Friuli Venezia Giulia has a large, complicated and fascinating history. A border region between Italy, Austria and Slovenia, it’s been constantly fought over, controlled, traded. Everyone from Attila the Hun to the Nazis have passed through Friuli to gain access to the important sea ports of the Adriatic Sea. The region or parts of the region have been controlled by the Lombards, the Romans, the Venetians. For a brief period Napoleon controlled an area, then for an extended time the Hapsburg Empire controlled the area, bringing with it the sauerkraut, meatballs and cabbage rolls of its Austro-Hungarian culture. Later, some of the worst battles of World War I were fought there.
Throughout its history the mixed culture of Friuli brought with it terrible wars and a population who rarely if ever felt an allegiance to whichever power was currently ruling. However, it has also created a cuisine absolutely unique to the area. As foods and spices sailed into the port of Trieste from all over the world, the ever-changing border lines meant that the heavily spiced cuisine of Slovenia was just as easily found in Friuli Venezia Giulia, the fermented vegetables of Austria as well, and the coffee, oh the coffee.
If you read this blog then you know that there’s no such thing as ‘Italian food‘, only regional food, and I haven’t found any other Italian food similar to Friuli Venezia Giulia’s cuisine. I thoroughly enjoyed eating my way through the region’s history, through its cultural exchanges and cuisine adaptations.
Only Torino in Piemonte might be able to rival Trieste in terms of coffee, with the headquarters of Lavazza and it’s fabulous cafés, but Trieste has incredible coffee rolling into it’s port daily, the headquarters of Illy Coffee and a much longer history to stand behind it. The Viennese have been drinking coffee since 1683, coffee that has, of course, come through Trieste. The city itself had nearly 40 caffès where you could hear German, Serbo-Croatian, Italian, maybe even English and Greek as writers like James Joyce and Italo Svevo, poets, artists and even scientists like Sigmund Freud conversed. Try a cappuccino triestino while you’re there. Different than a normal cappuccino, it’s usually served in an espresso glass, has less foamed milk and often is topped with whipped cream.
Prosciutto di San Daniele
Famous in all of Italy, prosciutto di San Daniele is a high-quality, air-cured ham sliced very thin and usually eaten as an antipasto, an appetizer.
Pronounced ‘hoe-tah’, jota is a soup made with white cabbage sauerkraut, beans, pork and potatoes. Mixed together it makes for a creamy, delicious hearty soup that’s a perfect aid against the cold weather and Bora wind of the region.
Gnocchi di Susine
Gnocchi dumplings filled with ripe prunes that soften as the gnocchi cook. Noting that Italians rarely mix sweet and salty flavors and hardly ever use fruit in their cooking unless it’s a dessert, this is a prime example of a foreign cuisine influencing the local cuisine. Whereas those in the East probably made it inside pierogis, across the border in Italy they made it inside the ever-present gnocchi.
My only regret of the trip was that I wasn’t able to find and devour this odd dish. Cjalzons or cialzons or Cjarsons – the name varies as widely as the ingredients you’ll find inside. These ravioli are stuffed with cheese, eggs and vegetables, but it’s not uncommon to have up to 40 different ingredients in the filling. Classic recipes include ricotta cheese, nutmeg, cocoa, sage leaves…I was intrigued by the randomness of the combinations and the sheer quantity of ingredients!
Frico or Fricco, in some places, is an out-of-this world melted cheese dish. Made with local Montasio cheese, the cheese is melted into a round ball, with a ever-so-slightly hard exterior and a melty gooey interior. Sometimes made with potatoes or served with polenta, a small amount can be eaten as an appetizer, or do as we did and thoroughly enjoy a large frico as your main meal.
This is another that I unfortunately wasn’t able to try, but saw on menus throughout the region. Muset is a cotechino pork sausage (to learn more about cotechino, read here) that is highly spice and often includes cinnamon. Another observation: muset is like the musetto of the pig, or the snout. Though it is made into a sausage, so you wouldn’t be eating the straight snout, I imagine this is, or once was, made with the snout of the pig. It’s often served con la brovada, otherwise known as turnips fermented in red wine. This is a classic side for a pork dish and is most found in Pordenone, Gorizia and Udine.
Ah Marco’s favorite. Stinco means shin. If there’s something that resembles the feasts of vikings, this dish would be it. The entire shin bone and meat (either pig or cow) is served in front of you along with potatoes and, of course, wine. Oily, gluttonous and wildly flavorful, don’t let the size intimidate you. This is a winner for all you carnivores out there.
I also noticed a tendency toward wild poultry such as pheasant, duck and quail. Not one to indulge in a stinco, I enjoyed a sort of pheasant steak flavored with a thin slice of bacon as well as duck-filled ravioli while I was there. Both made with an adeptness that suggested they know how to cook with this particular meat.
Wine Wine Wine
Though most think of the hills of Tuscany as Italy’s wine powerhouse, many of the wines known throughout the world are produced on the terraced, limestone hills of Friuli Venezia Giulia. Equally famous for its whites as well as its reds, the wine from this region is some of my favorite in all of Italy. Enjoy a glass of red wine with Merlot and Cabernet from Udine or, my favorite, a Refosco from Trieste. Head to the Colli Orientali or Eastern Hills along the border with Slovenia for lesser known but just as delicious wines. Go white with a Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay from Udine, or take your pick from Müller Thurgau, Pinot Bianco, Ribolla Gialla, even Riesling. It’s not uncommon to see Friulans drinking a class at 10 in the morning, but be careful, these wines may go down like water, but they are as strong as a Friulan!
And finally, the fire water known as grappa. No list of Friuli’s foods and drinks is complete without at least mentioning this powerful alcohol. I’ve written a general guide for Grappa here for those who want to know more. The high-quality grape skins from Friuli’s high-quality wines creates some of the finest grappa in all of Italy, and some of Italy’s most famous grappa producers are based here. Though this spirit isn’t for everyone – it’s anywhere from 35 to 60 percent alcohol or 70 to 120 US proof – it’s a well-appreciated part of the culture. Try it once post-dinner to decide for yourself.
In a certain sense, traveling throughout Friuli Venezia Giulia is like traveling in a different country. The signs are all in Slovenian and Italian, the people switch between languages without batting an eye and the mix of cultures has created a completely unique cuisine. Though the region and its people have suffered greatly, no one can say that they don’t appreciate beauty – and isn’t that beauty best found in a great meal and an incredible glass of wine!