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Sep 13, 2010 02:48 AM

Fabulous, fabulous food and wine in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia (long)

I spent last week having a wonderful time in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia (and the Dolomiti and a bit of the Veneto and Emilia-Romagna, which I'll post about separately). I urge anyone for whom good food and wine is a big part of travel enjoyment to put it right at the top of their Italian destinations.

I followed guidebook recommendations throughout my trip. I didn't go looking for "hidden gems" because the entire region is a hidden gem -- and nothing surprised me more than to discover that Trieste is an unremittingly pleasant Italian city, especially for lovers of outdoor eating and drinking on beautiful pedestrianized streets stacked with gorgeous architecture. The caffes, bars, trattorie, buffets, ristorante come in all price ranges, and are incredibly inviting and relaxing. Buses in the town run on natural gas, bicycles are as popular as motorini, there are many trees -- and all that clean air and sea breeze makes eating outdoors a pleasure.

I cannot identify a "best" restaurant or meal, because the food, the wine and the presentation in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia struck me as being very much about passionate personalities, making each dining experience enjoyable in a unique way. Almost without exception, each meal I had was a revelation about the startlingly forward-looking culture of the region as well as its history and food, but here are some outstanding venues:

Ristorante Al Cacciatore della Subida in Cormons -- a predictable choice perhaps, but an astonishing restaurant nonetheless, where outstanding food is matched with singular wines in bucolic yet sophisticated setting. The family and staff are like a ballet corps in providing the most gracious service imaginable, yet it is all quite unpretentious -- it's heartfelt -- and the prices are incredibly low for the superior quality of food, delicious wine and the wonderful ambience. It is a little slice of heaven, and should not be missed. The charming and affordable small houses available for overnight stays and longer make a great base for touring the fascinating wine region on both the Italian and Slovenian side of the open border.

Albergo Ristorante Salon in Arta Terme (Piano d'Arta) -- Fred Plotkin justifiably raves about the cjalsons here, but it was the blek con speck, with smoked ricotta, that sent me over the moon. The service is utterly charming. This is a true locals restaurant. Half the retired citizens of the tiny town show up for lunch, and are lavished with loving care.

Buffet da Pepe in Trieste -- It shows up on everybody's recommended list from Lidia Bastianich to Plotkin to even the worst of the Italy-for-Dummies type guidebooks, and it could not be more enjoyable. The "misto piatto" of tender pork meats, served up with kraut, cren (horseradish) and mustards, plus beer or red Terrano wine as you choose, is just plain delicious. The service is garrulous, strangers strike up conversations across tables, Trieste is an al fresco eating and drinking paradise, and this is a core experience of Trieste.

Ristorante Campiello in San Giovanni al Natisone -- I was lured here by a guidebook's promise of the best gnocchi di susine in the region and other traditional dishes. Instead I was handed a menu of high-end creative seafood-based plates, and everything I ate was delightful, complex, and executed with razor-sharp precision. The entire restaurant (it is also a hotel) almost shouts perfectionism, and the moderately high prices are justified. One of the nights I was there, a party of 30 filled a far corner of the restaurant, yet not a single beat was missed at my table in terms of food or service. All excellent. The owner is a phenomenon, passionate about his wine list and pairing it with the food. More than any other person I encountered, he seemed to me to embody the extraordinary energy and high standards that drive Friulian food and wine culture.

Ristorante Rosenbar in Gorizia -- Silky pastas and seafood prepared with tender loving care -- simply delicious, incomparably fresh -- and served up by a young woman, almost touchingly eager to please. The lace-curtained windows and red-painted woodwork of the exterior don't prepare you for the complicated contemporary interior of the restaurant. More than any other place I ate, Rosenbar seemed to embody the compelling complexities of Friuli, making Gorizia and its neighboring wine towns the one area of Friuli I most want to revisit along with Trieste.

Trattoria Ai Fiori in Trieste -- A small dining room in beautiful warm colors and very lovely seafood -- and also the best dessert I had of my entire stay in Friuli. The hostess was marvelous and gracious.

Pasticceria Folegotto in Udine -- Because of the pausa in Civedale dei Fruili, I missed my chance to purchase "gubana", the town's specialty cake. Fred Plotkin's guide steered me to this bakery in Udine where it was possible to buy a single serving and have a cup of espresso. The gubana was delicious!

Al Monastero in Cividale dei Frulil -- I went here based on a guidebook description a marvelous sounding soup. It wasn't on the menu, but the very seasonal dishes I had -- grilled porcini, casunziei pasta stuffed with spinach and smoked ricotta -- were excellent.

Al Baffo in Palmanova -- A seasonal salad of raw mushrooms with lemon (!) was a delight, and a pasta with legendary Sauris speck proved to be my only chance to sample this speck, and the speck was delicious even if the cheesy penne pasta was a gooey flop. Huge servings and some delicious piles of grilled meat from the wood burning oven (everybody else in the restaurant was eating pizza for dinner).

