One of the best-known Italian chefs in America, Lidia Bastianich is a culinary powerhouse whose work extends far beyond the kitchen. Along with her restaurants around the country, Bastianich is a popular cookbook author and television chef. Her most recent book, Lidia’s Italy, and her public television series of the same title, take viewers and readers on a gastronomic journey through Italy, where she explores the various regional preparations and flavors that have informed her cooking.
One of Bastianich’s favorite regions to visit is Friuli-Venezia Giulia, where she owns a winery with her family. Here, Bastianich shares her top recommendations in Friuli for where to eat, stay, tour, and play.
Fodor’s: Give us an overview of Friuli. What’s so special about the area?
Lidia Bastianich: There is a lot to experience and enjoy in this part of Italy. It is still an undiscovered treasure. The region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is located in the northeast corner of Italy, where it borders Slovenia in the east and Austria in the north. The Bastianich Winery is just outside the city of Cividale del Friuli, nestled in the gently rolling hills which lead to the Giulian Alps. This area is where some of the best Italian white wines come from.
At any given time, you can see the peaks of the Alps to the north. The Adriatic lies to the south. In Grado, the lagoons start, and you can take a scenic route to Venice on a boat. Friuli has much to offer. One can reach the mountains in 30 minutes, hence great skiing in winter, hiking and biking trails. Another 30 minutes to the south and one can be boating, sailing, and enjoying all kinds of aquatic sports. The coastal stretch is beautiful and one can reach Trieste, the capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in an hour.
Fodor’s: Describe Cividale del Friuli.
LB: The city is situated on a big river, the Natisone, with majestic granite cliffs. The city has many layers of history, from Celtic to Roman to Lombard to Renaissance. The oldest part of the city extends from the Duomo to the riverbanks. The area known as the Gastaldaga (today’s Borgo Brossana) was once the district owned by the king and is a characteristic area of stone houses and cobblestone streets.
A walk across the Devil’s Bridge (photo, right) is very panoramic. The Oratory of Saint Mary in the Valley, more often known as the Lombard temple, is a small architectural masterpiece decorated with magnificent stuccoes form the 8th century. The Duomo, a 15th-century building, is filled with wonderful Lombard art as is the National Archaeological Museum. The Church of Saint Francis is one of the most significant examples of Gothic architecture in Friuli, with frescoes dating from the 1300s to the 1500s.
Fodor’s: Tell us about your winery.
LB: Our winery, the Azienda Agricola Bastianich [Via Darnazzacco 44 / 2, Gagliano, 33043, 0462/700943; firstname.lastname@example.org] is right outside of Cividale, in the hills of Colli Orientali. Colli means little hills, and the area (photo, right) is famous for great wines. The region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is renowned for its Prosciutto di San Daniele, polenta, and Montasio cheese. In making our wines, we want to pay homage to these great traditional products and make wines that reflect the terroir and the great grape varieties, like Tocai Friulano, Schiopettino, and Refosco that grow here. One can visit our winery and do a tasting. They should call or email the winery for an appointment.
You can taste our wines and some traditional products at a local trattoria, Valter Scarbolo’s La Frasca, where for just 15 euros people can do a tasting of three of our wines and three of Scarbolo’s wines with a spread of the local salumi — the prosciutto, salami, speck, pancetta, and Montasio cheese. The tasting will be conducted by someone who speaks English and who is knowledgeable about the wines, the local products, and the region. After the tasting, one can stay and enjoy a great local meal. Make reservations in advance.
Fodor’s: Are there other wine producers nearby that you’d recommend visiting?
LB: At the winery we give a little map of other places nearby that produce great wines. Livio Felluga and his family run a world-class winery. They also have a little trattoria called Terra e Vini Ristorante [Via Risorgimento, 1 34070, Cormons, Loc. Brazzano, 0481/60203]. Silvio Jermann has delicious wines and a great little inn. Schiopetto is also one of the classic wineries of Friuli. It’s family run and has great wines.
