Part 11 of a 2007 Italian travelogue
by Thor Iverson
Some of Friuli is strikingly beautiful, and some of it isn’t. Thus far, we’ve spent a rather dismaying amount of time exploring the latter side of the region, on flat agricultural plains and in industrial exurbs. But here, amidst the vines of Collio and Colli Orientali del Friuli, we’re finally surrounded by some of that beauty. It’s a deep blue-gray day, lending mood and mystery to the carpeting vineyards.
And we’re leaving it behind.
Not for long, though. After yesterday’s marathon tasting/lunch/argue-a-thon, our absence from I Clivi turns out to be short indeed, and once Mario Zanusso is safely scrunched into our back seat, we’re headed somewhere completely new. A place where we don’t speak a single word of the language. A place where we’re not sure anyone speaks any of the languages we do speak. And a place where, despite all these potential difficulties, we’ve got a lunch reservation.
This should be fun.
Two paths diverged in the vines
In my opinion, we should be headed south on the autrostrada, back towards Trieste. But Mario objects; he has a “shortcut,” and despite logic and experience arguing against following such advice, there’s no debating an Italian about – or in – a car. Which has brought us into this pretty expanse of vines, and led us to the border between a Friulian Italy that is only Italian by the strictest of legal definitions, and a country where the landscape, the vines, the people, and the words on signs look pretty much the same, but that is not Italy by any definition, legal or otherwise.
I warn Theresa to prepare to brandish our kindergarten-crayon border-crossing permission slip as we approach a rusting old customs post. But it’s abandoned, and we pass right through. There’s no apparent change in our surroundings; even the language on the signs looks identical, or at least similar. Are we really in Slovenia? We are, according to our GPS…though this is the last useful information it will provide for quite some time.
The road less traveled
The sign says “Ljubljana.” It also says a bunch of stuff we can’t read. So when we follow the sign onto a nice wide exit, we’re not that worried. On a long, straight, and mostly empty stretch of superhighway…still not worried. As we pass construction cranes and crash barriers, and the road narrows lane-by-lane...OK, admittedly, a little worried. At least the scenery is pretty, with dramatic mountains and rural – very rural – greenery in the valleys in-between.
And then, without warning, we’re on a local road. A very local road. Slowly tacking up a small mountain, one of a seemingly endless line of cars stuck behind a diesel-spewing truck chugging up the same narrow lane. The signs to Ljubljana have been left behind. And according to our ever-helpless GPS, we are…
…well, where are we? Judging by the featureless beige on our screen, the answer is “nowhere.” The road we’re on doesn’t exist. Yet it quite obviously does, and we’re on it, and it doesn’t look so new that our allegedly Europe-covering maps wouldn’t include it. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that we now have no idea if we’re headed to Ljubljana or…oh, I dunno, Salzburg. The tension in the car rises a bit.
So much for Italians and their “shortcuts.”
Brda on the wing
Thankfully, our unexpected detour doesn’t permanently divert us from our intended direction, though it does make us rather dramatically late for our reservation. We waste a little more time searching for our restaurant, happening across it more by accident than anything else (our GPS, which appears to be having a bit of a sick day here in Slovenia, places it a lot farther down the street than it actually is). We drop Mario off at the front door, as he’s willing to brave the linguistic waters while we search for a parking space.
Wanting to leave nothing to chance in search of an authentic Slovenian wine and food experience, my pre-trip research returned time and time again to this single address. Better yet, to judge by their web site, the restaurant known as AS (I’ve no idea what it stands for, if anything) is no stranger to non-Slovenian-speaking tourists. Joining Mario in the lobby, we’re led to table by a serene waiter who speaks a precise, almost Oxfordian English. We’re surrounded by deeply-tinted woodwork and very homey Old Word décor. Not a surface in the room is not an earth tone. It’s a monochromatic color palette for what turns out to be, for all its quality, a meal with a certain monochromaticism of its own.
