FRIULI VENEZIA GIULIA
The area referred to as Carso is actually a giant, solid stone and lime hill, just north and northwest of Trieste on the border of Slovenia in the eastern most part of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. The obvious geographical implications of the location may lead to the conclusion that is not a place for spaghetti and meatballs, but perhaps an excellent location for goulash, kraut and schnitzel.
Interestingly, the food here is not all Mittel-Europe but a curious and delicious blend of familiar Italian food and exotic (to my mind) Austro-Hungarian and Slavic flavors. The warming effect of the winds blowing northward off of the Adriatic create a microclimate in Carso capable of supporting some of the northernmost growing olives (along with Lago di Garda) in the Mediterranean region. The presence of this “olio di Carso” in the pantry creates an oil-based cucina that reflects the inherent “Italian-ness” of the cooking.
The coastal town of Muggia is not really in the Carso but has two restaurants that merit the trip. It looks like a movie set from the fifties replete with canals lined with picturesque houses and little restaurants, and a kind of shimmering light that evokes a dream state. The food at la Risorta (riva de Amicis 1 tel 040 271219) is an excellent blend of local tradition and a touch of the new. Set on a dock/platform right on the canal, the place is rustic and understated and run by a passionate guy named Dante Bertoldini who seems to know every single wine ever produced in Friuli personally and is proud to share any and all info on the provenance of each bottle, and for that matter, every piece of fish on the plate.
Joe and I started with simple grilled sardines and steamed canocchie (kind of a sea bug with a delicious sweet flavor). Both were drizzled with the local olive oil and a squeeze of lemon that let the true flavor of the northern Adriatic shine like a diamond. For the primi, we started with a creamy superfine polenta with a tiny local shrimp called schie the black tagliarini with clams and zucchini as well as a definitive risotto with scampi alla busara with just parsley and garlic rocked my world. A mixed grill of palm sized sole, monkfish tails and rombo followed by 2 scoops of ethereal honey gelato and I could have swam home happy.
In the little berg of Santa Barbara is a bastion of traditional cooking and exquisite home style service in a place called da Stelio (via Colarich 92 tel 040 273363). I started with a plate of home cured prosciutto that defines what a pig should taste like, served with a leek frittata and a glass of homemade Malvasia. A magnificent plate of clams called tartufi steamed with garlic and wine followed by a cabbage soup called jota and I felt Friulian to my soul. Spaghetti with crab and chives followed by a fish called gallinella, steamed in cartoccio with borlotti beans and thinly sliced red onions and we were putty in their capable hands.
Desserts took it to another level, thin crepes called palacinke with the creamiest ricotta and putizza were served with a delicate verduzzo and followed by local Illy caffe espresso corretto with nonino grappa and I felt the dream of the Gulf of Trieste that local poets must have sang every day.