We had already walked for two hours on this bitter cold, dreary February morning wandering aimlessly from one dreary storefront to another, occasionally slipping inside to savor a bit of warmth. Why, I began to wonder, had I let Paolo talk us into accompanying him to Udine. It seemed like a good idea at the time; Wanda and I would do some research on one of the great cities of Friuli-Venezia Giulia while Paolo and his co-workers attended a client meeting in a nearby town. But as the cold minutes stretched into even colder hours I began to question my decision.
Lunch couldn’t come soon enough. We had spent an hour wandering the streets looking for a cozy trattoria where we could enjoy one of the region’s hearty soups and a plate of local prosciutto, but we found nothing of the sort. Eventually we lowered our expectations and settled on a non-descript little café close to the corner where Paolo was to pick us up later in the day. Dreading any continued meanderings in the cold (it had begun to snow during our aimless ramblings), our intention was to extend the lunch “hour” for as long as possible. We lingered over an uninspired salad, a bowl of overcooked pasta slathered with a pedestrian tomato sauce, some less-than-fresh biscotti and lastly, espresso. Several espressos actually.
“Davvero? Questo e Udine?” (Really? This is Udine?), I asked Wanda, my voice dripping with disappointment recalling Paolo’s grand description of this city. “Credo di si (I think so)”, she responded sounding equally disappointed.
Unfortunately this was before the ubiquity of cell phones and we had no idea if Paolo would be finished with his business meeting at the promised hour, so we didn’t want to wander too far away from our designated rendezvous. He eventually picked us up (late, of course) and while he and his two co-workers chatted excitedly about their successful client meeting all the way back to Milan, Wanda and I cuddled together in the toasty warmth in the back seat of the car, over-caffeinated from our multiple espressos at the restaurant, but happy to put our disappointing experience in Udine behind us.
It wasn’t until two years later that Udine came up again in the conversation. Planning our weekend to Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Paolo decided that Udine would be the perfect starting point. When I reminded him of Wanda’s and my six-hour disaster, he was incredulous. “What? Udine is beautiful. It was originally part of the Venetian Empire. Actually it reminds me a little of Venice. You need to give it a second look!”
We arrived near dusk in early March just after the city’s Carnivale celebration. Confetti – the ashes of Carnivale – covered the streets and piazzas. As we walked through the arcade lined narrow streets, I immediately began to suspect that this was not the same city Wanda and I traversed that cold February day two years ago. When we entered the handsome covered ancient market near the center of town, I was certain Wanda and I had not been here. This was not our Udine! Where had we been? “These streets are charming – totally unlike the ones Wanda and I walked on for six long hours in the freezing cold! Where did you leave us?” I asked Paolo
“I don’t remember exactly”, Paolo explained. “I dropped you off somewhere on the outskirts of the city. I just assumed that Wanda would have the good sense to take a taxi into the center. You mean you stayed in that area?” I should have trusted my gut instinct that told me Paolo would never have described that dreary ten-block radius as a part of one of Friuli’s grand cities. This Udine was exactly what I had been hoping to find those many months before.
Though I still look back on that first visit to Udine (or the outskirts of Udine to be more accurate) as one of the great disaster of my Italy exploits, I was thrilled to have given it a second chance and to have discovered the real Udine. Six hours here – even in the cold – would have been easy! There was so much to absorb – the principal square (Piazza della Liberta) with its Venetian-Gothic style town hall (Loggia del Lionello) standing opposite the beautiful clock tower (Torre dell’Orologia) and all the many lovely gothic and Renaissance monuments near the center.
We visited as many monuments as time allowed but as the beautiful alabaster clock in the center piazza chimed the approaching dinner hour, we were reminded of our reservation at Hotel Boschetti, a century old landmark in Tricesmino just outside the city owned by an old friend of Paolo’s. We planned to stay the night and dine in the hotel’s restaurant and Paolo promised we would be well cared for.
