We hadn't been to Friuli in two years, so we went for a quick visit. Two very good restaurant meals, two casual osterie and one restaurant that was very disappointing.
The best of our meals was at Sale e Pepe in Stregna, 9 miles east of Cividale del Friuli and tucked right up against the Slovenian border. A lovely couple (Teresa in the kitchen, Franco the sala) who have a very traditional place (in the best sense of the term) which seats about 40 in two well done comfortable rooms, one of which has a marvelous fogolar. There is an excellent wine list (the very best of the trip), moderately priced, divided half and half, whites and reds (unusual for Friuli). We had a 2006 Dorigo Tazzelenghe which was fantastic. Can still taste it. Franco knows a great deal about Friuli wines and is quite happy to share his knowledge. Service is warm, casual, well paced and professional. The restaurant is both in Gambero Rosso and Osterie d' Italia.
The food reflects its location, the great combination of Italian and Slavic influences that makes Friuli such a delight in terms of food. Teresa is a pro. This is no ordinary osteria/ristorante. Her ingredients are as fresh as can be, the combinations are excellent,there is a great deal of skill on those plates and plating is attractive without being fussy.
We had an amuse of a bit of soup: white polenta cooked in milk, with lots of wild herbs. Delicious. Then we started with a large plate of salame, mortadella and prosciutto... all made with goose! We'd had it many years ago, but this was extraordinary. Then for the primi, we had light blini di grano saraceno (they do not call them crespelle) filled with wild asparagus with just enough jus to coat the asparagus; and gnocchi di ortiche with a goose ragu. For secondi: guancia, white polenta, peas and red onions; stewed duck with spring vegetables and polenta. A wonderful crema di menta with salsa di fragola... and a delicious gubana for the desserts. There was lots more on the menu which changes frequently (and with the seasons). We hope to try the other dishes soon. If you go to Cividale (a lovely town), this is the place to go to.
Our other very good meal was a place we hadn't been to in more than 20 years, though we've been up to Friuli fairly often. La Subida is just outside of Cormons. The entire evening was delightful: excellent food; a very good wine list reasonably priced; warm, casual, professional service, a few unusual dishes. The restaurant has been around forever, but it is not tired, not run down and certainly not living off its past glory. The next generation is very much in evidence and there was a good spirit from the family members and the rest of the staff. The restaurant was full on a Monday evening and it was a lively atmosphere. We had a merlot (something we almost never have, but it's not easy to find great reds in Friuli; the Dorigo Tazzelenghe was an exception), a 2007 Franco Toros Riserva which we very much enjoyed much to our surprise.
An amuse of frico to start. Thin, crisp and flavorful, just the way we like it. Then a large plate of the last of the season's white asparagus, what a treat. For primi: I Mlinci e l'Orto, fresh pasta with vegetables and pieces of goose and an herb which was described, but was local...really good; tortelli stuffed with potatoes, herbs and onions with a light vegetable sauce. Then a boned, rolled and stuffed faraona with a cherry sauce. I had fegato di vitello alla brace. Both secondi were outstanding. I'd go back in a second for that fegato. Their version of tiramisu (very good) and then that incredible Friuli digestivo Abuja's Pelinkovac, which really does clear up any indigestion :).
We had two simple meals at La Subida's osteria right down the road. Good light food (frico, pea soup, frittata with greens, prosciutto from San Daniele etc, a good wine list (one lunch we had, again surprisingly, an excellent bottle of Renato Keber's 2003 Merlot Riserva). Also a light lunch at Mulin Vicio in Garadisca. It always has been a pleasant place if you're near Gradisca.
We stayed at Livio Felluga's B&B, Terre e Vini, in the hamlet just north of Cormons. Perfect location. Friendly staff. Very nice rooms (make sure to get one in the back away from the road). Ate at the osteria. It was okay, nothing more.
Our one disaster of a meal was at Borgo Colmello in Farra d"Isonzo. A snail and wine wine bottle in the Osterie d' Italia, usually a great sign. Poor wine list. Ordered a bottle. It was oxidized. The owner came out and said it wasn't oxidized; it was, not even close (I can't remember how many years ago it has been since I've sent back a bottle, although, of course, have been tempted to periodically; but this bottle was undrinkable). Didn't offer to take it back (first mistake). Okay, I said, we'll order another bottle and we'll pay for the bad bottle. La Signora brings over the wine list. I pick another bottle and just to make sure, both my wife and I said to her "we're ordering a 2003 Keber Merlot Riserva" (the same wine we had another night). She repeated it, the year and wine. Two minutes later she brings out the bottle, already opened (second mistake) and a different year (third mistake). The food was fine; the people who run the osteria were not. Not a smile, even before the wine problems. We, of course, paid full price for the two bottles. Do not go.
so I now I have found the pictures and some notes.
* wine: we love old white wines and in the truly extensive and lovely list of Franco's we had narrowed it down to 2 different wines. when we asked him what he would recommend, how these two were different and how they would compare, he just told us the grapes in the blends (which were already written on the list, so it was no new information) and wasn't able or not willing to tell us more about them to make our decision one way or the other.
* in the end we did order the vecchie vigne 2000 of Roncus, which had refermented and was slightly fizzy (which it is not supposed to be) and vinegary. when we talked to him (we weren't even really objecting, as with such old whites, you kinda have to take into account such things can happen) he tried to make us believe it is the way the wine is supposed to be (we know the wine and it is not supposed to be like that)
* we had a celery, apple salad with lardo, which was the best dish i think.
