Friuli-Venezia Giulia is an exotic part of Italy with a distinctive Slavic flair. The cuisine is unique in its extensive interweaving of sweet, savoury and spices such as gnocchi di susine (sweet plum dumplings) which are served as a first course, the same as pasta. The geography varies from crystal blue Alpine lakes and the towering Dolomites to endless fields of corn and soy dotted with “U” and “L” shaped hacienda style houses leading to the rocky beaches of the Adriatic coast.
We were drawn to the region because of its white wines and its distinct mixture of Italian, Balkan, Hungarian and Austrian cultures. What we discovered were historic palatial country estates of moneyed Venetians, tiny towns with characteristic architecture blending the best of the Orient and Europe and a cuisine of previously undiscovered excellence. On offer were cellar visits, sightseeing and outstanding restaurants for the adults and horseback riding and beaches for the children.
Top 8 reasons to visit:
The Collio and its wineries
White wines are the stars of the Collio. The Collio region is composed of 8 DOCs which have been producing wine since Roman times.
Top wineries to taste or visit (with an appointment) are Vie di Romans, Jermann, Felluga, Venica & Venica, Russia Lis Neris, Ronco del Gelso and Vigne di Zamo. Local wines include Friulano (previously known as Tocai Friulano), Ribolla Gialla or Malvasia Istriana. Very good versions are made with international grapes Sauvignon, Traminer and Pinot Bianco as well. Locals like their white wine to be quite high in alcohol so if your preferences differ, check the label before ordering.
A good place to try local wines by the glass (if you are lucky, in the company of some of the winemakers themselves) is the Enoteca di Cormòns located on the main square of Cormòns.
Borgo Colmello in Farro d’Isonzo is a characteristic restaurant of the area in an old farmhouse complete with a museum dedicated to the lifestyle of the peasants in the 19th century. They serve excellently prepared traditional local dishes and wines and one can relax on their terrace during the summer.
My mission impossible was to visit Gravner, the maker of an “orange wine”. There is much curiousity about his wine which he makes according to ancient methods, employing the use of unfiltered crushed grapes fermented in colossal handmade clay amphorae submersed in the ground which he has commissioned in Georgia. Much to my disappointment Gravner does not entertain visits. If anyone knows the secret to obtaining an invitation, please share as I will gladly make the trip back.
Castello di Spessa
The splendid Castello di Spessa is a luxury hotel set within a castle (parts of which date back to the 12th century). The interior is decorated with furniture from the 16th and 17th centuries. The hotel has sumptuous entertaining rooms which would be perfect for a formal wedding. For centuries it has hosted aristocracy and famous people including Giacomo Casanova (whose name today remains synonymous with a womanizer).
There is a beautiful park surrounding the castle, an 18 hole golf course, two restaurants and the Pali winery with medieval cellars (their top wine is named for Casanova). Breakfast in the historic kitchen gives a true sense of villa life.
La Subida and Trattoria al Cacciatore della Subida
I never knew before I arrived at La Subida that I had in mind the perfect rustic family countryside holiday destination. La Subida is family-run relais complete with a formal restaurant and a more casual osteria, horseback riding facilities, tennis courts, a garden, a cooking school, trekking trails, swimming pool, a playground for children and cabins for those wishing to never leave. It is located very near to Castello di Spessa for those looking for more indulgent accommodation.
Trattoria al Cacciatore della Subida is one of my favourite restaurants in Italy not only being the epitome of country gentility, the warm and cozy familial feeling but for its truly excellent cooking, which draws on the best of local products. Care and thought are imbued in every detail from the copper ice bucket for our water to the customised activity packs presented to the children which were styled in keeping with the ethos of La Subida. Not to be missed is their caramelized roast veal shin (stinco di vitello) carved tableside or their hearty lamb stew served in a large glass preserving jar.
Their informal restaurant, Osteria di Subida, had a simple Friulian/Slovenian menu, which was light on the wallet; perfect for a casual everyday meal. We will return soon.
Cividale del Friuli
Cividale del Friuli is a quiet, medieval town near Udine first settled in the 6th century by the Lombards. The town boasts an enchanting town square (Piazza del Duomo) with a 15th century cathedral (Duomo). Nearby is a 16th century Palladian villa (Palazzo dei Provveditori Veneti) which now houses the National Archeological Museum.
The Natisone river divides the town linked by way of the 15th century Devil’s Bridge. It also has ancient underground halls carved into the rock. But the town’s many osterias were the main draw for us.