He was absolutely right. After checking in, we settled in for a nine-course meal curated by his friend that included regional wines to accompany each dish. Among the many courses we tasted that night, I especially remember the gnocchi filled with plums. I had tasted my mother in law’s “plum dumplings” many years before at her Milwaukee home, and while those were a delicious example of Italian-American comfort food (Mary Barocci – formerly Mesich – was of Croatian ancestry, but her husband was an Italian who brought with him a tradition of Italian cooking by way of the mines in northern Wisconsin where his immigrant parents had settled – see blog Rome II “Where to Eat?”), these were altogether different.
I had never quite understood the origin of this gnocchi – was it Italian or Croatian? Now traveling to Friuli-Venezia Giulia and understanding the proximity of Croatia to this region, it all made sense. Croatia was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as was Friulia-Venezia Giulia so the cuisine of this region – especially the eastern part – is highly influenced by Austria. Croatia Plum Dumplings are called Knedle s Sljivama and the Italian Plum Dumplings Gnocchi di Prugna.
Testing this recipe was difficult for me mainly because despite the journals I kept for all my Italian trips, I didn’t really remember this very well and had no clear picture in my mind. I called my former sister-in-law (and still dear friend) Katherine Catalano for advice. Did she have her mother’s recipe? What did she recall? She, unfortunately, didn’t have her mother’s recipe but sent me one she thought was similar. She also sent me her “plum dumpling recollections”.
“My mom’s plum dumplings were small – not big. They sort of looked like little pierogis – crimped not rounded and wrapped around the plum section. I remember 5 or 6 on a plate. I don’t remember the sweetness as described in many recipes. She didn’t serve them as a dessert but as a side dish or a Friday night meatless supper. The crunch of the breadcrumbs outside, the chewy potato dough and the luscious juice that formed after cutting into them was what made them special.” Katherine also remembered that the dumplings were sautéed in butter after they had been boiled and then topped with buttered browned breadcrumbs.
Keeping it in the family, I took this project to my sister Karen and her husband Jeff for testing – he a very precise person and she an excellent pie maker so the “crimping” would be easy for her. Jeff led the project. We all looked at several different recipes, made comments, read Katherine’s description and then began. By the end of our dumpling making project the kitchen was a total mess – flour everywhere especially on Jeff’s black shirt. We had lots of laughs and a great time! And most important, we thought the dumplings were delicious! I was especially relieved that I had a good recipe that hopefully was close to the dumplings I tasted all those many years ago!
Gnocchi di Prugne
Approximately 48 dumplings
Serves 6 (6-8 dumplings per person)
5 large potatoes – 2 ½ pounds
2 cups of flour
Salt to taste
12 medium ripe but firm plums sliced into ¼ – ½” wedges*
½ stick butter (4 – 5 tablespoons)
½ cup panko breadcrumb
pinch of nutmeg
1 stick butter (8 tablespoons)
Peel and cut potatoes into 1” pieces. Boil the potatoes in a large pot of salted water until tender. Then mash or put them through a potato ricer.
At room temperature add salt and eggs and 2 cups of flour to the potatoes. (If dough is too soft, add more flour). Roll out ¼” thick on floured pastry cloth. With a biscuit cutter (2 ¾”) cut out rounds from the dough
Place plum on one side of the circle. Fold over dough to cover the plum. Press edges of the dough together (crimp) making sure there are no gaps in the dough allowing no plum juice to escape. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. With a slotted spoon carefully place the first half of the dumpling in boiling water. Boil gently for 10 minutes.
In the meantime melt ½ stick of butter over medium heat and then stir in panko breadcrumbs and sauté until brown. Put aside. When dumplings are done, remove them from the boiling water with a slotted spoon and let them rest on a plate. Be sure there’s no water on the plate. If there is, drain so dumplings don’t soak up water. Repeat with second half of dumplings.
When ready to serve, melt the stick of butter in a large flying pan and melt over medium heat. When the butter begins to bubble place the dumplings in pan and brown on both sides. You may have to do this in batches. Reheat breadcrumb mixture. Transfer dumplings to a serving platter and spoon the buttered breadcrumbs over the hot dumplings.