Ristorante Daneu in Opacina -- To visit Trieste, it seemed easier to park the car and ourseles at a hotel in Opacina and take the tram in. Fred Plotkin's pick for Opacina was closed, and it was pouring buckets of rain, so we ended up at our hotel restaurant (recommended by Cadogan and Michelin). It proved my one chance to eat gnocchi di susine, and while I'm sure there were more refined examples to be found elsewhere, I wasn't sorry I got to sample the everyday version. The rest of the meal was undistinguished.

Trattoria al Morar in Aquileia (just outside of town) -- A guidebook recommendation steered us here for sliced cured meats -- which were amazingly good -- and steered us away from fish dishes. Unfortunately, the meat secondi we ate -- sausages of various sorts -- were undistinguished.

Caffe San Marco and Cremcaffe in Trieste -- the only true disappointments of our guidebook recommendations. While Caffe San Marco is a beautifully preserved historic relic, the coffee disappointed and the atmosphere was so hush-hush it felt funereal. By contrast, Cremcaffe in Piazza Goldoni is under new management, and its screaming "frappe" machines and crowds at the bar were headache inducing. Our "frappes" went unfinished. The coffee is good and worth tracking down -- but the Cremcaffe brand is served many, many places in Trieste in much lovelier spaces.

I realize some people will wish that I had described specific dishes, but one persistent problem on this trip was being steered by guidebooks to sample specific dishes at restaurants, only to discover they weren't on the menu. It happened at least five times, with both gourmet guidebooks and pedestrian sightseeing guidebooks. If you are keen to go to Friuli-Venezia-Giulia to taste specific regional dishes in situ, give yourself time to hunt them down.

I've not given prices for meals, but the most we spent was $100 per head, with wine, and we generally spent far, far less.

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  1. Beautifully written report and a testament to FP's advice as well. MAny thanks!

    1 Reply
    1. re: erica


      Interestingly (to me at least!), I had read Fred Plotkin's section of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia before I left and had ordered his book about the region (which arrived after I'd left), but basically just made notes about restaurants convenient to my somewhat pre-planned cultural itinerary.

      Once I was actually IN Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, I was so struck by the cultural energy and drive of the place that I dug Plotkin's book out of the bottom of my duffle and re-read all his descriptions. I felt that even beyond his food and wine enthusiasms, his perceptions about the culture were really uncanny and insightful. The people of Fruili are really inspiring in their perfectionism, and I sense they inspired him. I would have liked more from him on Trieste -- which I simply found a delight at every turn and the areas around Gorizia too. If I'd had more time, I would have gone looking for no-name "frascas" and osterie.

      I don't know that the region will ever be a tourist draw, especially since "hilltowns" are all the rage and the light-industry areas of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia can really put you in mind of New Jersey. But Trieste is one of the most purely enjoyable Italian cities I've visited, and the scenic areas of the region are charming.

    2. Thank you so much for your detailed report. I agree with you that Friuli is a hidden gem and provides so much more delights than the usual touristy regions of Italy. We are planning to go to Friuli once again next February and will use your report extensively.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Sturmi


        I'd be interested to know where you've been in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and happy to answer any questions about my too-brief-stay.

      2. This region was a pleasant surprise for me and my wife as well when we were in the area last year. We stayed near Udine for a couple nights and used that as a foray into Trieste and the surrounding area.

        We also ate at Al Cacciatore della Subida and were astonished, not only for the array of dishes - we got the tasting menu - but all for a price that left us feeling as if we had robbed the place. There were a few dishes that were just nice but there were many standouts as well. At the beginning of the tasting menu, they roll that big ham leg over to your table and slice some of the most delicious, juicy prosciutto we have ever had. We still talk about that prosciutto of theirs. I lost count of the number of plates brought out. Was it 10 or 15? All I know is that we left in a pleasant haze.

        Agreed that everything in this area is a hidden gem but we also loved Restaurant Gruden in the area which was crammed with locals and served homemade food focused on specialties from the region.

        Thank you for the write-up. We are planning to go back. Visiting this region and the Langhe in nearby Piemonte felt like a re-discovery of how intoxicating and memorable food can be when it is prepared with so much attention and care.

        1 Reply
        1. re: r.vacapinta


          We booked and ate the tasting menu with wine and stayed at La Subida without inquiring about the price. When my husband went to pay the bill, I made him promise he would not tell me what it was until at least 10 days after we had returned home. I just wanted to have the happy memories last at least that long. When he returned from paying the bill, he told me it was neither the most expensive place we had stayed nor the most expensive meal we had eaten. So I made him tell me the price. Next time I am in the region, I plan to stay at la Subida for days on end.

          Thank you for mentioning Restaurant Gruden. Which town is it in?
          I also ate the proscuitto "Osvaldo" that is carved up at La Subida at Al Monastero in Cividale dei Fruili. It tasted better by far at la Subida, in part because I think the hand-carving rendered slightly thicker slices -- a heresy, I know, among proscuitto experts, but this case might be an exception.

