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Experiencing Friuli's la Primula
by Bill Rohwer

from the editor
Please welcome Bill Rohwer, our Guest Writer this month, who lives in Richmond, California. He received his A.B. from Harvard University and Ph.D from the University of California at Berkeley. He was a professor at Berkeley from 1964 until 1994 in the School of Education, and was dean there from 1990 to 1994. His areas of research were psychology of studying; developmental and individual differences in learning and memory; education and memory development.

To find out more about Friuli-Venezia Giulia Region visit In Italy Online.

Alice Pazzaglia

On a plain of nearly flat green farmland, about 100 km. northeast of Venice and only 9 km. north of Pordenone, sits the village of San Quirino. Not at all flat, and visible on a clear day, some 60 km. to the north, are the slopes and soaring peaks of the Dolomites.

The 3700 plus inhabitants of San Quirino apparently span a wide range of means. If you take an early summer morning walk around the neighborhood just to the west of the town square, you will likely encounter only the peaceful silence of gated and lushly landscaped homes. If you retrace your steps and head out to the east of the square, you will instead see houses less than a quarter the size, topped with rusted metal roofs and landscaped mainly with detritus. In front of one of these, you might pass by a barefoot woman of imposing girth. She will be washing clothes in the fast running water of the concrete irrigation channel that runs along the side of the road, and thwacking them soundly against the side of the channel to wring them out.

A walk in yet a different direction, south, and in the warmth of the late afternoon sun rather than in the freshness of the morning, will let you enjoy quite a different experience. At a distance of about 2 kms. from the town, along the road to Pordenone, you will find on your left a sprawling, white stucco one-story building set just at the edge of a vineyard that extends out on three sides.

A small sign in front of the building announces that you are at Borgo Delle Rose, a winery of modest local reputation. A knock on the entryway door will summon a radiantly cheerful young woman, Paola, a

A knock on the entryway door will summon a radiantly cheerful young woman, Paola

Winona Ryder look-alike, who will invite you to tour the winery and taste some of its wines. When you accept, she will hesitate and with some embarrassment say that she must call the owner to ask permission to provide you with the tour and tasting she has already offered. Permission obtained, she will escort you on a brief walk around the cellars, explaining along the way that she knows very little about the winemaking process. The brief tour at an end, she will seat you at a long, picnic-like table and present seven unopened bottles of Borgo Delle Rose wine. Again embarrassed, she will ask you to open the wines, admitting that she doesn't know how, and that she has never before tasted them herself. She might even admit that she prefers beer and Bailey's Irish Cream. You'll proceed to taste the wines, she along with you, all the while telling you animatedly that she's majoring in economics at the university in the nearby town of Udine, and of her upcoming exams. The two of you may agree that the merlot is better than the cabernet, and that a bottle of the pinot bianco is well worth buying, before you leave to make your way back to San Quirino.

In the middle of the village, a block from the square, stands a small inn called La Primula, the primrose. One of its outside two story walls fronts directly on the street and includes a door that opens into Osteria Alle Nazioni, a part of the inn that serves the town residents much moreso than the overnight guests. Further along, where the building ends, is the double gate of a driveway that leads along the side of the inn to a large beautifully landscaped yard bordered on one side by a gravel parking area for guests and on the other by a garden of flowers awash with color. In the corner of this tranquil space, opposite the inn is a small house, well kept and gracefully proportioned.

At the near end of the parking area is the entrance to the inn. Once inside the door, if you arrive mid-morning, you will see a gray-haired and gray-bearded

He will rise to greet you and, with shyness...

man seated at a desk in the middle of the reception area, reading the newspaper. He will rise to greet you and, with shyness, introduce himself as the owner, Roberto Canton. Signor Canton will proudly show you through the two elegantly appointed dining rooms of Ristorante La Primula. You will be soothed by the warmth and simple lines of the amber wood that trims the walls and forms waist-high dividers that transform the larger spaces into more intimate dining areas. This same amber wood also frames several large panes of thick frosted glass; each etched with a distinctive and exquisite design, spaced artfully throughout both rooms. Signor Canton will be equally proud as he shows you downstairs to the wine cellar and as you exclaim about the depth of the collection, including bottles of Barolo produced as far back as the 1950s by the best of the Piemontese vintners.

He will then escort you up the stairs to your second-floor room, one of only seven. You'll be pleased by the impeccable cleanliness of the room, furnished sparingly with a king-size bed, a small desk and chair, and a large cabinet for clothes. You'll find that the simple bathroom has a tub of ample size, but no shower. You'll be even more pleased, perhaps, to find that the window opens out onto the peaceful and lovely grounds below.