Try local specialties such as cjalsions (fresh pasta stuffed with spinach in a melted butter, raisin, pine nut and cinnamon sauce), savoury strudels and pancakes, local cheeses such as Montasio DOP or framadi frant (a peppery local cheese), and polenta served with fish, cheese or vegetables.
There are also many characteristic Friulian desserts which make use of nuts and dried fruit: gubana (a spiral cake stuffed with nuts, dates and raisins; the pastry varies from more cake like around Udine to puff pastry in Gorizia and Trieste), putizza (also a spiral cake filled with pan di Spagna, nuts, raisins, chocolate, pine nuts, candied orange peel and rum, an Easter specialty) and strucchi (small bundles of fried puff pastry filled with dried fruit and grappa or rum from Udine). A good place to try them is Pasticceria Gelateria Ducale.
Villa di Manin and Trattoria Da Toni
Villa Manin is a 16th century Palladian Villa whose previous inhabitants included the last Duke of Venice and Napoleon Boneparte (albeit briefly). A morning exploring the vast manor is best followed by a meal at Da Toni in nearby Varmo. Da Toni offers elegantly presented refined local dishes either while sitting in a lovely well-manicured garden filled with sculptures or in their dining room complete with the traditional Friulian fogular (a central fireplace commonplace in local farmhouses).
Don’t miss the suckling pig with its juicy, soft meat and crisp crackling and the frico (crisped cheese tuiles). Place yourself in the hands of the attentive staff to select your meal as the chef makes many new dishes daily.
San Daniele, is a sleepy little town near Udine, made exciting for its many prosciutterie where many types of prosciutto can be sampled. San Daniele produces the best prosciutto in Italy and whole legs are distinctive as the trotter is still attached. It is slightly sweeter than Prosciutto from Parma (and has a quarter of the production so is more rare). It is served sliced paper thin with fresh horseradish grated over the top accompanied by a glass of Friulano wine.
Other excellent prosciuttos produced in the region are Prosciutto di Sauris (from Sauris and smoked in traditional fireplaces over beech, juniper and pine woods) and Prosciutto D’Osvaldo (produced in Cormòns and smoked on cherry, bay and rosemary woods).
Sunset over the Adriatic and Duino Castle
While Europeans can be condescending about this side of the Adriatic with its crowded rocky beaches, the sunsets with the 14th century Duino Castle in the background are unparalleled. A few kilometers to the south along the Adriatic coast is the 19th century Miramar Castle.
While beach life has many common traits throughout the world, this particular strip is quite popular with party goers and the festive atmosphere is apparent. Grado is located 45 minutes from the Collio and is an important fishing village. It is a good place to sample local seafood delicacies.
Udine has a Venetian influence due to its proximity and has been an important satellite city for more than 400 years. It sits on a hill with a 16th castle on its peak offering panaromic views of the Friulian countryside.
There are lovely town squares such as Piazza della Libertà and Piazza Matteotti (has an open air market). Take a respite in the nearly 500 year old Pasticceria Carli di Folegotto to enjoy a coffee and sample local desserts.
Gnocchi di susine is a dessert in Alto-Adige (often with apricots instead of plums) but is served as a first course in Friuli. It is delicious as any course. This recipe was translated from La Subida.
Gnocchi di Susine (Plum dumplings)
500 grams potatoes, boiled, peeled, cooled and grated
150 grams 00 flour
12 plums (can substitute plum jam)
50 grams caster sugar
3 tablespoons grated bread
100 grams butter, melted
10 grams ground cinnamon
Mix together the sugar and the cinnamon.
In a frying pan, toast the breadcrumbs with butter until golden and then toss with some of the cinnamon sugar.
Mix the potatoes with the egg and flour to make a soft dough. Divide the dough into 12 pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a disc.
Place in the centre a plum or teaspoon of jam and
Close the dumplings and boil in salted water until they float to the surface.
Remove the dumpling with a slotted spoon to a serving plate. Drizzle the melted butter over the dumplings and sprinkle the top with the cinnamon sugar. Serve immediately.
Places to visit:
Enoteca di Cormòns
Piazza XXIV Maggio, 21
Tel: +39 0481 630371
A cooperative of 33 members run the enoteca and it is a good place to taste the local wines by the glass accompanied by the local D’Osvaldo prosciutto and other salumi.
