The food of the Collio Goriziano region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia reflects the mittel-european feel of Austria and the former Yugoslavia much more so than the Roman influence of the Aquileia just 50 kilometeres to the southwest.
The town of Cormons is the hub of the region’s commerce. But Gorizia captures all of the micro-region’s delicious flavor and its unique hospitality. From the tops of the hills in the Collio you can still see the Adriatic in the southern horizon and yet feel very much part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with leafy forests and little hamlets of teutonic nuance ubiquitous.
Just above Cormons is my favorite place in the region called La Subida. As much a rustic game retreat as a simple elegant restaurant, the food at La Subida is the expression of Collio at its best. On my most recent visit, we started with a plate of lightly smoked prosciutto and a smoked deer “carpaccio” with raw apples and horseradish that cleared my mind as much as my sinuses.
The first pasta was a plate called mlinci, a kind of thick yet delicate fresh squiggle, boiled and then browned in butter and served in evanescent sauce of woodcock legs cooked slowly in local Malvasia. The second pasta was ricotta gnocchi served with hammered sweet peppers and showered with a delicate smoked ricotta redolent of rosemary and pine tar. These two masterpieces were followed by a whole roasted pork shank, stinco di maiale, at once crackling and crunchy on the outside and supple and succulent within, a triumph of cook and animal that sang choruses along with the pickled and boiled turnips called brovada served with it. A rolled spiced nut filled pastry called Putizza rounded out the meal with 3 or 4 different kinds of polenta-based cookies and a glass of the most delicious sambuca served stinging cold and we were on to singing ’70s rock classics with the chef and the owner, plotting a “Subida” in New York City.
Directly north you will find a tiny little berg called Dolegna where you will find a highly-rated place with a lot of money sunk into it called Aquila d’Oro, but I found it too precious (although it’s position and view make it worth it to try). For my taste, I checked out the agriturismo called Venica and delighted in traditional “nonna” cooking as well as the opportunity to stay in one of their 6 rooms amidst their vineyards. Fresh heavy bread and a plate of local salumi started every meal including breakfast, so knew I was in a spiritual mecca. At lunch I had a plate of gnocchi di susine, traditional potato gnocchi dough wrapped around pieces of sweet, tiny plums and sauced in butter with poppy seeds that swooned me royally. These were followed by a simple piece of grilled pork shoulder in sauce of vinegary raisins with some cabbage cooked with cookie spices and I knew I’d be staying for dinner.
Several hours later, I started with the traditional salumi with a slice of an herb frittata and went into a plate of crepes called broccoli with soft ricotta and hop shoots at once bitter and so creamy it made my mouth crazy with the wine. After this seemingly literary conflict I settled into a bowl of a spinach soup just thickened with polenta that makes me cry to this day. Braised rabbit with apples and tarragon followed by a strudel of pears and raisins and a couple of rounds of rough and fiery grappa and I slept the sleep of the princes.
A half hour drive toward Slovenia, right at the border in the tiny town of San Floriano rests a perfect expression of the Collio, Castello Formentini (piazza liberta, 3 tel 0481 884034). The tradition of fine salumi as the antipasto continues with a vengeance here with smokey prosciutto and even smokier pancetta affumicata served with a light flan of Montasio cheese and a salad of tender herbs. Ravioli stuffed with potatoes and scallions followed by a perfect risotto with refosco and dried ricotta were perfect brethren. The very rare venison filet with some kind of pate underneath was odd at first, but haunting in it sauce of tiny wild currants. To finish, a delicate budino of picolit grapes served with a glass of wine made from the same picolit grapes, followed by several of glasses of grappa from picolit and the picolit trifecta was in… a winner on all accounts.