* We used regular plums because we couldn’t find the Italian Prune Plums, which Katherine thinks her mom used. Italian Prune Plums are small, dense and egg-shaped. So if you use those plums, your recipe can be adjusted. Most likely you will use ¼ to ½ of the plum for each dumpling.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia is located in the northeastern part of Italy. It borders Slovenia (formerly Yugoslavia) to the east, Austria to the north, Veneto to the west and the Adriatic Sea to the south. Historically, ethnically and linguistically diverse, it is an extremely complex region. Some sections were once a part of the Venetian Republic while others were under the rule of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Udine was in the Friuli part of the region more connected to Venetian influence. Its cuisine is simple, traditional, uncomplicated fare.
Trieste, our next destination, is, on the other hand, in the Venezia-Giulia part of the region. Its cuisine reflects its Central European past embracing the influences of Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia. From the minute we entered the city I could literally feel Austria. The Viennese architecture of its many handsome buildings surrounding the piazza did not remind me of any other Italian city I had traveled to so far. We checked into the luxurious Hotel Grand Duchi D’Aosta located right on the very impressive Piazza Unita d’Italia. It was late so we would save our exploration of the city for the next day when we were to meet Chiara, one of Paolo’s advertising co-workers and a former Trieste resident who was here to visit her family.
This trip to Italy was actually one of the more difficult ones for me to coordinate. For years I would travel to Italy at least two to three times a year and had made it a priority to explore new regions (I eventually visited all twenty of them, most of them many times) and educate myself about authentic Italian cuisine, culture and tradition; but this time I was in the midst of opening the second Convito Italiano location in downtown Chicago which was such an overwhelming undertaking I wondered whether traveling again was the wisest choice. But as I always did, off I went and on this particular night I found myself at dinner discussing the new location with Paolo. Construction was already under way – so most of the overall design plans had already been determined, but the selection of the “finishing touches” remained. I inspected glasses, plates, salt and pepper shakers. I think every plate and glass in every restaurant we dined in during this trip was turned upside down by either Paolo or myself. At one point as he stole a peek at the bottom of a vase overflowing with flowers he looked at me and whispered; “I can’t believe I am doing this! I disgust myself!” I must say, seeing Mr. Motorcycle Man/Mr. Ad Exec getting excited over the search for a particular vinegar cruet or the perfect highball glass was rather funny, but I appreciated his support and reminded him that Italy was after all a country known for its design, so he was just performing his civic duty whether he thought it was the macho thing to do or not.
The next morning we met Chiara, his co-worker, for a tour around her native city. She spoke about Trieste’s proud, sometimes sad history, deeply linked to both Central Europe as well as to Italy. She also pointed out the remaining Hapsburg splendor especially evident in all the imposing spectacular buildings located in and around the main piazza. Under the Austrian-Hapsburg Empire, she explained, Trieste had once been a very important center of literature, politics and culture. Today, although that power had diminished, it still remains a center for many things – shipping, shipbuilding and financial services to name a few. And its advantageous position on the Adriatic Sea allows it to continue as an important port although the glory days of being the most important port in one of the most important empires in the world are over.
We stopped for a morning coffee at a beautiful Belle Epogue-style pasticceria just off the main piazza. Through its etched glass doors we entered into a bygone era where the intricate designs of “Beautiful Age” artisans had created a fairy-tale-like atmosphere. The café’s rich dark wood walls were carefully carved with elegant swirling floral patterns and the black and white tiled floor had been laid in a complex pattern that was typical of the fine detailing of that era. Chiara purchased a beautiful selection of pastries for Paolo and a lovely little rolled sweet bread called a Presnitz for me. Presnitz is a typical Trieste puffed pastry filled with nuts and dried fruits. It reminded me of strudel. Once again we felt the Austrian influence.
We toured a number of historical sites including Colle di San Giusto (the San Giuso hill), located in the oldest part of Trieste and its beautiful Romanesque church as well as Miramare Castle on the Gulf of Trieste built for the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian in 1856.
But the highlight of the weekend for me was our Sunday lunch at Antica Trattoria Suban, a fantastic restaurant established in 1855. When Chiara made the reservation, she informed the proprietor that Paolo and I owned an Italian restaurant and market in Chicago. When we arrived we were treated like royalty.