        2. Thank you for writing so eloquently on your experiences. You've beautifully captured the spirit of Friuli, an under-appreciated region of Italy and so different from their neighbors, the Veneto. I agree that the Cremcaffe disappoints on atmosphere but I love their coffee and the bustle. And long the conveyor belt on their mile long bar is an amusing distraction. Despite appearing in all the guidebook including the Dummie series, we hardly ever run into a foreign visitor at at Buffet at Pepe. After reading your experience at Ristorante Campiello, we are planning an overnight there on our next stay in Venice.

          1 Reply
          1. re: PBSF


            I confess to being near-allergic to noise, so Cremcaffe -- and I agree the coffee is special -- was bound to get on my nerves. But there were also signs plastered all over the place boasting of the "new management!!!", so next time you are there, report back if you feel it has changed.

            Fred Plotkin's description below of Hotel Campiello is accurate, in terms of room decor and neighborhood. If you are at all familiar with the Caldwells in New Jersey, or East Hanover, that would be my description. I found the restaurant decor fun and comfortable. The food sparkled. I ate a gazpacho with shrimp that was dynamic, and risotto with seafood and lime was brilliant. I regret not having tried one of the many regional sparking wines on offer.

          2. This was a lovely posting to read and I am glad that Friuli-Venezia Giulia inspired you as much as it has me on frequent visits and stays since 1975. We must always remember to call the region by its full name (or call it FVG) because the Friuli part is only 70% of the land mass and population and the Venezia Giulia part includes Trieste, the region's capital. So when you say Friuli, that should only mean the large area that looks to Udine as its chief town. I am curious about what book sent you to Il Campiello in San Giovanni al Natisone for gnocchi....almost everyone goes here only to eat fish and seafood,which is outstanding. The hotel itself is fine, not special, and the surrounding town is unremarkable. The hotel appeals to business people who purchase chairs and other furniture in the nearby Triangolo della Sedia (chair triangle, the 3 towns that produce more than half of Europe's chairs). I am hard put to name the single best plum gnocchi, though you would do quite well at the Giardinetto restaurant in Cormons. This is a seasonal dish of late summer, early fall. If you love white asparagus, the season goes from mid-April to mid-June. It is found throughout the region, but no more so than in Tavagnacco, where it is prepared in countless ways. One thing I have not noticed much in your and other posts is the astonishing wine culture of FVG. No doubt it has Italy's best white wines, but also has some incredible reds. In the region, people tend to have a different wine with each course, and restaurants are quick to accommodate this approach. Anyone who loves wine should make FVG a priority. Italy for the Gourmet Traveler lists a lot of destinations. Anyone interested in cooking food from the region should look in the library or used book store for "La Terra Fortunata: The Splendid Food and Wine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia" (Broadway Books, 2001). Here is an enjoyable article from the NY Times about FVG:

            1 Reply
            1. re: Fred Plotkin


              Thank you for making my trip to Friuli-Venezia-Giulia so deliciously wonderful. Your words about the region made me curious to go, and it has happily expanded my knowledge of not only Italian food and wine, but also my understanding of Italy, the Balkans and a good deal of European history.

              The only reason I did not rave copiously in my post about the wines of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia is years of intimidation from wine experts and their specialized vocubulary. It would be evident in a flash that I'm a rank amateur (although in the truest sense of the word!). In addition, I did not take notes about which wines I drank with each course at La Subida -- I didn't even note the names. I just gushed at the wonderful sommeiier "Delicious!" "This is amazing!" "This is perfect!" -- I think once I was left so speechless I could only manage a thumbs up in the midst of a swoon.

              About the only original thing I might contribute is to say that it seemed to me that the wines of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia had tremendous *personality*. They not only matched brilliantly with the food, they each seemed unique and lively and surprising, not set to a fixed point of consistency. Nor were they "rounded" or what I might call "safe." They were incredibly interesting. At la Subida, I passed on ordering a deer dish that was part of the set "traditional tasting menu" because I don't care for venison. They substituted faraona for me, which was tasty, but the red wine served with that course was so clearly paired to the deer, and such a climax, I simply stole the rest of my husband's dinner. (He insists he was happy to share.) I was deeply impressed by the way the courses of food and wine at la Subida succeeded each other, but throughout Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, intelligence in cooking shone.

              I consider it one of the happy accidents of my trip that, in a mistaken hunt for gnocchi di susine, I ended up getting a fine education in passionate perfectionism at Campiello. (Fred, check your own entry for San Giovanni al Natisone in the latest edition of your book, and I agree with your assessment of the general area of the Triangolo della Sedia.)

              Before I went to Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, I always referred to it as simply "Friuli", but now that seems very wrong. The straddle between Venice and antique Rome is very much part of the culture, although the uniqueness of something special that is purely "Fruili" does take pride of place.

              Thanks for the link to the Times article -- and I very much agree with those descriptions of Trieste! This morning, I was able to fetch from the post office the copy of your book, "La Terra Fortunata", which had gotten lost in transit. I look forward to reading it and returning to Friuli-Venezia-Giulia with your additional recommendations. Thanks again.