Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Friuli-Venezia Giulia Region Comes to Il Fornaio

Wedged between Austria and Slovena, the northern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the south and the Alps to the north. Reflecting a climate which can be buffeted by cold fronts, the region's cuisine emphasizes comfort food: hearty soups, polenta, charcuterie, grilled meats and fish, risotto, gnocchi, and ravioli.

To celebrate the New Year, a group of friends gathered at the Santa Monica Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401; 310/451-7800), opposite the Santa Monica Pier, for a tasting of the Festa Regionale (January 4-17) . Along with a selection of regional dishes, we also sampled wines from the family run Tenuta Luisa winery located close to the Slovena border.

When we arrived at the restaurant, a cold chill caught us by surprise, so soup was the order of the day. The Cannellini Bean Soup (Zuppa E Antipasti) was deeply flavored with carrots, potatoes, and Swiss chard, topped with a thin slice of Il Fornaio's bread, crusted with grated Parmesan cheese. The light and fruity but not sweet Friulano (2008) made a good companion for the soup.

While we studied the menu, we feasted on a basket of delicious, fresh-from-the-oven Il Fornaio bread--the restaurant is called "The Baker" after all--with slices dipped into a small plate filled with their own extra virgin olive oil. The struggle, always, is to eat only a few slices of the bread and not the whole basket.

Although off the familiar tourist routes, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is well-known for one of its products, San Daniele prosciutto. Our appetizer was a plate composed as much for the eye as the palate (Prosciutto San Daniele e Formaggi Misti). The sweet, delicate San Daniele could be eaten by itself, each slice practically melting in your mouth.

What's fun about a charcuterie plate is the mix-and-matching that is possible. A piece of prosciutto can be eaten with a bite of a meaty Cerignola olive, or it can be wrapped around a crisp thin bread stick studded with sea salt. My favorite way was to dredge a slice of soft Montasio Vecchio in olive oil I seasoned with sea salt and pepper, quickly wrapping the cheese in the San Daniele, popping the little package in my mouth before too much of olive oil dripped off, followed by a sip of Friulano. Yum.

Reflecting their proximity to the Alps, the pasta courses featured hearty cream sauces. Usually anathema to calorie counters, a special dispensation should be made for these delicious sauces.

When there is a choice between Ravioli with Roast Duck in an Asparagus Cream Sauce (Ravioli d'Anatra Agli Asparagi), Pasta with Shellfish in a Parmesan and Tomato Bechamel (Pasticcio alla Gradese), Gnocchi with Sausage in a Tomato Cream Sauce (Gnocchi alla Friulana), or Risotto with Mushrooms and Vegetables in a Cheese Sauce (Risotto del Cansiglio), you'd want the tasting to focus entirely here and never move on.

But good sense prevailed and we sampled two of the four.

The ravioli hit every comfort note. The sauce, light and creamy, was leavened by the asparagus. The filling of braised duck meat was mixed with San Daniele prosciutto and pillowed softly inside the delicately sweet dough. Needless to say, generous amounts of fresh bread were used to collect every last drop of the sauce.

In the risotto, the sauce had been absorbed into the grains of rice. By comparison with the ravioli, the effect was almost austere but the effect was no less luxurious. The risotto melted in the mouth, with thin slices of wild mushrooms and fresh vegetables providing added flavor to the sweetness of the rice.

With both courses we had the Pinot Grigio (2008), a crisp companion perfect to contrast with the pastas' richness.

For protein, the region looks both to the mountains and the sea. Shrimp and Spaghetti in a Marinara Cream Sauce (Gamberoni alla Busara con Spaghetti), Wild Sea Bass with Mashed Potatoes and Spinach (Filetto di Branzino alla Greca), and a Mixed Grill of Chicken, Sausage, Lamb, and New York Steak (Carne Mista alla Brace).

Choosing the sea bass, I would have happily just eaten the mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach with cherry tomatoes, capers, Kalmata and Cerignola olives. They were that delicious. The sea bass had no trouble competing with such formidable accompaniments. Moist and sweet, the skin turned into a crisp confection that dissolved in my mouth. The Friulano was a bit too fruity for the dish and the Pinot Grigio too crisp, so we switched to the Sauvignon (2008) which had just the right amount of lightness and full flavor.

Outside we could see people leaving the Santa Monica pier, their coats pulled tightly around them, so although we were well-satisfied with the meal, we decided to take another moment and relax in the warm comfort of the restaurant and share the regional dessert.

A small cake topped with ice cream came to the table. The Italian name, Tortino di Mele con Gelato al Rum, was certainly a mouthful. But we were so busy eating the cake, we didn't bother practicing our Italian. To our simple American tastes this was a great version of a Fruit-Nut Cake. And the rum raisin ice cream was as good as it gets.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica

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