The owner gave us a tour of the facility – the open kitchen, hearth ovens and the open case of refrigerated meats – all beautiful and inviting. We then sat down to a fabulous meal of Trieste specialties beginning with a slice of grilled ham with grated horseradish and mustard; a bean, ham and sauerkraut soup called Jota; a crepe with radicchio; a crepe with basil and cheese (their specialty); veal shank with a side of heavenly, savory sautéed potatoes, onions and pancetta; and ended with a delicious apple strudel. Before we left the proprietor showed us the very complimentary article about his restaurant in Bon Appetit magazine – all praises very well deserved. This man was so kind. He would not allow us to pay and even gave me a plate with a picture of his restaurant on it. When we protested about paying the bill, he told us if we tried, he would start a war with Washington. We all laughed but made no further attempt to pay.
This hearty peasant soup, one of the best-known dishes of Trieste, has many versions. This one is brothier than some. Some remove the meat from the soup. This one leaves it in.
Serves 8 – 10 cups
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces pancetta, diced
2 cups chopped onions
1 clove garlic, minced
½ gallon chicken stock
1 teaspoon fresh sage, chopped
1 bay leaf
¼ cup cornmeal
4 cups diced new potatoes
½ pound sauerkraut
2 – 16 ounce cans red kidney beans, drained and washed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
freshly ground pepper (no salt needed, the ham hock provides enough salt content)
In a large stockpot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add pancetta and brown until crisp. Add onions, garlic and sauté for approximately 4 minutes. Add stock, sage, bay leaf and cornmeal, whisking the cornmeal into the stock. Add ham hock and simmer for 35 minutes. Remove the ham hock and cut the meat into small pieces. Add back into soup. Add potatoes and cook until tender about 8 minutes. Add the beans and parsley and stir into the soup. Serve hot.
I returned to Trieste a second time with my dear friend Leslee Reis, owner of the acclaimed restaurant Café Provencal in Evanston, Illinois. Leslee was also my mentor. She opened her restaurant a few years before I opened Convito in a neighboring suburb. Our friendship, however, was formed years before we began our restaurant careers through various women’s organizations as well as our common circumstances of motherhood, children of similar ages and an intense interest in food. I frequently sought her advice on any number of things and she was always more than accommodating.
Leslee and I were perfect traveling companions. We viewed travel and life pretty much the same way – taste it, savor it but don’t crowd it with so many things that you can’t take time to reflect on it. Leslee had one of the sharpest wits around and could make me laugh like no other – so travel with her was not only instructive and reflective but often hilarious. We could also “talk shop”. On this particular trip, we were both reassessing our restaurants – giving them a second look.
Both of us had expanded our concepts – Leslee by opening two more casual restaurants and I another Convito in Chicago. Had we made the right decisions? Aware that making change was difficult, we also knew that sometimes that was the best way forward. I felt blessed to be able to talk about these things with someone I knew would completely understand. After much discussion, we concluded “tweaking” was required on both of our parts in all of our restaurants. Freshening things up a bit would be on our agendas when we returned to Chicago.
We also loved talking about how ironic it was that our lives had taken a similar direction. “How crazy were we to have gotten ourselves into this demanding business? At our age? As women? Forty-something housewives creating and running businesses in one of the most competitive professions around? This was nuts!” Leslee would always laugh her hearty big laugh and query, “When will we be discovered as frauds?”
Of course I wanted Leslee to experience the beauty of Trieste so we spent a great deal of time visiting all the sights Paolo and I had visited five years before. She too loved the city. Of course, a dinner at Antica Trattoria Suban was a must. I looked forward to my second experience there but warned her that we had to taste all the restaurant’s specialties. “Be prepared to be stuffed,” I told her “but happily so! “ Neither of us ever had trouble with that concept.
Abby Mandel, friend, cookbook author, columnist and founder of the Chicago Green City Market was originally supposed to accompany Leslee and I on this trip. But because of her husband’s illness, she cancelled. We promised to keep a detailed journal of all the food, wine and experiences of the trip so she could still feel a part of our journey in some way.
A Leslee entry from our dinner at Suban; “ Second tier of Primi Piatti after already 2 – or was it 3- antipasti? Abby your cholesterol just went off the charts! We’re going to die right here of gross lumps of dough blocking our esophagus. We are on our third course (many to follow). The food is sumptuous! We can’t stop eating! We each got a half portion of two different items on the same plate – gnocchi di patate (very well prepared with coarse dice of speck then lightly coated with a rich cream sauce) – then my favorite of the two (they were both excellent) was a crespelle with lots of fresh chopped basil spread with a little basil puree and folded into quarters in a light creamy cheese sauce (maybe half and half, not cream) – really special with the fresh assertiveness of the basil.”
