You may have heard of a little Italian city called Venice. What you may be less familiar with is the nearby region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. It is either a sad or wonderful thing depending on your perspective that most visitors to Venice never venture anywhere else in this spectacular region.
We were passing through the area on our way south from the Julian Alps in Slovenia, and an Italian friend of mine, Francesco, urged us to spend some time exploring, and more importantly, eating our way through, the region – when a native Italian tells you something like that, you’d be a fool to ignore it.
We rolled up to the city of Udine first and had planned to get out and do a little walking tour of the old town. Alas, the parking situation was a nightmare, and after 30 minutes of circling with no luck, we decided to move on to the small town of Cividale del Friuli, just 15 kilometers and a world away.
Cividale’s long and storied history formally begins with its founding as a Roman municipium by Julius Caesar in 50 BCE, though archaeological evidence indicates it had had already been settled by both the Venetians and Celts by that time. Since then, it has enjoyed prominence under a whole slew of empires and kindgoms, including the Romans, Lombardis, Franks, Venetians, and Italians. Say what you want about conquest, but there’s no doubt that an abundance of it makes for a melting pot of culture and cuisine.
We easily found parking in the city center and knew it was meant to be. It was about 11:00 am at this point, and we needed to find both a bathroom and Wifi to find out if my last minute attempt to book a tour and tasting with a local a ham producer had come together (more on this later). We settled on a little wine and coffee bar to take care of business … and, of course, have a glass of wine. Because it’s Italy, and because why not have wine at 11:00 am?
I ordered a glass of white, and H ordered a glass of red – both the bartender’s choice, and both just 1 EUR each. (This, my friends, is why it pays to get out of the big cities when traveling, no matter where you are. That same glass of wine would cost at least five times as much in Venice, just an hour down the road.)
After receiving the good news that our ham tour was indeed on for later that afternoon, we set out to find more wine and lunch – again, because it’s Italy, and you’re doing something very wrong if you’re not eating and drinking at all times here.
We settled on Da Feo, a local enoteca serving wine, charcuterie, and a small, seasonal menu. Da Feo is a small joint, and we knew we made the right choice when we saw a bunch of locals chatting at the counter inside, glass of wine in hand, again, at 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday. Though the menu was limited, every last dish sounded amazing, and it was agony to choose, but choose we did. H went with a confit chicken leg, and I went with octopus, prepared sous vide and then finished on the grill, with potato puree and caramelized onions.
Both were fantastic, but the absolute shining star of this meal was the starter we shared: a potato and cheese parfait. As best I can recall, the layers consisted of potato puree (yep, the same from my main), roasted potatoes (yep, the same from H’s main), frico (fried cheese), and onion foam, which I think was nothing more than the frothed milk you get on your coffee but flavored with onion.
All the components were individually simple but, together created the most heavenly concoction imaginable. It was different and exciting – something I would never think of putting together and never been able to replicate at home, which for me takes a dining experience to the “wow” level. That they used the same components in other dishes didn’t bother me one whit – i thought it was genius, actually.
Feeling beyond satiated and not wanting to be late for our ham date, we rolled ourselves back to the car and headed to the village of Cormons, home of D’Osvaldo hams.
Though we had been told to visit the town of San Daniele, where many say the proscuitto rivals its more famous counterpart from Parma, my research only turned up major producers and exporters. I was looking for a small operation dedicated to craftsmanship, not a meat factory – don’t need to leave the States to see that. I was about to give up my porcine dreams when I stumbled upon D’Osvaldo.
It all started in 1940 with Luigi D’Osvaldo. Luigi was a butcher and learned the art of smoking meat from his father, a cattle dealer who himself picked up smoking as a method of preservation in his business dealings with the Austrians and Hungarians. When Luigi’s son, Lorenzo, took over the business, he focused solely on the production of hams and refined their techniques. He later moved production to a 19th century villa in 1982, and with the help of his wife and children, has been producing D’Osvaldo ham products there ever since. It was exactly what I was hoping to find.
I emailed them on a wing and a prayer, the day before we wanted to arrive. Since people are not glued to email in these parts, I wasn’t sure if they’d get a chance to read my note before we left the area. Lo and behold, fate intervened, and I received the good news that we would be meeting Monica D’Osvaldo, Luigi’s daughter, for a quick tour and tasting.
We arrived a little early at the villa and were asked if we would mind waiting in the garden with a glass of wine from their own label. Um, YES. Yes please, always. Monica arrived about 10 minutes later, all smiles, and we were shown to the curing room, where we got schooled in the art of curing ham.
It all begins with the pigs. The pigs used by D’Osvaldo are not just any pigs – they are Duroc pigs, exclusively from the Friulian region, and are fed a strict diet of corn, barley, potatoes, and alfalfa. When the weather turns in October, the pigs meet their maker, and the thighs go to the spa, if you will, where they enjoy nice shiatsu massage and salt scrub.
After resting for a bit in the salt (one day of rest for each pound of meat), they get a nice bath before being dried and pressed to remove any remaining moisture and blood. They are then cold-smoked a hundred at a time using a mixture of wood from cherry and bay trees. A big pot of herbs and water is placed over a fire in the room below, and the scented smoke rises up, infusing the meat with herby goodness.
