Part 13 of a 2007 Italian travelogue
by Thor Iverson
Out on the tiles
Europe is littered with antiquity. In some places – Rome comes to mind, but it’s hardly alone in this regard – one can scarcely traverse a random alley without tripping over the foundation of an ancient basilica or crumbling ruin. After a few visits to such locales, it’s unfortunately easy to become jaded. “Oh, hey. Look. Another 600-year-old church.” I can only imagine what it’s like to be a local.
Cynical and representative of our modern predilection for overstimulation, perhaps, but true all the same. The result is that it takes something really special to reawaken the sense of wonder that accompanies one’s initial in-person explorations of the tangible sweep of history.
Aquileia is such a place.
If there were only the ruins of a Roman villa, the open-air mosaics, and the crumbling Empire’s columns and walls in this quiet little village, it would still be worth a visit. But there’s more. Oh, so much more. There’s the breathtaking basilica, with its accompanying campanile. And one look is all it takes. That easily-lost sense of wonder is instantly restored.
As with most such structures, the finished product that is the basilica is an amalgam of styles and eras. But the oldest works herein reach back to the fourth century, and that’s not an antiquity to be taken lightly. The mosaics, frescoes, and architecture are stunning in their preservation. Only the hardest of hearts could remain unmoved at the history herein. I’ve seen a lot of churches, a lot of Roman ruins, but this…this is remarkable.
Grado shot first
…and the seaside bustle of Grado isn’t all that much of a letdown. On the surface, it’s just another Italian beach town, with its commercial promenade, the curved sweep of frontage on the Adriatic, and all the expected shops shops, cafés, bars, and restaurants. But it, too, has its tale of duration and history to tell. That its solemn yet moving basilica (dating only from the fifth century…how utterly modern!) doesn’t quite stir the soul like Aquileia’s is no real criticism. Grado is a beautiful, livable town that plays out its history day by day…a counterpoint to Aquileia’s patient, ambered stillness.
After much hunger-inducing sightseeing, we’ve shed the lingering fullness of lunch and are ready for something aquatic yet edible. Tavernetta All’Androna wouldn’t stand out from any of a dozen nearby restaurants without the recommendations that have sent us here, but its food quickly justifies the endorsements.
We’re a little – okay, a lot – early for dinner, but it’s a lucky thing, as we’ve arrived without a reservation and they’ve only one table not already spoken for. There are two tasting menus, and we choose the one that’s all seafood. It kicks off with a fabulous carpaccio of some sort of finfish whose identity I never quite grasp, then moves on to a delicious seafood soup, excellent fettuccine spiked with essence-of-the-sea bottarga, branzino and clams with crisped polenta fritters, and a boozy, mousse-like dessert. My dining companion notes a heavy hand with the salt, but as a lover of all things saline I don’t much mind.
Haton 1996 Champagne Brut “Millésimé” (Champagne) – Champagne? Really? Not prosecco? We’re in northeastern Italy, have asked for a bubbly apéritif, and we’re getting Champagne? Well, OK. It’s tart and chardonnay-esque, showing lemon, green apple, and clean sharpness. There’s no real complexity, and while there’s plenty of verve, what the wine lacks is sufficient interest. Honestly, I think I would have preferred prosecco.
The path to the wine I want with dinner is a rocky one. I order a bottle of Gravner’s 2000 Ribolla Gialla, but am brought a 2002 from Radikon instead. Huh? Well, maybe there’s a misunderstanding – certainly my Italian is not perfect (barely competent would be closer) – but since I’ve just been and am in the mood for something from a different house, I try again. No such luck: the 2000 is sold out. This time, though, the proposed replacement is at least an attempt to acquiesce to my stated preference.
Gravner 2001 Ribolla Gialla “Anfora” (Venezia Giulia) – Restrained, to such an extent that I wonder about sub-detectable TCA. And then, after a few more sniffs, I wonder no more. Corked.