We put ourselves in the restaurant’s hands, for food and drink. They’re happy to accommodate, though in retrospect I wish I’d specified Slovenian-inspired food. Or maybe that’s what they hear despite my omission, and I’m unable to recognize the results. In any case, the menu we’re served is difficult to differentiate from what one might call pan-Mediterranean, so I have no idea if most of what we’re served is local in source or conception. A mix of raw seafood gets us started: sea bass carpaccio (kinda boring) is nicely offset by a brilliant pile of shrimp with olives and vivid olive oil, as we finish off the dregs of a preliminary sparkler and move into our first full bottle of still wine.
Bjana 2002 Brut (Goriška Brda) – An intriguing blend of rebula (a/k/a ribolla gialla) and chardonnay. Alas that the wine does not live up to the intrigue (and in any case, I’d need some convincing that rebula is a good grape for sparkling wine production). Very lightly sweet with somewhat obvious fruit. Fizzy, pleasant, big, and unrefined. Not even really a brawler…more of an oaf. But a friendly one.
Blaič 2006 Rebula (Goriška Brda) – Useless at first sniff, but with air grows fuller and waxier, showing a good measure of dry honey. However, oak masks whatever “fruit” this wine possesses, and the underlying grapes aren’t ripe enough to support this level of wood layering (though I don’t know that I’d like the result of the alternative much more). I’d like this particular wine a lot more without the wood, I’d wager.
Next is a dish that I can’t help but see as Italianate: a flawless dish of spaghetti and clams in tomato sauce. It’s very good, but it doesn’t exactly transport us to Slovenia. Alongside there’s a terrific basket of bread with very fine butter and a delicious puréed tapenade. And then, a very expensive slab (it’s not small) of sea bream, cooked a little more than I’d like but very flavorful in its concentrated chardonnay sauce, served with bland potatoes. At €33 per person just for this dish, I expect perfection, and this is not it.
We do come to our senses late in the meal and request a cheese plate restricted to the output of Slovenian udders. We receive two: a decent sheep’s milk and an intense goat’s milk, both of which benefit from a generous dollop of the accompanying black truffle honey. By now, we’ve moved on to bottle number two.
Santomas 2002 Refošk “Antonius” (Sergaše) – The grape, in case it isn’t obvious, is known as refosco back in Italy. Buttery, and a touch stewed as well. Rough red fruit (cherry, strawberry) and some hewn-then-charred wood, though the wine’s overall demeanor is not particularly wood-dominated or wood-influenced. Easy drinking, for sure, but it lacks polish and, more importantly, the full realization of its potential.
Coffee is good, and an intense blueberry liqueur (received when I ask for a local digestif) is a fine end to the meal. The verdict? It’s all a little pricey, and while a lot of it is good cooking, it’s difficult to see what we’ve been served as a cuisine. At these prices, I’d expect more of one. But maybe on another visit, things would be different. All in all, it’s a fun experience…and after all, we don’t get to have lunch in Ljubljana every day.
The long & the short of it
After lunch, a stroll around the city proves rewarding. It’s a pretty town, with lovely old architecture in striking opposition to the street life, which flows with torrents of youth and energy. In one fountained square right next to the river, a bearded youth leads a protest full of shaking fists and angry words. On a nearby avenue, twenty-somethings flow into a lively wine bar. Rigid, communistic door sculptures stare across the street at sensual art deco metalwork, with packs of college students congregating and gossiping under each, light in their eyes and optimism in their voices. The city is alive and free, and the energy is infectious.
Eventually, however, we’re back on the road. This time on the safer and better-signed Ljubljana-Trieste route. We stop along the way for refueling, as Mario assures us that petrol in Slovenia is a grand bargain compared to anything we’ll find in Italy. My interaction with the attendant is amusing…I hold up a number of fingers (indicating the pump number) and hand her a credit card, but the rest of the transaction is conducted in silence, except for my muttered “hvala” (one of three words I’ve learned over the course of lunch). She smirks as I exit.
The non-shortcut, it must be noted, is a full hour quicker than this morning’s road. And so, a lesson momentarily forgotten is thus relearned: never ask an Italian for directions.
Copyright © Thor Iverson