* some kind of sformato in a white sauce (i honestly do not remember what it was and have no notes) which was free of taste
* the gnocchi di orticchie with goose sauce! (same dish in, when were you there, end of may, beg of june? and 30th of august, when we were there). I remember these as tasteless again.
* a type of pasta i have never seen before or after, don't know the name (see pic), also tasteless.
* a goose secondo, which was only hot on the outside and cold (not cool, cold) in the inside, and completely dry. with a white polenta that had a hot crust and cold insides, and peas that looked and tasted like from a can.
* spiedini of coniglio, which were utterly dry, and had the same cold/warm problem, also on white polenta (with same problem) and a peach sauce that had developed a skin.
except for the antipasti, we couldn't eat even half of the plates. Were never asked a reason. i think even in the simplest trattoria we would have been asked, what is the matter, are you not hungry? or something. The hot on the outside, cold inside dishes were in our opinion microwaved. As mentioned, we kept on hearing the "bling" of the microwave from the kitchen. Yes, it was that silent. After the tasting, and leaving, the secondi, we asked for the check, payed the whole amount and left. all of this happened within 45 minutes. We sat outside in the car and asked ourselves "what did just happen? Were we really in the restaurant that everyone was talking about?".
Thanks for the full reply; that was very helpful. Are you sure we were at the same Sale e Pepe restaurant?
Perhaps there are two Sale e Pepe restaurants, or perhaps the owners sold out for a day to the highest bidder in the auction to benefit the hospital in Cividale and the bidder always wanted to own and cook in a restaurant :) I'm only half joking.
There are two things that look off in the photos. None of those dishes in the photos were plated as the ones we had, particularly the goose and the gnocchi (I specifically mentioned the plating in my post because it was so good, but the photos you took clearly show that on the day you were there, it was poor). Nor do the actual plates themselves resemble the dishes we had because the plates we were served on were round not oblong.
But whatever... we had a great experience and you had a very poor one. It happens. I would continue to highly recommend the place, but fully understand why you would say to anyone... "don't ever go there, it's a disaster and you'll be very sorry if you do go." Both, of course, are valid.
A question for you if I may. Don't mean to be disrespectful in any way, but am puzzled by the timing of your meal. You said you were in and out of there in 45 minutes ("all of this happened within 45 minutes"). I realize you didn't eat much of your meal, but even so! You came in, you got the wine list, looked it over and decided what you wanted, discussed it, looked at the menu, decided what you wanted to eat, ordered, had an amuse (I assume one was served), tasted the wine, had a discussion because the wine was bad, ate the first course, waited and then ate some of the second, decided to leave and paid the bill... all in forty-five minutes. Boy was that restaurant in terrible shape that day. Microwave it had to be.
No restaurant of that caliber should serve a meal like that. There are too many excuses made on this board for restaurants that "had an off day." I know many disagree (because many don't want to admit it wasn't only an "off day" for their favorite restaurant), but no restaurant of that caliber should ever have an off day. If you don't have the ingredients or if your chef is sick, close the restaurant.
If I had had the experience you said you had, my post would have been much more scathing.
Your thoughts about the hospital benefit auction are not too far away from mine!
I am pretty sure we were in the same one - i have a pic of the wine list with sale e pepe logo and smth like "cantina di franco" on it (don't have the pic in front of me now).
The plates were round - if they look oblong in the pics it might be bcs of formatting when posted to ch? My original pics def show round plates.
And yes, the 45 minutes is shocking. I don't think i ever had a 3 course dinner that quick.
Our theory is that Teresa was not in that day, maybe they had a fight and she left, and some kitchen help was just dishing out and reheating prepared stuff and that was why Franco was sour and not friendly at all. As you say, a restaurant at that level should have rather closed than serve food like that.
You and i have differences on the "off day" discussion (remember an earlier thread) - i do understand and accept *some* things not being always the same in restaurants. Like the gnocchi being more floury one day, or a dish being oversalted etc etc, are things in my eyes that can happen. But our experience really was a complete disaster - service, wine and food.
Actually there is a further bend in the story, which i at first didn't consider relevant but now think i will write about. As we sat in the car and discussed what just happened, the only other couple who were dining in the restaurant came out, too. Seeing we must have looked odd, we drove off, they drove right behind us. So we drove down the mountain together for a couple of kilometers, and when we were at the bottom, at the traffic lights where you turn into a bigger road, my husband couldn't stand it anymore - he got off the car and went to the car behind us. Poor people must have thought we are going to rob them. He asked them what they thought about the food - they said they are regulars and the food was as always, no complaints, and that maybe we do not "understand" the dishes because we are foreigners. Food for thought.
Thanks for the update. I just realized i haven't written about our september 2012 visit to friuli - sale e pepe stuck out as the worst experience, in wine (was brought a wine much more expensive than what we had chosen and it was faulty and wasn't accepted as such), food (hot on the surface, cold inside, coagulated sauces, the constant pinging of the microwave from the kitchen underlying it all) and service (we left all plates barely touched and were never asked the reason, were one of two tables only and there was an eerie silence that made us very uneasy, and never once were we smiled at). I know i wrote about it in an email to a friend at the time, with fresh memories, will look for it and supply details.
Good to hear la subida is good again, for a couple of years was hearing bad reviews.