Gravner 2001 Ribolla Gialla “Anfora” (Venezia Giulia) – Elegant honeysuckle and wax with minor citrus elements. Surprisingly indifferent, which is not an experience I’ve ever had with this (or any other) Gravner amphora wine. It’s good, but it’s oddly pedestrian. Maybe something to do with drinking it at sea level? Barometric pressure, perhaps? Lunar phases? Roman ghosts that disapprove of Greek winemaking vessels? Whatever the cause, it’s a transparent shadow of its usual self.
Bonaventura Maschio “Prime Uve” Acquavite d’Uva (Veneto) – Harsh flowers. Coats, clears, then burns the nasal passages. Not fun.
The restaurant’s wine list makes significant gestures towards geekdom, but there’s a lot that’s struck through as missing (even aside from our own, unmarked, experience with an empty bin). Service is fine, but there’s a fatigued gloss to it that experienced travelers will find typical of well-touristed towns, even though we’re here in the off-season. On the upside, the restaurant is small and intimate, and the food (aside from seasoning issues) is solid.
After a day of intense experiences, notions of late-night jazz are as quickly put to bed as the holder of that notion. A commitment to choosing otherwise tomorrow lessens the disappointment.
Free jazz breakfast
Hey, at least the heat works.
The long-promised jazz festival has arrived in force, and our hotel appears to be the boisterous hub. Breakfast is a hive of activity (and the food has improved as a result), with a lot of new – and unexpected – faces. They’re mostly, judging by the plates on the fancy German automobiles that crowd the parking lot, Austrian…and based on that and other evidence, not among the poverty-stricken. But there are other more interesting guests, including a fair number of faces with a coloration one doesn’t expect in these chilly European climes. At the next table, for example, a quartet of grizzled musical veterans work over some last minute chart modifications with the rich, smooth drawl of the American South, “dadat-” and “zebop-”ing their way through each modification, while we listen in with equal parts amusement and fascination. Eventually, we strike up a conversation.
“What band are you with?” one asks, with the easy self-assuredness of someone who’s been doing what he does, with excellence, for decades longer than I’ve been on this planet. I explain that I’m actually here for the wine, and that I didn’t even know about the jazz festival until after I arrived. He looks surprised, then smiles, with a knowing nod to his tablemates. “There’s wine here? We’ll have to check that out.”
They’re musicians, after all. I believe they will.
A Lombard’s tale
I can’t say that, previous to this trip, I’d known anything about the Lombard period of this region’s history. I still don’t, really. But their temple – a closet-sized house of worship perched on a very unlikely and somewhat precarious promontory, along the river that ravages the heart of Cividale del Friuli – is fascinating in its difference, though there’s no room for a crowd of more than a half-dozen. Later, at the village’s architectural museum, an enthusiastic employee ushers us through a freshly-unlocked door to see the mosaics being slowly unearthed in the basement of the building, but otherwise it’s a fairly quick visit.
Outside, the grey gloom that’s reigned for the majority of our time here has released a torrential downpour, and so a planned stroll around Cividale instead becomes a sprinted retreat to the car. In any case, it’s time for lunch, and we’ve elsewhere to be before we eat.
When the Levi breaks
The highly opinionated might be frequent sources of aggravation, but they’re also – for good or ill – extremely reliable sources of recommendations. Thus, an expression of enthusiasm for the enveloping cuisine at La Subida in the midst of our five-hour lunch debate at i Clivi had led to a dismissive scoff, of sorts, from Mario Zanusso and his father. “That’s not Friulian food. That’s Slovenian.” The inevitable questions were followed by a list, dutifully scribbled in my notebook, of approved alternatives to this apparently unwelcome culinary interloper.
And so, after innumerable confused circuits of a sleepy village looking for an impossible-to-read sign, we find ourselves in the lavish interior of La Taverna in Colloredo di Monte Albano. This looks like the sort of restaurant that would have a Michelin star (and, in fact, it has one), but we arrive without this knowledge – not that I find Michelin has much utility in Italy – and so know nothing of what to expect, other than a promise of Friulian-not-Slovenian food. We’re decidedly on the late side for lunch, especially at a place where lengthy tasting menus are the thing, but of course they seat us anyway and encourage us to order as we’d like.
