A Culinary Journey in Italy's Northeast, Part 4

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Faith Willinger


In this piece, Faith continues her journey through Italy's Northeast (to view previous posts, click here). Or click here to try a recipe for Al Vescovo's rough-mashed potatoes and vegetable.

It was our first daytime visit to Benjamin Zidarich's winery, a warm sunny day with views from the terrace of fall vineyard foliage, red and gold leaves on the vines, the gulf of Trieste, and the Duino castle. Benjamin and his stonemason friend Marco would join us for lunch in Slovenia at Pri Lojzetu—don't even ask me to pronounce it.

I'd encountered chef Tomaz Kavcic at events in Italy and had been impressed by his food and style. The restaurant is located in an ancient ex-hunting lodge in Zemono, the town where a fierce wind known as the bora is said to originate. Which is why, Tomaz explained, the water glasses on the beautifully set table were tipped over—blown by the bora. The menu, a rustic-paper accordion-fold series of dishes, in Italian and Slovenian, was complex. We let Tomaz choose, and were delighted with fish and seasonal vegetables, simple yet dramatic presentations, perfectly executed, paired with excellent Slovenian wines.

We concluded with a seasonal dessert scene, a slate slab topped with cookies, table strewn with winter leaves and artificial snow. Tomaz Kavcic cooks like an elf.

Heart-shaped cheese and pumpkin seed crisps on a stick, porcini mushrooms topped with a scallop and a melty-thin slice of lardo, served on a hot rock to complete cooking, gnocchi (the lightest of our voyage) with radicchio sauce, casually arranged like a cluster of grapes, with a vine stem garnish to complete the look, fish cooked and served on special local sea salt (Tomaz blends the salt with herbs, spices, and water and creates a brick which is then heated). Desserts were the most dramatic, beginning with a citrusy sorbet surrounded by gin-tonic flavored gelatin. Tomaz brought a low centerpiece of roses and a watering can to the table, poured water (infused with juniper berries) onto the centerpiece (with its hidden dry ice) and clouds of juniper-scented vapor engulfed the table. We couldn't stop laughing or taking pictures. We concluded with a seasonal dessert scene, a slate slab topped with cookies, table strewn with winter leaves and artificial snow. Tomaz Kavcic cooks like an elf. I have to go back.

My friends Cathy, David, and Vito are intrepid eaters. I rose to the occasion, all of us feeling we couldn't miss a meal at Devetak. Gabriella showed me a wealth of truffles, just arrived; we began with Osvaldo's exceptional, lightly smoked prosciutto, and concluded with fried eggs topped with plenty of white truffles.

We shopped at Devetak (preserves, honey) the next morning, breakfasting lightly since we were planning a visit to Lorenzo Osvaldo, lord of prosciutto. He wasn't around, so we said hello to his wife, Lucia, and she gave us a sample, amazingly good. No smoked prosciutto to sell, but if we came back in a few days Lorenzo would divide a whole unsmoked prosciutto for us. A reason to return.

We were on our way to Slovenia, to the inn Hisa Franko and another super-chef I'd heard about. The road wound through vineyards, flanked by the Natisone River, with snow-covered Alps in the distance. We stopped a bit early at a family run trattoria-inn, Al Vescovo, in Pulfero, so we sat in the bar—noticed almost all the Slow Food publications, a good sign. We checked out a stone terrace next to the Natisone for trout fishing, another above it for dining in warm weather months. Our lunch was perfect trattoria, served by Michela, daughter of chef Bruna, all tradition, all seasonal, with superb winter squash gnocchi topped with pumpkin seeds and grated smoked ricotta, and a wonderful vegetable dish, mashed potatoes and cabbage flavored with garlic, vinegar, and pancetta. I asked Bruna for the recipe and she gave it to me, and added that I could use practically any vegetable with the potatoes. See below.

And finally off to Hisa Franko (hisa, home), an inn-trattoria (gostilna) in a picture-perfect alpine valley complete with gurgling stream. Rooms at the inn are modern, essential, and attractive, with luxurious showers. Valter Kramar is the host, sommelier, and cheese and salumi master at the trattoria. He is also the companion of chef Ana Ros. Her cooking is firmly rooted in tradition—Austro-Hungarian, but influenced by the world beyond her valley, she's a free spirit in the kitchen.

She offered a snack—thin slices of roast beef gracefully rolled around forks, a few slices of bread, set on a wooden platter (a dish that's been on the inn's menu since the place opened in the '70s) that Valter paired with a Slovenian sparkler. He showed us his cellars—wine, locally sourced salumi, a crate of gnarly apples, preserves that Ana puts up, honey and shelves of unpasteurized cheeses in various stages of ripeness. He set out a snack—bread and cured pork that looked like culatello—we refrained, since we were on our way to dinner.

The dining room is a perfect blend of rustic and modern, understated elegant. Food is artfully arranged but not mangled, complex, contrasting flavors and textures. A salad called "nature's harmony" involves up to 40 wild, aromatic herbs and flowers. Blue trout swim in a trout pond next to the inn, and they are a most important ingredient in Ana's signature dish, "simplicity," liquid potato ravioli with nori and toasted sesame seeds flanked by poached trout filet, floating in trout broth. Beef, lamb, and venison are strictly local. We had to save room for a cheese tasting, a sampler from Valter's cellar paired with homemade preserves that included whole green candied walnuts. And then, skipping the real desserts, we couldn't resist tiny shot-glasses of chocolate mousse flanked by an assortment of cookies and chocolates. And a distillate, since we only had to get upstairs.

Next stops: winery guesthouse, trattoria lunch, vinegar works tour, wine tastings, grappa distillery visit, prosciutto score, family dinner.

Recipe: Al Vescovo's Rough-Mashed Potatoes and Vegetable


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Faith Willinger is a chef, author, and born-again Italian. She moved to Italy in 1973 and has spent over 30 years searching for the best food from the Alps to Sicily. More

Faith Heller Willinger is a born-again Italian. She moved to Italy in 1973 and was seduced by Italian regional cooking. Faith has spent more than 30 years searching for the best food and wine, as well as the world beyond the table from the Alps to Sicily. She has no regrets about mileage or calories. Faith was awarded the prestigious San Pellegrino award for outstanding work as an ambassador of Italian cooking. She lives full-time in Florence with her Tuscan husband, Massimo. Her son Max lives in Milan. She's the author of the bestselling (9th printing) guidebook Eating in Italy, the cookbook Red, White & Greens, and the narrative recipe book Adventures of an Italian Food Lover. Faith teaches in her kitchen in Florence on Wednesdays, supplied with freshly picked produce from her favorite farmers. Check out her web site at www.faithwillinger.com.
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