After two to four days of smoking, the thighs retire to the airy rooms of the villa, where they are exposed to the fresh country breeze, eventually developing a light mold, which helps stabilize and seal in all the flavor developed in the smoking process. The hams are then washed again, left to dry for another 15 days, and, here comes the good part, smeared with fat and spices. YES. Then, they mature for about 14 to 24 months depending on the size. This is all done all winter long, by hand, by four people: Monica, her parents, and her brother. They make around 2,000 hams a year plus some pancetta and speck (similar to proscuitto but without the bone).
Is your mouth-watering yet?
After the tour, it was onto the main event: tasting. I can say that D’Osvaldo’s proscuitto is, without a doubt, the best ham I have ever eaten – yes, it rivals Spain’s famed Iberico de Bellota. The flavor is absolutely incredible, infused with sweetness from the smoke (I think the wood from the bay tree makes it extra special). The balance of fat to tissue was just right, and the texture was melt-in-your mouth soft, with none of the dreaded stringy-ness or chew that proscuitto sometimes has.
It was exquisite, and despite our massive lunch, we inhaled an entire platter, and when Monica offered to slice us more, you can guess what we said. In retrospect, I wish we had erred on the side of rudeness and asked for a third plate. It is that good.
After spending the better part of an hour hanging with Monica in the warm Italian afternoon, we headed down the road to another picturesque Italian village, Borgnano, for some cheese at Zoff Agricole, which Monica insisted produced some of the finest in the region. Zoff was not in our plans, but again, when an Italian gives you advice like this, don’t even think about ignoring it.
When we arrived, we were met by Laura and ushered into the dining area of Zoff’s B&B, where we were presented with a sumptuous spread of all their cheeses … and, of course, more wine (have I mentioned how much I adore Italy?).
We dug in, and, between bites, Laura waxed poetic about cheese-making and their process. Zoff makes all of their cheeses with the raw milk of Italian Red Pezzata cows – sans hormones, additives, and preservatives. If you’re expecting mozzarella, jack, cheddar, or gouda, think again. There is a whole wide world of cheese just waiting to be discovered. For example, let me introduce you to latteria and cacciotta.
Both are considered Italian “farmhouse” cheeses (i.e. cheeses made by farmers to be consumed at home, not for commercial sale). Traditionally, farmhouse cheeses were made with a combination of ewe, goat, cow, and sometimes even buffalo milk. This was not some genius design or precisely calculated recipe but rather a result of “throw it all in the same pot” convenience. I get it – when you’re running a farm, do you really have time to make 10 different kinds of cheese?
Anyway, latteria is unique to the region and is a hard, semi-cooked cheese that can be eaten both young and aged, which lends a grassy, barnyard-y taste that I happen to love … H less so). Cacciotta has a brief ripening period, yielding a creamy yet firm texture and a very mild, sweet taste. Zoff takes their cacciota up a notch by adding dried herbs like rose petals, elderflower, sage, rosemary, basil, marigold, and nettle. These herby delights are ridiculously good, though they offer a plain version in addition to mozzarella, ricotta, milk, yogurt, and an incredible dulce de leche.
We took full advantage of the small on-site shop and scooped up the young latteria, both an elderflower and thyme cacciotta, yogurt, and the dulce de leche. The whole thing came in at around $20, which is frankly stunning and a steal given the quality of their products. I would have easily paid double that for the same haul at my old DC farmer’s market.
We arrived in Trieste at the end of the day, totally tapped out, and quickly abandoned our dinner plans. Having all one’s dreams come true will do that to a person.
If you want to check out these places yourself, and we highly recommend you do, here’s how to get in touch – be sure to tell them Wanderrlust sent you!
Wanderrlust’s Top Picks: Friulia
- Da Feo (Cividale del Friuli): Email or call Da Feo for reservations at firstname.lastname@example.org or +39 0432 701425.
- D’Osvaldo (Cormons): Send an email to Monica at email@example.com. If you have the good fortune of living in Europe, you can purchase an entire leg of your own directly from them for around 150-170 EUR, depending on the size. I think that is a steal considering what just a pound of proscuitto di Parma costs you in the States. If you are an American, however, you will enjoy no such privilege: your government has decided it is currently illegal to bring with you back into the United States. I couldn’t think of a better issue to harrass your U.S. Senator about.
- Zoff Agricole/Borg Da Ocjs (Borgnano): Send an email to Laura at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a cheese tasting, farm tour, and/or book a room at their lovely B&B. Seriously, don’t miss it. The setting is amazing and totally worth an overnight if you’re going to Venice.
- For a gastronomic grand slam, seek out Mascalzone Latino in Trieste. We ate there for dinner on a different day (hence why it’s not included in this story), but the pasta I had there was so good I can’t bear to leave it unmentioned: rigatoni with tomato sauce and lardo. Sounds simple, right? Indeed, it was … and absolute stunner. The tomato sauce was the perfect combination of sweetness and acidity, the lardo lent a richness, and the pasta was both toothsome and creamy – I swooned with every single bite and begrudgingly shared a few with H (who’s calzone paled in comparison). It’s the kind of dish so simple one should theoretically be able to replicate at home, but there is some magic there I’m not sure I can capture. Go for this dish, and if it’s not listed as a special, ask for it anyway.