The restaurant’s classicism is evident in the long set menu offerings (we order two different ones) and in the price-free ladies’ menu, which I suppose is either charmingly or irritatingly sexist depending on one’s tolerance for such traditionalisms. It’s not an inexpensive restaurant, for sure, but it’s worth every euro it asks. Amuses are a brief overview of regional treats that arrive on, of all things, a skewer, after which there’s an exquisite porcini mousse that’s the very essence of the mushroom, but airier. This is followed by scallops over some sort of grain (barley?) with an herbal sauce that muddles the flavors just a bit, then beet ravioli with greens in a gorgonzola drape; absolute perfection in its restraint given what could be a collection of overwhelmingly intense, aggressive flavors. Capriola is next and almost unbelievably good, though there are a few too many competing sauces accompanying it on the plate, some in foamy form. Why, I wonder? This food doesn’t need ham-handed intrusions of poorly-executed modernity. It stands quite well on its own.
A we wind down, there’s a fabulous and extensive cheese course and a pair of desserts that, in my culinary stupor, I can barely manage and do not recall. A finishing espresso (as trough-sized as I can make it) is of extremely high quality, but then I’d expect nothing less in Italy.
The wine list is novel-length, with regional breadth and depth, and though it’s accompanied by a separate tome of non-regional wines that is excellent in its own right, I see no reason to drink interlopers.
Canevel Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Brut (Veneto) – Dry, sharp, and clean. Pretty basic, but good enough.
Jermann 1996 Pignolo “Pignacolusse” Campi dei Fratti e Monache (Venezia Giulia) – Just now approaching its mature phase, though it’s still very early in that stage. Aromatically, it’s as if someone blended the bright berries of gamay and the cedary greenness of cabernet sauvignon. I don’t want to say it’s volatile, but it’s a bit “lifted,” which I guess is sort of a code for a minor case of the same…though in this wine, it’s more of a contributor to the overall complexity than it is an identifiable flaw. Berries darken at the core, wrapping their skins about themselves for tannic chew and texture. A long, solid finish brings the journey to a close. Very interesting.
Maculan 1984 Breganze Torcolato (Veneto) – From 375 ml. Very, very dark brown, and absent most of the wine’s expected character aside from a straightforward sweetness. It’s still just a bit spicy, but this has traveled well past any stage in which I find much appeal.
Romano Levi Grappa (Piedmont) – For every cherished experience, there is a transformative moment. Sometimes, it’s sought…for example, one might purchase a Romanée-Conti or any other legendary wine, just to know to what extent the adoration is deserved…but other times, it strikes as unexpectedly as lightning from a clear blue sky. This is an example of the latter.
Until this experience, I can say that I’ve found grappa interesting. Interesting…but not good. It has been something to be explored for its variety and source-specificity, for its place in an Italian life, and for its convivial role. But this grappa changes everything. I am enraptured. Instantly, and without reserve. This is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
My notes, as scribbled into my journal at the moment of encounter, initially identify what I’m drinking as “incomprehensible label, producer in Nieve.” It’s only after I smell, and taste, that I apply myself to the work of deciphering the hand-drawn labels for which this producer is famous. I have never tasted a grappa like this, either in form or in quality. It is so superior to anything I’ve previously encountered that it might as well be its own category. Supple yet full-flavored, drawing both fruit and mineral into a distillation of floral complexity, then lingering in a gentle decrescendo that slowly exposes both that minerality and the memory of a faded bouquet of the palest white roses. This is the best. The absolute best. I’m floored. Stunned. Moved. So much of all three that the returning sommelier, noticing my bliss and knowing its source, pours a generous second helping in my glass. Who is this magician?
Well, I’ll be in the Piedmont in a few days. I’ll find out. I must find out.
As for the restaurant? Despite small quibbles here and there (the service breaks down at the tail end of the meal, though we are here well past the usual lunch hours), and a formality that I’m not sure always sits as well with Italian cuisine as it does with French, I unreservedly love it. But is it Friulian in a way that clearly differentiates it from Slovenian, as the Zanussos assert? It’s hard to say. There’s pasta where there might otherwise be dumplings, perhaps, but then there’s that mystery grain that doesn’t seem particularly Italian to me, and the food seems to fit more into the generalized northeastern Italian idiom rather than some specific regional niche. Basically, it’s hard for me to see the differences, and a few decades of experience would probably be required for that insight. To be honest, La Subida’s excellence and comfort are ever so slightly to my preference. But I’d hate to have to choose, and would enthusiastically endorse either establishment.