She was correct. It was really special. Following is Convito’s version of that basil crespelle based on Leslee’s journal entry.
Crespelle con Crema al Basilico
Serves 6 as a first course
Heat oven to 500 degrees
Use whatever crepe recipe you prefer – there a many simple variations available on the web
3.5 ounces of mascarpone
2 tablespoons cream
1-cup fresh basil finely diced
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
½ cup half & half
½ cup grated Gruyere or Emmenthal cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¼ cup fresh basil, finely diced
Mix the filling ingredients together. Spread a thin layer onto each crepe (approximately 2 tablespoons each). Fold crepe in half then in half again.
In the meantime make the sauce heating the cream over medium heat. Add the cheeses and stir until melted. Add salt and pepper. Stir in the basil and set aside.
In a large ovenproof skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Place the six crepe pieces in the skillet. Place in a 500-degree oven for 4 minutes.
Place on six individual plates. Spoon the sauce over each.
Percoto was our next destination, home of the famous Nonino grappa distillery active in Friuli since 1897. Leslee would describe the Nonino visit as “Our sojourn to Beverly Hills – Friuli”. While the rolling hills of Friuli may not equate to the topography of Beverly Hills, the glamour of the Nonino family did! Benito and Giannola were Friuli’s power couple – he the genius grappa maker (quiet and serious) and she the dynamic power behind the throne (a hurricane of energy and ideas). According to legend Giannola first fell in love with her husband Benito and then fell in love with grappa. Her goal was to enhance and perfect the Nonino brand and bring its acclaim as a first class spirit to the rest of the world.
Benito and Giannola and their three gorgeous daughters – Christina, Antonella and Betty all took turns in our grappa education. First Betty, the youngest daughter, took us on a tour of the distillery. Grappa she pointed out is the final production of a grape made from the pomace (skins, seeds and stems) after the fruit has been used to make wine. “Grappa today”, she said proudly, “has acquired a very good reputation because of producers like Nonino – unlike the grappa of old which was harsh and bitter – a spirit whose only use was to starve off a cold, or anything for that matter. We will leave the grappa tasting until dinner tonight”, Betty said. Thank god, Leslee and I thought. Already tired from our long drive, we didn’t want to fall asleep (or pass out) on the floor of the Nonino cellar. And unfortunately, I didn’t have such a good memory of the grappa I had tasted previously. I am not generally a spirits person. But I would give it a second look – certainly here in the grappa center of the universe.
The rest of the afternoon was spent with Betty and Benito driving through the lovely hills of Friuli. Both the Colli Orientali del Friuli and Colli Goriziano are known throughout the world for their fine white wines. Convito carries many. We passed many of the vineyards of famous producers –Jerman, Piuatti Mario Felluga, Livio Felluga, Gradnik ending at the vineyard of Benito’s idol, white wine master Mario Schiopetto.
It was a thrill to meet Mario Schiopetto. I had long been a fan of his whites – especially Schiopetto Tocai. When one speaks about Mario Schiopetto one speaks about the story of modern Italian enology. For many years he studied the most prestigious wineries in Europe bringing the best of what he had learned back to Friuli. According to Benito, his contributions to the innovation process and to the improvement in quality in Italian wines are legendary.
We actually stopped to have a glass of wine with the master himself – a glass of 1988 Pinot Grigio. Mario and Benito greeted one another warmly and spoke excitedly in Udinese dialect while Leslee and I pinching ourselves – sat quietly gaping at the interesting collection of restaurant plates and tiles that hung on Signor Schiopetto’s kitchen walls.
The next Nonino handoff was to Christina, the oldest daughter. She was waiting for us in a converted mill (now a small bar). A huge mortadlla and a Prosciutto di San Danielli sat on the counter filling the room with a sweet somewhat porky smell. Christina whom I had met in Chicago a year ago, insisted we taste the prosciutto, a product of nearby San Danielle, before we left for a tour of the Roman ruins in Aquileia, a small town on the Adriatic.