If you wish, you can take an aperitivo before dinner in the bar area of the Osteria Alle Nazioni. From inside the inn you will be able to reach the bar by walking through the dining rooms and then past the kitchen that serves both the Ristorante and the Osteria. As you enter the bar area, you'll notice that Signor Canton presides behind the counter like a captain on the bridge.

Signor Canton presides behind the counter like a captain on the bridge

And well he should preside, for Alle Nazioni is his creation or, more accurately, his recreation. Roberto's great grandfather founded it in 1875 and continued to serve its local clientele under the management of his grandfather and then his father until 1964. At that time, Roberto closed the Osteria to devote himself to developing and managing the full-scale ristorante he named La Primula. In time, his children came of age and themselves took responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the Ristorante with son, Andrea, as chef, assisted in the kitchen by his mother, Lidia De Biasio, and daughter Emanuela as "la maitre di sala." At that point, Roberto began the rehabilitation of the space originally occupied by the Osteria and reopened it, once again as Alle Nazioni, in 1993.

As you enter the Osteria, you'll notice Roberto surrounded by 8-15 townsmen in full conversational gallop. While trying to use your modest grasp of Italian to eavesdrop on the conversations racketing back and forth across the bar area, you might sip a glass or two of the house white wine, a crisp tocai from a local producer, and be amused that Signor Canton fills your glass using a pressurized spigot just as if he were filling it with draft beer.

If you're lucky enough to stay on at La Primula for two or three days, and you take an aperitivo in the bar each evening, you'll become aware of some regularities. You'll notice for instance that many of the men (and all of these early evening patrons will be men) appear evening after evening. They will arrive between 5:30 and 6 and will all leave and head home within a span of no more than five minutes between 7:25 and 7:30. After a few evenings, one of these regulars may even approach you and cordially ask, perhaps even in English, if you are trying to understand their conversations. If you admit you are attempting that, he will likely advise you not even to try. "We are speaking Friuliana," he will say, "and no more than 15% of native Italians could understand us!"

Of an evening, when you enter Ristorante La Primula for dinner, you will be greeted formally but warmly by the lovely, slight, fine featured Emanuela Canton, her raven-hued hair cut stylishly short, and wearing, perhaps, an elegantly cut pearl gray pantsuit. She will seat you at comfortably large table fitted with crisp white napery, elegant flatware and crystal wineglasses. If you wish to order some wine, she will summon the sommelier, Pier, her fiancé. He might recommend the Primosic Collio Sauvignon Gmajne, produced in the town of Gorizia in the eastern part of Friuli, about 90 kms. away. As you savor the luscious, crisp, fresh grapefruit flavors of the Primosic, you will be torn among the intriguingly attractive choices on the menu. The pain of your decisions will be eased not only by the wine, but also by the delicacy and flavor of the deep fried zucchini blossoms brought hot from the kitchen.

Overcoming your indecision, you might choose to start with lumache, a serving of three snails, each braised and lodged in the hollow of a small boiled new potato, topped with minced chives and served on a sauce of stock enriched with chopped lumache. Alternatively, you might opt to begin with capesante, perfectly saute'd scallops, the exterior surfaces done to a crispy brown but the interiors left tender and sweetly fresh, in a sauce of intensely flavored fish broth and garnished with bright green fresh baby peas.

You could instead choose to start off with a different Friulian white wine, perhaps an Isonzo Picol Sauvignon produced in the vicinity of Gorizia by Lis-Neris Pecorari. The aromas of this wine will remind you of honeyed grapefruit, and your first sip will taste of just-squeezed grapefruit juice and crisp ripe pears. You'll happily find that the wine tastes even better with the antipasto you've ordered, an insalata of arugula leaves fanned out on a plate and topped with a shower of thinly sliced fresh porcini, the whole sprinkled with extra virgin olive oil from Marchè, lemon juice and minced parsley.

Still another possibility: order another sauvignon, this time the Isonzo Sauvignon by Ronco del Gelso. Pair its subtle aromas of grapefruit and fresh-mown grass and full-bodied flavors of grapefruit, pear and honey, with the luscious flavors of the small wedge of herb and pancetta quiche that appears before you even order your antipasto. For the antipasto itself you might try the chunks of fresh Atlantic crab, dressed simply in extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Even better, have the swordfish, a small wedge, grilled to medium rare and plated with fresh garden greens and baby green asparagus stalks on a lovely sauce of pureed white asparagus.

