I spent last week having a wonderful time in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia (and the Dolomiti and a bit of the Veneto and Emilia-Romagna, which I'll post about separately). I urge anyone for whom good food and wine is a big part of travel enjoyment to put it right at the top of their Italian destinations.
I followed guidebook recommendations throughout my trip. I didn't go looking for "hidden gems" because the entire region is a hidden gem -- and nothing surprised me more than to discover that Trieste is an unremittingly pleasant Italian city, especially for lovers of outdoor eating and drinking on beautiful pedestrianized streets stacked with gorgeous architecture. The caffes, bars, trattorie, buffets, ristorante come in all price ranges, and are incredibly inviting and relaxing. Buses in the town run on natural gas, bicycles are as popular as motorini, there are many trees -- and all that clean air and sea breeze makes eating outdoors a pleasure.
I cannot identify a "best" restaurant or meal, because the food, the wine and the presentation in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia struck me as being very much about passionate personalities, making each dining experience enjoyable in a unique way. Almost without exception, each meal I had was a revelation about the startlingly forward-looking culture of the region as well as its history and food, but here are some outstanding venues:
Ristorante Al Cacciatore della Subida in Cormons -- a predictable choice perhaps, but an astonishing restaurant nonetheless, where outstanding food is matched with singular wines in bucolic yet sophisticated setting. The family and staff are like a ballet corps in providing the most gracious service imaginable, yet it is all quite unpretentious -- it's heartfelt -- and the prices are incredibly low for the superior quality of food, delicious wine and the wonderful ambience. It is a little slice of heaven, and should not be missed. The charming and affordable small houses available for overnight stays and longer make a great base for touring the fascinating wine region on both the Italian and Slovenian side of the open border.
Albergo Ristorante Salon in Arta Terme (Piano d'Arta) -- Fred Plotkin justifiably raves about the cjalsons here, but it was the blek con speck, with smoked ricotta, that sent me over the moon. The service is utterly charming. This is a true locals restaurant. Half the retired citizens of the tiny town show up for lunch, and are lavished with loving care.
Buffet da Pepe in Trieste -- It shows up on everybody's recommended list from Lidia Bastianich to Plotkin to even the worst of the Italy-for-Dummies type guidebooks, and it could not be more enjoyable. The "misto piatto" of tender pork meats, served up with kraut, cren (horseradish) and mustards, plus beer or red Terrano wine as you choose, is just plain delicious. The service is garrulous, strangers strike up conversations across tables, Trieste is an al fresco eating and drinking paradise, and this is a core experience of Trieste.
Ristorante Campiello in San Giovanni al Natisone -- I was lured here by a guidebook's promise of the best gnocchi di susine in the region and other traditional dishes. Instead I was handed a menu of high-end creative seafood-based plates, and everything I ate was delightful, complex, and executed with razor-sharp precision. The entire restaurant (it is also a hotel) almost shouts perfectionism, and the moderately high prices are justified. One of the nights I was there, a party of 30 filled a far corner of the restaurant, yet not a single beat was missed at my table in terms of food or service. All excellent. The owner is a phenomenon, passionate about his wine list and pairing it with the food. More than any other person I encountered, he seemed to me to embody the extraordinary energy and high standards that drive Friulian food and wine culture.
Ristorante Rosenbar in Gorizia -- Silky pastas and seafood prepared with tender loving care -- simply delicious, incomparably fresh -- and served up by a young woman, almost touchingly eager to please. The lace-curtained windows and red-painted woodwork of the exterior don't prepare you for the complicated contemporary interior of the restaurant. More than any other place I ate, Rosenbar seemed to embody the compelling complexities of Friuli, making Gorizia and its neighboring wine towns the one area of Friuli I most want to revisit along with Trieste.
Trattoria Ai Fiori in Trieste -- A small dining room in beautiful warm colors and very lovely seafood -- and also the best dessert I had of my entire stay in Friuli. The hostess was marvelous and gracious.
Pasticceria Folegotto in Udine -- Because of the pausa in Civedale dei Fruili, I missed my chance to purchase "gubana", the town's specialty cake. Fred Plotkin's guide steered me to this bakery in Udine where it was possible to buy a single serving and have a cup of espresso. The gubana was delicious!
Al Monastero in Cividale dei Frulil -- I went here based on a guidebook description a marvelous sounding soup. It wasn't on the menu, but the very seasonal dishes I had -- grilled porcini, casunziei pasta stuffed with spinach and smoked ricotta -- were excellent.
Al Baffo in Palmanova -- A seasonal salad of raw mushrooms with lemon (!) was a delight, and a pasta with legendary Sauris speck proved to be my only chance to sample this speck, and the speck was delicious even if the cheesy penne pasta was a gooey flop. Huge servings and some delicious piles of grilled meat from the wood burning oven (everybody else in the restaurant was eating pizza for dinner).
Ristorante Daneu in Opacina -- To visit Trieste, it seemed easier to park the car and ourseles at a hotel in Opacina and take the tram in. Fred Plotkin's pick for Opacina was closed, and it was pouring buckets of rain, so we ended up at our hotel restaurant (recommended by Cadogan and Michelin). It proved my one chance to eat gnocchi di susine, and while I'm sure there were more refined examples to be found elsewhere, I wasn't sorry I got to sample the everyday version. The rest of the meal was undistinguished.
Trattoria al Morar in Aquileia (just outside of town) -- A guidebook recommendation steered us here for sliced cured meats -- which were amazingly good -- and steered us away from fish dishes. Unfortunately, the meat secondi we ate -- sausages of various sorts -- were undistinguished.
Caffe San Marco and Cremcaffe in Trieste -- the only true disappointments of our guidebook recommendations. While Caffe San Marco is a beautifully preserved historic relic, the coffee disappointed and the atmosphere was so hush-hush it felt funereal. By contrast, Cremcaffe in Piazza Goldoni is under new management, and its screaming "frappe" machines and crowds at the bar were headache inducing. Our "frappes" went unfinished. The coffee is good and worth tracking down -- but the Cremcaffe brand is served many, many places in Trieste in much lovelier spaces.
I realize some people will wish that I had described specific dishes, but one persistent problem on this trip was being steered by guidebooks to sample specific dishes at restaurants, only to discover they weren't on the menu. It happened at least five times, with both gourmet guidebooks and pedestrian sightseeing guidebooks. If you are keen to go to Friuli-Venezia-Giulia to taste specific regional dishes in situ, give yourself time to hunt them down.
I've not given prices for meals, but the most we spent was $100 per head, with wine, and we generally spent far, far less.