Trattoria al Cacciatore della Subida
Via Subida, 52
34071 Cormons (GO)
Tel. +39 (0) 481 60531
This lovely restaurant is renowned for its elegant countryside ambience. They also make their own vinegar, l’aceto di uva Sirk, which they use as a condiment on eggs, omelettes, soups, tripe, fatty fish, oysters and fruit as well as a refreshing sorbet. They sell their homemade vinegar, Fossa cheese and wine online at shop.lasubida.it
Recommended dishes: gnocchi di susine (dumplings filled with plums), stinco di vitello (roast veal shin), lamb stew
Osteria La Subida
For contact details see Trattoria al Cacciatore above
Tel: +39 0481 61689 (osteria)
Recommended dishes: frico (Montasio cheese melted with mashed potatoes and onion), maccheroncini al torchio con prosciutto d’Osvaldo (pasta with prosciutto d’Osvaldo), torta di nocciola e mela (hazelnut apple cake)
Strada della Grotta, 8
34072 Farra d’Isonzo (GO)
Tel: +39 0481 889013
After a drive through the vineyards, this restaurant is hidden setback from the road. Dine outside on the terrace next to the lawn. The food is very good and has both traditional local and creative dishes. The service is friendly.
Recommended dishes: toc’ di braides (soft polenta topped with melted latteria cheese and grated ricotta salata), aspic di pomodoro, tagliolini con funghi, orzo salad with zucchini and mint pesto with grated pecorino, gelatina di melone (melon gelatin), tiramisu (coffee and chocolate trifle)
Cividale del Friuli:
Via Ristori, 9
Cividale del Friuli
Tel: +39 0432 700808
The restaurant is housed in an 18th century monastery and has a lovely little courtyard where you can dine. The menu is national Italian but offers regional specialities. The food is excellent. The wine list is good and features many local wines.
Recommended dishes: salumi, cheeses, cjalsions (fresh pasta stuffed with spinach in a melted butter, raisin, pine nut and cinnamon sauce) and maltagliati al ragu d’anatra tartufato (fresh pasta with black truffle duck meat sauce)
Pasticceria Gelateria Ducale
Piazza Picco, 24
Cividale del Friuli
Tel: +39 043 2906143
A good place to try traditional Friulian desserts such as strucchi and gubana.
10 minutes drive from Villa Manin to the south of Udine:
Trattoria Da Toni
Via Sentinis, 1
33030 Frazione Gradiscutta, Varmo
Tel: +39 0432 778003
Closed Mondays and Tuesday mornings
This 85 year old restaurant is an excellent representative of Friulian hospitality. The service is formal but personable. The food is excellent and I can’t recommend enough the suckling pig. I would urge you to let them order for you (giving them some guidance as to your preferences).
Recommended dishes: prosciutto– San Daniele or di Sauris, crema di basilico e orzo (soup of basil and orzo), insalata di funghi (mushroom salad), maialino di latte al forno con pelle croccante (roast suckling pig with crackling), insalata di funghi (fresh mushroom salad)
Prosciutteria Dok Dall’Ava
Via Gemona, 29
San Daniele del Friuli
Tel: +39 0432 940280
A prosciutto producer which can be visited with a prior appointment. They also have a restaurant where different types of prosciutto can be tasted.
Pasticceria Carli di Folegotto
Via Vittorio Veneto, 36
Tel: +39 043 2504512
Founded in 1532, this café is part of the history of Udine and is conveniently located near the Duomo. Try desserts from Friuli and Veneto such as gubana, raviolone (pastry filled with custard and cherry) and candied chestnuts.
Castello di Spessa
Via Spessa, 1
Capriva del Friuli
Tel: +39 0481 60445
Parts of the castle date back to 1200 but the part of the castle we stayed in was built in the 20th century. The castle has belonged to several nobles.
It has amazing banquet rooms suitable for a grand wedding and is surrounded by a beautiful park full of flowers and sculptures, an 18 hole golf course and the vineyards (their winery is called Pali). They also have three restaurants on the estate- la Tavernetta (also has rooms), la Hoteleria and La Boatina.
We had room 15 which is a 2,000 square foot 2 bedroom apartment perfect for families. The rooms are decorated in 18th century style.
Via Subida, 52
Tel: +39 0481 60531
We spent several days at La Subida dining and doing horse riding lessons. In hindsight this would have been a better option for the kids as they have a pool, chickens, horses, playground, hiking trails, etc. There are 16 cabins set in the garden, 2 excellent restaurants and a tennis court. Everything is tastefully decorated and the family who runs it are lovely and have young children/grandchildren as well. They arrange cooking classes by appointment.
Capalbo, Carla (2009) Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s Northeast. London: Pallas Athene