK, I might be bias as my family is originally from there and I myself have spent a couple years of my adolescence there, but every time I come back to Friuli I always know I am in for something special.
Located in the North east of Italy, approximately 1 hour away from Venice and bordering with Slovenia, this tiny region simply deserves more credit. And that is why I would like to tell you a little more about my last visit. Every good “Italian” day starts with a good Cappuccino and for that I have the perfect place for it. My first destination is Palmanova also known as the “fortress city”, a small town famous for its unique star shaped walls surrounding the centre of the village. Something so special that rumours say it might be part of the UNESCO world heritage sites in a couple of years. Built by the Venetians as a strategic base to prevent the attacks from the Ottoman Empire, it is a true example of fine urban planning. What the Venetians could not foresee is that a few years down the line Palmanova would become the home to one of Italy’s finest bars. In this tiny gastronomic temple everything that they do is excellent. My creamy cappuccino with a tasty chocolate pasticcino gave me the right amount of energy to move on to my next destination… Aquileia!
Just 30 minute drive from Palmanova and relatively close to the sea, Aquielia is one of the most impressive evidence of ancient Roman villages. Founded as a military colony against the invasion of the Barbarians, thanks to a good road network and an remarkable river port, over time it became increasingly important for business and for the development of highly refined crafts (glass, amber, fictilia, gems) making it one of the principal cities of the Roman empire. With its stunning cathedral and breathtaking mosaics every history lover that comes to the north east of Italy should plan a visit here.
All that walking inevitably affected the exponential growth of my appetite but luckily just a short drive was separating me from a restaurant that had been on my “to do” list for a while. Located in a rustic countryside farmhouse, surrounded by pretty gardens and vineyards, this charming restaurant has seen a significant quality improvement in the last few years which has culminated with a Michelin star. This however has not changed the approach that this family restaurant has towards their guests. An unpretentious place where one can go to savour traditional dishes with a light modern twist.
After this wonderful meal, we drove east towards an area that is currently considered very “trendy” among the wine geeks: Carso.
Located just off the town of Trieste, on the border with Slovenia, this area is fantastic for white wine production mainly due to its climate and soil, made of red clay, which gives a unique minerality and personality to the wines. Here I visited a leading winery known for having a special take on a local white: Vitovska.
Their cellar is unlike anything I had ever seen before. A cave created by digging deep into the soil, you almost get the feeling of entering into a theme park or taking part of some sort of adventure. In this incredibly fascinating setting, the winemaker took me for a “tasting tour” through the barrels; a very exciting moment, especially when I got to taste his much praised Vitovska which staggered me with its clean acidity, body and freshness. A wonderful wine that is the true reflection of the place where it’s from. To top it off, I get to match it with a local cave aged cheese called Jamar which only in the best “vintages” can develop small blue veins – it just kept getting better!
My last stop for the day was Trieste, without a doubt one of Italy’s most underrated “cities”. Regarded as one of the most important “centres” of culture and trade in the 800’s in the Austro Hungarian Empire due to its port and strategic location, it resembles Venice thanks to its proximity to the sea and extraordinary history. Trieste has much of that “royal” feel, typical of important cities and with its historic cafes and striking Piazza dell’ Unita’, Europe’s largest sea facing square, it’s like jumping back in time.
The following morning, I headed north of Trieste to another area located right on the border with Slovenia: Collio. The proximity with the neighbouring country is so close that in fact all people here actually speak Slovenian and have Slovenian last names.
It is believed that in this tiny strip of land some of the world’ finest white wines are produced. However, what really diversifies this wine area, other than its ideal “terroir”, is the winemaking style, also called “macerato” – macerated.
This consists of making white wine like a red wine which basically means leaving the skin in contact with the grapes for a long time, a procedure that is normally done only with reds giving to the wine a richer and complex characteristic. Here, I meet one of the local heroes for, what I know will be, a very special tasting. This artisanal producer is considered world class for being one of the most extravagant and extreme wine makers.
“Filippo” – he says – “it’s not like I am a genius or some sort of phenomenon…it’s just that I am blessed with a fabulous land and I try to do the least in order for my soil and vines to do the talking.” – This is the typical sentence you would hear from natural wine makers as they believe that less intervention will yield a higher result. I could not agree more with them, but I also know that wine making is a form of art and therefore special skills are required to produce something out of this world like his interpretation on the Ribolla Gialla white wine.
After this enlightening morning I drove for lunch to the quaint Roman village of Cividale. As beautiful as it may be, please forgive me if I will not give you historical facts about the place, I am here for a very special dish. Since I was a child, whenever I would come to Friuli Venezia Giulia I would always make sure to come to this hidden trattoria to eat what I consider the ultimate representation of comfort food: Fricco. It’s basically a potato, onion and leak tart with a heavenly mix of extra mature and semi young cow’s milk cheese served up on grill polenta. The level of heaviness this dish can reach is only equal to its flavour profile – cheese fondue meets potato gratin, you know it’s going to be a war!
At the end of such a challenging meal, despite the clear difficulties of being able to carry on, I fight back and thanks to my insatiable curiosity I headed north of the region to the town of Maniago, famous worldwide for its knife production. Known for being the historic hub of the Venetian republic for artillery, this tiny village hosts some incredible artisans. Having had the possibility to visit one of their “labs” to see how everything is still made by hand, really gave me an understanding of the precision and patience that is required to craft such items.
As I always do, my two day trip would, of course, have to end with a culinary highlight. My next and final stop would have to be the town of San Daniele, celebrated for being the local answer to Parma Ham. Just like Parma ham, San Daniele ham is only produced around the hills of San Daniele. The fragrance that you can experience in the ageing rooms is pretty much the same I would want to have permanently in my kitchen… reassuring and magical at the same time. Slightly saltier than Parma ham, San Daniele is characterised by a light aroma of dried fruits and barley. Like a true Friulano, I took a thin slice of this heavenly ham, wrapped it around a grissino and enjoyed it with a good glass of Refosco wine. Salute!