The Italians are well known for their hospitality. Some years ago, my American-born cousins went to a mountain village in Sicily in search of our late grandmother’s relatives. My cousins spoke no Italian, so when an elderly woman answered the door, they mimed their reasons for coming. There was an emotional hugging session, and the guests were invited in to share a bottle of local Etna wine and the simple supper the woman was preparing for her husband.
My cousins were thrilled to have finally uncovered the family’s roots. Two hours later, the doorbell rang. In broken English a woman explained that she was in fact the relative my cousins were seeking, but she lived farther down the street and had not been home when my cousins arrived. Her neighbors had invited the two young Americans in, not knowing anything about the reason for their visit. They had not wanted to leave her guests waiting in the street.
Hospitality with a long history
This vein of generosity runs through the country from south to north: Many trace Sicily’s culture of hospitality to the Arabs who conquered the island in the 10th century, bringing with them irrigation, citrus fruits and even sorbets. In Sicily you are always treated like an honored guest.
Each Italian region has its own way of making people feel welcome. In the northeast, in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, the most popular way to greet visitors is by offering a glass of wine with a plate of local ham, whatever the time of day. That ham, likely as not, will be the locally-cured prosciutto crudo di San Daniele that beats even Parma’s for sweetness and elegance. Like Parma’s, this prosciutto also has official DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) status protecting its authenticity.
“Here, the classic partner for San Daniele prosciutto is a white friulano,” explains Josko Sirk, whose family trattoria, La Subida, near Cormòns in the Collio hills, offers some of Friuli’s best regional food. “In the Carso hills, close to Trieste, the ham is drier and more robust so they drink terrano, a tart clone of the native red refosco. A sommelier might not agree, but that’s our way!”
The wines of Collio
The Collio hills straddle the border between Italy and Slovenia. On both sides, as in the Langhe in Piedmont, the Collio’s estates are mostly small, family-run affairs. At harvest time, several generations gather to pick and press the grapes. In an unusual rainbow of styles, white Collio wines go from pale and ephemeral to amber-orange liquids whose structures are closer to red wines.
A range of characterful wines is made from grapes as diverse as the pinots grigio and bianco, sauvignon and chardonnay, as well as some French red varieties, many of which have been in the area since the mid-19th century. A particularly strong showing comes from indigenous varieties, especially ribolla gialla, malvasia istriana and friulano (until recently known as tocai friulano). Each variety benefits from being grown in this vine-friendly landscape, caught between the Adriatic sea and the cooling Dolomite mountains to the north.
Many wine families run agriturismi, or rural bed and breakfasts, on their estates. These are the most lovely places to stay if you’re interested in living life as a winemaker for a few days. You’ll likely be invited to eat with the family, to sample some of the area’s multi-ethnic cuisine, with influences that go from Hapsburg through Slavic to Asian. It’s not surprising here to find Austrian-style gnocchi stuffed with plums being served with a crisp pinot bianco or an aromatic sauvignon.
The culture of the osteria
In our fast-food world, I’m full of admiration for any area that sets up a council to defend its traditional osterie. An osteria is less formal than a trattoria, and in Friuli it is a protected species. “Osterie are part of our landscape. A place to meet over a plate of cheese and tajut — or glass — of house white with family or friends while the old men drink grappa and discuss football,” says Renato Keber, one of the Collio’s finest winemakers. The cheese in question will be local Montasio DOP. Delicate when young, it acquires character as it ages. “It’s at its best in a dish called frico, where it is grated and fried until crisp with potatoes and onions,” Sirk explains. “It goes best with a more structured white Collio blend.”
Spiced muset, a local sausage made from pig’s head flavored with cinnamon and coriander and accompanied by polenta, is another authentic dish. “Muset is paired with a delicious pickle called brovada,” explains celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich, who grew up in Trieste before moving to New York to open her successful restaurant, Felidia. “Whole washed turnips are layered in a barrel with grape marc and salt, and grated roughly over the meats. The only wine that can keep this pace is tazzelenghe — the tannic ‘tongue-cutter’ — that is acidic enough to cut through the fats.”
The Austro-Hungarian legacy still rules over Friuli’s desserts, too, in fruit strudels and la gubana — a rich pastry stuffed with nuts and raisins. Both marry well with the regional dessert wines of verduzzo and picolit, another Hapsburg favorite.
Whatever time of day you visit an Italian home, you won’t be allowed to leave until you’ve been offered a glass of fine wine and some of the country’s unique gastronomic hospitality.
Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer, as well as a photographer, based in Italy for more than 20 years. She writes regularly for magazines and newspapers, including Decanter, BBC Olive, The Independent, World of Fine Wine, Bon Appétit, Departures, Food & Wine. She is a long-time member of Slow Food, the Guild of Food Writers and the Circle of Wine Writers and has won Italy’s Luigi Veronelli prize for best foreign food writer. Her articles have been included in anthologies Best Food Writing 2011 and How the British Fell in Love with Food. Carla is a co-organizer of Cook it Raw, an itinerant think tank featuring top international chefs. In 2006, she and designer Robert Myers were awarded a gold medal at the London Chelsea Flower Show for the Costiera dei Fiori garden she produced for the Campania region.
Carla was born in New York City to a theatrical family and brought up in Paris and London. After getting a degree in art history, she made sculpture in London, wrote about design, and later worked in Manhattan as a food and interiors stylist for photography, for clients that included the New York Times. She moved to Italy in 1989 and worked as the Milan correspondent for Vogue Décoration before writing her first cookbooks on Italian food. Her spirit of adventure led her to undertake three personal and detailed guides to the food and wine culture of Italy. The first was The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany which took three years to research and write (Chronicle Books, 1998, shortlisted for Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers).
It was followed by another three-year project: The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, 2005) which was illustrated with her photos. To write it, Carla lived in fishing villages and mountain communities in diverse parts of the large region to meet and write about the many restaurants and small food artisans of Campania. Her most recent book, Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-east (Pallas Athene, 2009-10) is also richly illustrated; it won the coveted André Simon Award for Best Wine Book 2009. Her other books include Cheeses of the Amalfi Coast and The Ultimate Italian Cookbook. Carla divides her time between Italy, Bordeaux, London and further afield. When she has time, she leads food and wine tours in Italy and France.
Her travelog, Assaggi, has just begun on her newly launched website: www.carlacapalbo.com.
Top photo: A plate of Italian aperitivos. Credit: Carla Capalbo