Also, the area is known for grappa. There are two grappa distilleries which should be visited. Nonino is the forerunner where Gianola and Benito with their three daughters make a delicious product. The Distilleria Domenis is the other, about 500 meters from the Bastianich winery. They make a tremendous aged grappa.
All of these vineyards and distilleries are no more than 30 minutes away from each other, and the beautiful part is taking the back roads through the vineyards and corn fields to get there.
Fodor’s: Are there hotels in the area you’d recommend?
LB: Locanda Al Castello (photo, right), near Cividale del Friuli, is a great place to stay if you are going to experience the wineries nearby in the Collio area. It is a small 10-room, quaint, ivy-strewn, charming hotel. In San Floriano, close to the town of Gorizia, is the Golf Hotel Castello Formentini, which is nestled in between the Collio hills. You will be greeted by Countess Isabella Formentini, whose family has been there for 400 years.
Near the town of Pordenone, a bit further in the countryside, is the former monastery-hotel Villa Lupis. It is a Venetian-Friulian villa that is a warm and hospitable. The property is well maintained and historically decorated with charming period furnishings.
A Cuisine for All Seasons
Fodor’s: What kind of food is traditional to Friuli?
LB: If you come to this area you should experience the mountains and also the sea. In the mountains you’ll find the rustic fare of the inland. Polenta is king — it is served any way you can imagine. Warm, hot, with Montasio cheese mixed in it. Frico is the local specialty, where they bake potatoes and Montasio cheese in a casserole form. It’s delicious.
In the town of Faganga, west of Udine, you will taste some of the best Montasio. A small artisanal plant collects the milk from the farmers in the highlands, which reflects the rich pastures. They make and sell the cheese in the little store adjoining the production. It is called Formaggi di Fagagna [Via Paludo e Via Riolo, Faganga, 0432/800215].
Brovada is another local specialty — it’s pickled turnips shredded and sautéed in a pan. It’s usually served with Musetto, a very gelatinous sausage. Served together, the tartness of the brovada and richness of the Musetto is a great combo.
If you’re there in the spring, the area reflects the foraging of wild spring greens — wild asparagus, wild nettles. So you’ll find gnocchi and risotto with asparagus. There’s a whole festival around asparagus in spring, where you can have it any way. One of the local varieties of herbs you’ll find is sclopit. When sclopit sprouts, it is tangy and herbal with a little acidity. People make great raviolis and risottos and soups with it.
It’s also a great fall cuisine. If people come in the fall, they can get involved with harvesting grapes. Harvest time is mid-September to mid-October.
One thing people will notice if they go into traditional trattorias is the fogolar, (photo, above right) which is the hearth. Every traditional home and trattoria has one in upper Friuli. It is a square hearth, open on all sides and surrounded by a bench. In winter, people sit around it and watch the polenta and soup perking on it and they have a glass of wine and frico.
While you are up in the mountains, you should absolutely drive to Sauris. To get there, you’re climbing into the alto piano (highlands). It is an absolutely magnificent, unknown little town with two divisions — the Lower Sauris and the Higher Sauris. There’s a little road that takes you up there, and all of a sudden there appears before you this town perched on an upslope. There’s a great restaurant there, Locanda alla Pace [Fraz. Sauris di Sotto, 38, Sauris (UD) 33020, 0433/86010], which also is a small hotel with eight rooms. It’s worth a day’s trip to come here and eat at the restaurant and go hiking. In the winter there are mild slopes nearby. There’s the Wolf Prosciutto and Speck factory (photo, right)– great mountain prosciutto and speck. They can organize a visit and do a tasting. Do not forget to taste the local beer, Zahrebeer.
I also love La Subida, which is really on the border of Slovenia and Friuli — very much into the country. It’s a local setting into the hills. Ask for Josko Sirk, the patriarch. He and the whole family — three generations there — make La Subida a place you will want to come back to, as I do on every visit to Friuli. La Subida is also the place for horse lovers and has quaint rooms that are a pleasure to stay in.
Traveling to Trieste
Fodor’s: On the coast, where do you like to visit?