I am curious, gialla
Alas, indulgence often comes at a price. Not one I have to pay, but Theresa…well, there are some aftereffects. Perhaps it’s food poisoning (we don’t take the same tasting menu at lunch, and I wonder about her plate of assorted cured meats), or perhaps it’s just too much everything over a twenty-four hour period. She spends the rest of the day, and night, nursing a powerful and debilitating sickness. Another day and night pass, and we remain jazz-free. We leave tomorrow. There will be no jazz, free or otherwise.
I never reach a state of hunger sufficient to seek a solo dining experience, but eventually I do grow restless, and spend a little time strolling the artful core of Cormòns. Wandering leads to thirst, and thirst leads to the Enoteca di Cormòns, which is bustling with youthful energy as it transitions from the dinner to the social hour. There’s a store, but there’s also a brisk business in wine and small plates, and it’s the latter in which I’m interested. Alongside some snappy potato crisps (not chips, but in fact their opposite, and nearly raw), I sample a few variations on a local theme.
Kurtin 2005 Ribolla Gialla (Collio) – Windy and flat, with wax and skins (the kind that are typical to traditionally-fermented ribolla gialla, not the amped-up structure of the “orange wine” cohort). Some underripe lime wanders about. Stodgy and linear.
Castel San Mauro 2005 Ribolla Gialla (Collio) – Fulsome, but structured like a broad, flat plain. Leaves, minerals, and angles…the acuteness of which increase as the wine approaches its finish. Some alcoholic fatness as well. Just OK.
Gradnik 2005 Ribolla Gialla (Collio) – Very full-bodied, with ripe, yellow-toned fruit. The palate quickly deadens any pleasurable aromatic sensations, however, and soon the wine has taken on the texture of peanut butter. This is not, in case it’s unclear, a welcome impression.
Conflict & resolution
Lubricated and sated, I’ve the liquid courage to make a phone call to tomorrow evening’s restaurant. Phone calls in foreign languages are among the hardest tasks for the tourist, because the visual clues and gesturing that can mitigate linguistic incompetence are impossible. But wine solves many problems, and a reservation is arranged with no difficulty at all.
And yet, there’s an edginess to my satiety. I feel a little unsettled. Too much wine, food, and grappa? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
It’s Friuli that’s at issue. Usually, a week is all I need. I don’t think I can know a place after seven short days – it would have to be an exceedingly simple locale to feel otherwise – but I’ve always got a visitor’s sense of it. A feel. A mood. A zeitgeist. A basis for assessment.
I don’t have one for Friuli. I feel like I’ve just barely scratched at the brittle, yet yielding surface of something I can’t even begin to understand. There’s the usual fascinating tension common to conflicted border regions, yes, but I’ve been to those before, and have usually left with an inexorable compulsion to return…because I’ve fallen in love with that conflict, with that tension.
Here, however, I find that what I’m in love with is the ambiguity. I do not yet “get” Friuli. I feel like I’ve read the table of contents for a fascinating tale, but that the narrative is a complete mystery. I’ve met the characters, but their stories remain elusive. The food – is it Slovenian? Italian? Friulian? – is part of it. The wine, subject to the same range of questions but also simmering with neotraditionalist energy, surging forward into the past, is part of it as well. There’s the language: Slovenian, Italian, and a panoply of dialects fanned out in the spaces between. Or the geography, ranging from the icy heights of the northern mountains to the broad arc of the Adriatic. And there’s the history. Roman. Lombard. Italian. Tyrolean. Slovenian. Friulian.
There are forces and movements here that I don’t perceive because I do not yet possess the lens. I have to come back. I have to read this tale. I have to know how it begins. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand how it ends. But I’m eager to start reading.
Copyright © Thor Iverson