For your next course, you can stay with this pureed white asparagus sauce, augmented this time with firm but tender chunks of the asparagus, by ordering the taglierini, green from the minced fresh herbs that infuse the dough. Or, for variety, you might try the raviolo, a single three inch diameter round pocket of golden yellow house-made pasta filled with barely sauteed thin slices of fresh porcini, served on an ethereal basil cream sauce. On the other hand, you might develop a serious yen for seafood that forces you to choose between two excellent possibilities. One will give you another chance at the house made pasta, in this case tagliolini in a sauce of crisp and flavorful squill, fresh gray shrimp from the adriatic. The other possibility will be scampi, sweet and succulent, grilled then brushed simply with extra-virgin olive oil and served with a timbale of oats and local cheese.

By the time you finish your primo piatto, finished also will be the white wine. Your resulting dismay will quickly dissolve when Pier hurries to recommend a red to accompany your next course, the secondo piatto. More than likely, he will offer you a choice. One option might be Concerto, a wine made in Toscana by Castello di Fonterutoli. Concerto is made from sangiovese, the principal red wine grape of Toscana, blended with a small amount of cabernet sauvignon to produce aromas of cedar and cherries, and flavors of ripe, almost caramelized cherries. Pier might also call you attention to a wine from another Toscana producer, Castello di San Polo in Rosso, made entirely from sangiovese and called Cetinaia. This wine will offer aromas of citrus and cherry with hints of cedar and tobacco that flow into flavors of black cherries that leave behind lingering sensations of black pepper. Finally, on the chance that you feel like splurging, Pier might mention the possibility of a Barolo from 1988, one of the best vintages of the last 15 years, made by one of the best of the Piemontese producers, Aldo Conterno, with nebbiolo grapes from a single vineyard, Bussia Soprano. The Bussia will have aromas of cedar with an occasional tarry overtone and deep, rich, mouth-filling flavors of black cherries and mint.

You will want to coordinate your choice of a red wine with your choice of food for the next course. Emanuela will gently help by calling your attention to four or five possibilities. If you're inclined away from meat, she will suggest the freshly harvested porcini, grilled to infuse them with smoky forest flavors and aromas, simply dressed with extra virgin olive oil and minced parsley. Another possibility will be the rabbit, boned, spread generously with fresh chopped herbs, rolled and roasted to a turn, then sliced into thin disks and served on a sauce of reduced meat stock along with sauteed fresh young green beans and spinach. An even simpler preparation will be the roast filet of lamb, sauced only with the roasting juices, and served with a helping of those fresh green beans. Even with the appeal of these possibilities, you may be tempted by another, one that includes a different version of the pureed white asparagus sauce. This will bring you a flavorful boned veal chop, perfectly sauteed to a point of juicy firm tenderness, served with the pureed asparagus enriched with parmesan, pancetta, and cream -- luscious.

If you decide to treat yourself to the Barolo, perhaps along with the lamb, you may decide to forgo dessert. Instead, you might move to the terrace overlooking the gardens where, embraced by the warmth of the summer evening, you will savor the deep flavors and velvety texture of the remaining wine.

When you reluctantly leave La Primula the next morning, as you enter the reception area, the only person you see will be Signor Canton. He will be seated at the desk, reading the newspaper, just as he was when you arrived.

. . .

My interest in food began to become serious in 1980 when my wife, Carol, decided to attend law school. At that time she announced that she would cook dinner no more than four times a week. In response to my dismay, she said we could have TV dinners the other three nights or I could learn to cook. I started learning to cook.
Three years later, that decision proved even more valuable when Carol made another announcement. As she dedicated herself to studying for the Bar examination, she declared that she would no longer cook any dinners at all. Once again, she graciously offered the TV dinner alternative, but I much preferred the other; I became the cook and remain so.
In 1991, this initially forced interest in food combined with a new interest, that of travel, especially to Italy. That summer, at Carol's insistence once again, we traveled for the first time to Italy.

For me, it was my first ever vacation trip to Europe. Our first stop was in Santa Margherita in Liguria, where the delight of grissini and the wonder of Italian seafood dazzled me. What truly ignited my devotion to Italian food and travel, though, happened a few days later. We were on our way to our second stop of the trip in Piemonte when we stopped for a Sunday afternoon lunch at Albergo Ristorante Giardino "da Felicin" in the little town of Monforte d'Alba. I had never before tasted such exquisitely delicious and simple-seeming food, and paired with the lusciousness of Piemontese wines it became irresistible. I continue to find Italian food and wine, from every region I've visited, and the people who produce them, to be irresistible.


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