LB: On the Adriatic, you can go to little resort towns like Grado, or you can go to the most magnificent city in the region, which is Trieste. It is a grand lady — a city that has been through many occupations, Italian and Mittel European at the same time and has a gulf that seems to hug the ocean. It has one of the largest piazzas in Italy, Piazza Unita d’Italia (photo, right). Trieste is a special city, and when I am not in our winery in the Collio hills of Friuli, I spend time in this regional capital, sipping a cup of Illy café at Caffe’ degli Specchi. Trieste is full of great caffes. It is a city with a great literary history, and caffes have been the gathering places of thinkers and writers. James Joyce, Italo Svevo, and other writers of the time preferred Caffe San Marco [Via Cesare Battisti 18, Trieste, 040/363538].
In Trieste I enjoy eating out for lunch, much more than dinner. I have two favorite lunch spots. Buffet da Pepi [Via della Cassa di Risparmio 3 Trieste, 040/366858] is the best place to go for a piatto di porcina mista con kren (boiled pork with freshly grated horseradish). The meat can range from smoked ribs to sausage to pork cheek, all served nestled over sauerkraut speckled with caraway seeds. The freshly grated horseradish on top is the kicker and clears all sinuses, similar to the effects of wasabi. It is the perfect accompaniment to the pork meats. To wash it all down I drink the local red Terano, a blood red wine that makes your mouth pucker up. It is made in the Carso hills above Trieste.
Pepi is a real local joint, small and particularly crowded with locals at lunch. You can also go for a take-away sandwich, but the pork plate is really to die for. Lunch service is the tavola calda (hot table), as it has been for the past 40 years. I’ve only been going half that amount — for 20 years.
Trattoria Da Giovanni is my other lunch favorite. It’s a family effort where you can find Bruno Vesnaver behind the counter slicing freshly baked ham served with fresh gratings of horseradish, or carving up a mortadella the size and shape or a torpedo. His two sisters, Ada and Anita, watch over the small dining space inside and the tables outside serving up delights such as jota (sauerkraut and bean soup) or warm, delicious tripe, mussels, fresh anchovies and fried baccala. Everything is cooked by mama Elda in the back kitchen, as it has been for the past 40 years.
Hotel Duchi D’Aosta (photo, right) is my home away from home. Every time I am in Italy I come to Trieste, and the warmth and elegance of the Duchi is sheer comfort to me. Overlooking the Gulf of Trieste and the Piazza Unita d’Italia, a night at the Duchi is not to be missed. That very spot has been functioning as a hotel in various buildings for centuries to welcome merchants to the important port. A member of the Benvenuti family is always there to welcome their guests.
I know all of these places, and your readers can mention my name when they go. Tell them Lidia Bastianich sent them. These are my stomping grounds.
Fodor’s: Other than the food, what is special about Trieste?
LB: One thing unique about the city is that it has a wind. The wind is called La Bora, and it is very much a part of the city. In the early fall you might encounter it. Sometimes it is up to 90 kilometers an hour. Everybody knows it, and they shut down awnings and bring in the chairs. And people look forward to it — it’s a cleansing, they say, of the area.
I was born just across the border in Istria [a former Italian province], which now belongs to Croatia. After World War II it fell under communism, so ethnic Italians literally had to escape back to Italy. So Trieste was — and is — a city that harbors a lot of immigrants. It has a place of worship for every major religion.
A very personal spot for me, just outside of Trieste, is San Sabba where there was a refugee camp, which is now a museum called Risiera di San Sabba [Via Giovanni Palatucci 5, 040/826202].
My family and I stayed there for two years, when I was 10 to 12 years old. We waited there to move on, and ultimately came to America. So for me it’s a very meaningful place, a harbor after the turmoils of World War II. It is now open to the public. So it is truly an interesting city from many perspectives.
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Check out Lidia Bastianich’s Web site Lidia’s Italy
Photo credits: (1) Courtesy Lidia Bastianich; (2) © Giacomo Bartalesi; (3) Courtesy Colli Orientali Tourism; (4) Courtesy Locanda Al Castello; (5) Courtesy Lidia Bastianich; (8) Courtesy of Wolf; (8) © Chiara Marra; (9) Courtesy Hotel Duchi D’Aosta.