Successfully satisfying our Gnocchi craving, we can now begin to appreciate the beauty of our surroundings. We are in the Alps of Italy, the mountains are breathtaking and the village of Frisanco is idyllic. Life is slow, simple and focuses on the more essential aspects of life – mainly food. We have one focus – our next meal. We need to find an osteria (restaurant) with a fogolar to further our studies of the Friulano cuisine of our family’s heritage. A fogolar is an open hearth fireplace where meals were traditionally cooked in the Friulano household. It also was where the family would gather to eat, drink, talk and of course argue. In the modern age, most households no longer have a fogolar, but many of the Friulano trattorias and ristorantes boast incredible fogolars with seating around it. You can watch and stay warm as the chef prepares the grilled meats over a wood burning fire. I am a grill guy. I grill in the dead of winter as my neighbors watch from their frosted windows. The fogolar is something that I must experience. The problem is the weather. It is an unseasonably hot June and the Italians are not firing up their fogolars in favor of more seasonal fare of cured meats, cheeses, field greens and fresh vegetables. But we are in Friuli now and the culinary search of our heritage beacons us to eat grilled meats and polenta. The resourcefulness of my brother Angelo pays off. We travel to Solimbergo, a neighboring town of Fanna, my grandmother’s village, where he takes us to Albergo Al Fogolar da Mander.
The fogolar is fired up and the chef and his family are happy to see us. The fogolar is tremendous. It sits in the center of the room, solidly made of concrete, stone and heavy iron cooking racks. There are bundles of wood from the surrounding hills stored underneath. The fire is blazing, but the grill surface and meats are insulated by a panel so only the glowing ready coals are slid underneath the separating panel to cook the meats. The meat aromas that fill the room are mesmerizing – have I eaten yet today?
We start the meal with the traditional first plate choice of Pasta or gnocchi – we have both. The Pasta is Blecs – pasta di grano saraceno e mais. It is a handmade and unevenly cut buckwheat pasta squares in wild boar ragu. The gnocchi is with ‘sugo di ortiche’, sauce of nettles – yes, stinging nettles, those pesky plants that will irritate your skin when so much as gently grazed. Is there anything the Italians won’t eat?
Both are bucolic and simple. Handmade with local ingredients that were bought, made or picked that day. We could have been satisfied and done at this point, but the real reason we are here are for the wood grilled meats – sausage, veal, lamb chops, pork and beef….. all cooked over the wood coals. They are served with grilled polenta and sautéed greens. The meats are juicy and perfectly infused with the wood’s smoky flavor. It is extraordinary, and I’m ashamed of my gas grill. The meal is accompanied by a fruilian red wine – Refrosco, a perfect compliment.
The dinner is topped off with a round of Grappa – Nonino, my favorite so far (it’s the first day). The bottle was left at the table for us and as we finish it off, we hatch a plan. We are going to hike from Frisanco to Fanna, just as my Grandmother did in her youth for her summer retreat. Many years and many trips to Fanna , however no family member has ever attempted this trek. We would be the first – and burning a few calories couldn’t hurt. We head back to Alle Alpi in Frisanco to end our first day and rest up for the historic hike. We stop at a small bar for a nightcap – Tocai Friulano, perfect for the hot night. The bartender, an American classic rock aficionado, recognizes us as Americans and challenges us to a ‘name that tune’ competition. We win decisively, netting several rounds of free grappa and an easy trip to dreamland. Dreaming of Polenta. Next – a failed hike attempt and Louisa’s incredible and plentiful Polenta.