Just back from a visit to the eastern-most slice of northern Italy, along with Slovenia and Istrian Croatia, and wanted to share an update on the area for anyone planning a trip. Of course I got lots of good recommendations here as always, so thanks, guys! It's a very special part of the world, and we're glad we got to explore it.
Here are a few places we enjoyed (or didn't) in Friuli (I'll share the other two areas on the Europe board).
Sale e Pepe (Stregna)
There was some disagreement on the boards about this place, and while we did like it, it didn't blow us away by any means. As our first stop directly after landing in Venice, it was a fine introduction to some of the unique flavors of the region. A dish of green spatzle with goose ragu came dressed with a sauce that had the savory quality of a chicken stock, spiked with warm baking spices (delightful), but the goose was tough. The rabbit spiedini came with a bright berry-citrus sauce that also managed to be savory vs sweet (delicious!), but the rabbit was a touch dry and the polenta was too plain (made with just water, not my favorite style). My favorite dish was a starter of proscuitto bianco - essentially lardo - salty, fatty, peppery, and served with a perfect complement of apple, pear and cabbage slaw. One of the best meats of the trip. The signora cooking all the food was very kind, and the place was super homey. I don't think I'd make it a destination, but if you're passing through the Cividale del Friuli area, it's a good place to visit.
Trattoria della Subida (Cormons)
Speaking of destinations, I can confirm that La Subida is still totally worth your time. This meal and our next at Hisa Franko (I'll post about that on the International board as it's in Slovenia), battle neck and neck as the top meals of the trip, both excellent value and excellent service. We did the longer tasting menu and rather than list out all the dishes, I'll just choose a few favorites: a lightly smoked venison carpaccio with horseradish and forest berries (I think I am now addicted to the horseradish in this part of the world - it is so good), lightly fried ravioli stuffed with zucchini and sambuco flower, an incredibly flavorful guinea fowl, and the most perfectly cooked wild boar chop - seasoned simply with salt and coriander. Wine service was great (we had a few by the glass as well as a bottle of Damijan Podversic Kaplja), and the overall level to which they take hospitality here is just stunning - what a nice family! We also stayed here, and breakfast was similarly good (although still can't top Lagacio in the Alto Adige for epic continental breakfasts).
Osteria della Subida (Cormons)
At the more casual sister of the group, the food is still great but the service does step down a notch (understandably so). They serve the amazing d'Osvaldo proscuitto here (rather thickly sliced too, which really made that deep, cheesy, smoky funk of the prosciutto shine though - I have never had such funky ham and I just loved it). They also serve a very pillowy gnocchi in pork ragu and a heartwarming montasio cheese and potato casserole that they call a frico (not what you think), but that more resembles the cheesy potato dishes of Haut Savoie (only honestly I liked this so much better). There are nice options on the (thankfully brief) wine list. I'd definitely recommend it (we ate here twice).
There were some hits and misses here, and while it was fine, I don't know that I'd want to return. Marinated anchovies on a bed of mashed potato with tomatoes was just perfect, as were some simple, garlicy canestrelli, but the spaghetti al nero di seppie was just ok, and pan fried sardines were just not good. However, it sounds like very little in the area is open on Thursdays, which this was, so if you need a place to go, this will work in a pinch - just steer clear of the sardoni impanati.
Gruden (Carso area)
This one had us scratching our heads as to how this was ever a Chowhound pick. I believe it's also in the Plotkin book. Don't bother. Everything was too-thick pastas in butter, and meats in broken, greasy gravy-like sauces. The best thing here might actually have been the cevapcici, which were still probably the least delicious cevapi I've ever had. Service was very nice, but no no no.
While in the area, we were back and forth across the border to Slovenia, both in the Carso/Kras region and Collio/Brda, visiting wineries and taking in the sights. If you're staying somewhere like Cormons, I would recommend a trip to both Hisa Franko and Klinec in Slovenia (see my other trip report here for the non-Italian part of the trip: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/1015056). In terms of wineries, we had a great time at every single one (and bought way too much wine). I particularly love the macerated wines (orange wines/skin contact wines) of the area, and we were warmly welcomed by the families at Gravner, Princic and Zidarich in Italy, and Cotar, Fon and Movia in Slovenia. And since this is Chowhound, I have to say that in the battle of winemaker-made salumi, Cotar comes out on top with some really unique sweet proscuitto (prsut?) and a peppery salami with some serious meat-funk.
After staying in Cormons for a few nights, we did a loop through Slovenia and Istria, finishing up with a couple nights in Trieste, where we enjoyed:
Buffet da Pepi (Trieste)
I was ready to be let down by the hype here, but WOW it did not disappoint. We just shared a single piatto misto, which was probably a mistake because I immediately wanted to do it all again. The tongue was outstanding – so tender and flavorful – as was the sausage, and a very fatty but delicious pork cheek. The ham and some kind of stewed pork were also good. And of course everything was topped with that addictive horseradish. The plate also came with some simple but yummy pork-fatty mashed potatoes, strong mustard and sauerkraut. Next time, I am not sharing this plate! If you are in Trieste and like pork, it would truly be a shame to miss this.
The upside of eating a very small dinner at Pepi meant that we could have a second dinner at Salumare – which we liked so much, we actually came back for seconds the next day. They specialize in fish tartines, so we got a mixed plate of 6 – all just perfect and generously portioned – butter & anchovy spread, mackerel & capers, bacala mantecato, smoked swordfish, salmon tartare, and herring with red onion. On our return visit, we added a pulpo alla gallega to the order – equally delicious, and possibly the best octopus dish of the trip (which is a little bit of a shame – I wanted more from the octopus of the region in general). They also had a nice Skerk Vitovska by the glass that was great with all the fishy fish. Thanks to the Chowhounder who recommended this one – it’s definitely worth a stop here if you’re in town.
For our last meal of the trip, we were a bit tired of seafood and not wanting to sully the memory of the fabulous meats at Pepi, we went with pizza. We live in NY, so the bar for pizza is pretty high. This was pretty good, but not life changing. Crust was nice, a bit of a whole wheat character to it (I think it was probably not whole wheat), good chew, and not too mushy in the middle like Neapolitan pies. Where we went wrong: we opted for some of the more out-there options, like anchovies with fior de latte, endive and buffalo mozzerella, and while the cheese was impeccable (super lactic, super flavorful buffalo mozz – just wow), the whole balance of the pie was off because of it. When you cannot even TASTE a salted anchovy or a bitter endive leaf over some mozzerella, you know that cheese is MAJOR. The same problem repeated itself on a porcini, speck, and olive tapenade pie – dominated by buffalo mozzerella. So my advice is this: if you want pizza, do go here, and order a very simple pie, just red sauce, fior de latte, buffalo mozz. You will be very happy.
Overall we were quite taken with Trieste. It seems like a very pleasant Italian city to live in, and the lack of tourist must-sees is actually a nice respite – we were able to just hang out and fare la passegiatta all day.
Again, thank you to everyone for your previous postings – we had a lovely time and hope this is helpful to others in the future. Here's the link for the rest of the trip we took through Slovenia and Croatia: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/1015056