San Daniele is one of Italy’s two famous prosciuttos – the other is Prosciutto di Parma. San Daniele is sweet and aromatic and best served with simple wines. Parma is savory and has a wider range of uses. Both are excellent. I like to serve prosciutto in the summer draped over fresh fruit. Although the classic combination is prosciutto and melon, my favorite pairing is prosciutto and peaches when peaches are at the very height of their sweetness.
We said goodbye to Betty and Benito, drove to the Roman ruins and then back to our hotel to ready ourselves for dinner.
Matriarch Giannola orchestrated dinner that evening. The cast of characters changed somewhat. Benito and Betty stayed home. “He doesn’t like evening activities”, said Giannola. Middle daughter Antonella joined us accompanied by her attractive fiancé, as did Christina with her husband, a cross between an Italian-style hunk and a somewhat preppy Princeton grad. Then there was the smooth talking, quick moving TV man. We weren’t sure how he fit in. Later we learned that he was the “Italian Dan Rather” visiting the Noninos to do a program on grappa and the Nonino family the next morning.
The restaurant was located in Grado, a historic seaside town sometimes referred to as a miniature Venice. “The best seafood around”, Gianolla said. It truly was delicious! Throughout the day Leslee and I couldn’t help but notice the strength and knowledge of these Nonino women. The family passion for this “white lightening” was obvious and clearly energizing to anyone around them. Of course Grappa was generously poured at the end of the meal serving as the final touch to an exhausting, busy but wonderful day. Giannola knew my feelings about grappa and was determined to change my mind. “Give it a second chance”, Giannola said as she poured the Picolit Grappa into my glass. This is a single cru. It was distilled of premium, single variety, single vineyard grape pomace.”
An old Chinese Proverb states that Taking a Second Look Costs You Nothing and it wasn’t until late in life that I finally made peace with that sentiment. This day it paid off. The nose of this Nonino grappa arrested me with its floral honeycomb aroma and its apple and ripe quince notes; a much softer and alluring welcome than I expected. Upon drinking it, the taste was surprisingly elegant and smooth. I was impressed! This was unlike any grappa I had ever tasted and although I might not cap off each and every night with a glass of this complex liqueur, I certainly would recommend it to anyone interested in a divine after dinner drink. To this day, on those infrequent evenings when I’m moved (or convinced!) to order a grappa after dinner, it is always a Nonino (and hopefully Nonino Picolit).
Morning arrived. It was time to leave Percoto and continue our journey to Milan.
We stopped by the distillery to say goodbye. The driveway was filled with a number of vans and TV paraphernalia. Clearly they must be readying for the Nonino TV program. We thanked Benito, Giannola, Antonella and Betty (Christina was home with sick kids) for a fabulous visit. As we were about to leave, Mr. Italian-Dan- Rather rushed over and placed a glass of grappa in our hands. “Please”, he said to Leslee and I, “we would like you to do some “tasting-room-play-acting” for the program’s intro. You don’t need to say a thing, just drink the grappa”, he directed. What could we do but acquiesce?!
What a fitting conclusion to our Friuli-meets–Beverly Hill sojourn – Leslee and I in the early morning hours with a glass of grappa in hand trying to look calm and sophisticated like this was an everyday occurrence. I’m certain we looked just the opposite. As the cameras began to roll, Leslee learned over and whispered in my ear, “Are you ready for your close up?” Her hearty laugh rumbled through the room and turned the heads of the entire Italian TV crew! What a lady! So much for life at the Nonino Grappa Distillery.
As we said our final goodbyes Giannola – who had earlier promised to do a grappa tasting in Chicago for Les Dames d’Escoffier during their next visit – said in her enthusiastic, energetic voice – “Ciao. A Presto! (See you soon) and added “Vive le Donne!! (Long Live the Women) No words were more truly spoken. These Nonino women were amazing!
This was sadly my last trip with Leslee Reis. She passed away the next year from complication from diabetes. How I miss her friendship, advice, support and especially her great big body-hugging laugh! I was lucky to have her for as long as I did – but it was not long enough. We miss you Leslee…