Italian Farmhouse Feasts

Paolo Destefanis

At the Agriturismo de Carvalho in Manzano, about ten miles east of Udine in the far northeastern Italian region of Friuli, lunch is served in the backyard of a 17th-century villa. From the terrace, we can see the entire property, bordered by small clumps of cypress trees. A huge Tuscan sheepdog, barking frequently at first but increasingly tranquil as the sun heats up the cobblestones, is tied to an ornate well in the center of the villa's courtyard. Around noon, people start appearing, walking past the dog, up towards the terrace, the women's high heels wobbling on the stones as their children gallop off to explore the property. The cook, Ennio Furlan, has spent the morning preparing the country food his customers expect: gnocchi made from potatoes and rucola, risotto with porcini mushrooms, roasted guinea fowl, sausages cooked in wine, and a splendid gubane, a panettone-like confection that locals like to drench in grappa—all washed down with tocai, verduzzo, and merlot from the estate.

Dining al fresco is an ancient tradition all over Italy, but dining al frasca is the rule in Friuli. Frasca _means ''branch'', from the tradition of hanging a branch in front of a property that had new wine to sell. The typical frasca was originally a small family farm or wine estate where, at an outdoor table,usually under something deliciously flowering or fruiting or budding, paying guests were served a taste of homemade prosciutto and a piece of bread between glasses of one wine tasting and another. _Frasche _(the plural form of _frasca) of this kind still flourish—in the spring, when the previous year's white wines are ready, and in late fall, when the same vintage's reds are opened—but many frasche have evolved into what are called agriturismi. These are very much like frasche, only you get more food. (In either case, the tariff is low: Most frasche and agriturismi charge $20-$25 per person, including copious quantities of wine.) One other difference: By law, frasche can serve only foods produced on the premises; agriturismi rules vary, but most are required to produce at least half of what they serve, with a high percentage of the rest produced in the immediate area.

Both kinds of places are real, working farms (and usually wineries as well, at least on a small scale). Tables—which sometimes have to be cleared of freshly picked plums or porcini mushrooms or whatever other fruit or vegetable is in season when customers arrive—are set with paper napkins, wooden serving boards, and wildflowers. Nature is never far away at these establishments, in fact. Al Plan di Paluz in Tarcento has signs hanging from the trees, identifying their species (in Latin) for the kids. Frasca di Gianni in Cividale del Friuli won't tell you how they flavor their grappa, except to say that it contains as many as ten different herbs picked in the fields around the farm. Ennio Furlan, at that time chef at the Agriturismo de Carvalho, tells us one afternoon that he was out picking blackberries that morning near the farmhouse ''when a female wild boar saw me. She called for her babies, and four of them came running to her, then they all took off into the woods.''

Bucolic doesn't seem like a bad word for these places. Zaro in Canebola is a bosky spot, tortuously difficult to get to, up endless ribbons of road winding through thick woods, but once we get there, we snack on homemade cheeses, achingly rich salami, pickled baby zucchini, and scarlet merlot with pink fizz on top, all made on the property, while fat dogs lounge in the sun, farm equipment growls in the distance, and the afternoon light bounces off the leaves of the trees. And at Colonos in Villacaccia di Lestizza, fields of corn encircle the farmhouse like a golden sea, and family-style picnic tables are plunked about like captainless boats. The conversation is loud and lusty. Kids gallop around the animal pens, and mosquitoes buzz as the sun sets. We are content.

Part of the region officially known as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Friuli borders Austria and Slovenia. The region has been invaded over the centuries by Huns (Attila was stopped at nearby Aquileia), Goths, Visigoths, Longobards (who left a dramatic temple in Cividale, now a chapel), Venetians, Austrians, and the French under Napoleon—who built the star-shaped fortress town of Palmanova. Invaders notwithstanding, though, the Friulians have managed to hold on to a strong sense of ethnic identity. The indigenous people descend from the Carni, who hailed from the Carnic Alps, and they even have their own language, closely related to Italian but with many words incomprehensible to nonlocals.

The region is notoriously poor and has been wracked by earthquakes—in 1976, it suffered a 6.5 on the Richter scale, which killed more than nine hundred people—and it gets very cold and wet in the winter. In warmer weather, though, it is a beautiful, welcoming place—a verdant landscape full of plump grazing cows, endless green fields, thick piney forests, and cool crystalline streams.

The administrative capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is Trieste, but the cultural capital is Udine. Over a thousand years old, this former Roman army post sits on a hill overlooking a vast plain that spreads to the Adriatic Sea. A town of almost 100,000, Udine is a prosperous city, all but untouched by tourism, with beautiful Venetian piazzas—it's about 80 miles northeast of Venice—an impressive cathedral with a Gothic façade, and a flourishing retail-based economy.

Udine has been my jumping-off point for discovering frasche and agriturismi. I join my Udinese friends at one bar or another in the center of town and sip prosecco or one of the good local white wines until we reach a consensus as to where to eat. Once the decision is made, everyone hops into the motor vehicle most appropriate to his tax bracket (I once rode on the back of someone's Vespa for what seemed like a trip to the Orient on a bumblebee) and roars off into the country—to a place, for instance, like Al Copari in Craoretto.

Al Copari was originally a wine-only frasca but has been serving food since 1915. During World War I, it became a hospital, and it was later used as a school; for many years the farm had the only telephone in the area, which it made available for public use. For 75 years, the woodstove at Al Copari has been cooking the same traditional dishes: gnocchi, risotto, minestrone, roasted guinea hens, frico, frittate. The proprietor, Anna Maria Lesizza, is at once bawdy and ladylike. She pointedly keeps her knees together for a photograph at one point, telling us that the reason she isn't rich is because ''the higher you raise your legs, the more money you earn!'' She bosses around the masons who are repairing her terrace—but then gives them a generous choice of dishes for their meal.

Very little pasta is eaten in Friuli, and green vegetables are limited. The traditional local diet is based on corn, eggs, potatoes, meat, and the local cow's-milk cheese—simply called latteria, which means ''dairy''. Latteria is eaten at all stages of its life, from very fresh and soft, when its taste is mild enough to please the pickiest child, until it has aged for about six months and grown pungent. Though it is often enjoyed plain, it is also the cheese of choice for frico—an omnipresent frasca specialty. Frico is basically melted cheese, cooked slowly in a pan until it crisps up and coheres, forming a kind of lacy cheese pancake. Everybody makes it slightly differently: Al Copari's is slick and chewy; Frasca di Gianni, in Cividale del Friuli, interprets it as a dense souffle. My favorite frico was that made by Ennio Furlan at the Agriturismo de Carvalho (he has since left the place). His version combines potatoes and cheese to make a thick pancake that is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside—an extraordinary treat.

Children are always welcome at frasche. ''When I was a young woman,'' explains my friend Emanuela Fabbro as we sit at an outdoor table at Colonos—while her two sons, Martino and Leonardo, terrorize the chickens—''I came to the frasche with my friends because they were inexpensive and because our parents couldn't see what we were up to.'' (Leonardo interrupts us at this point, a wicked smile on his face and a clutch of feathers in his fist; Emanuela chooses not to notice.) ''Now we come because the children can roam around without ruining everyone else's good time.'' (Indeed, by the time the adults have settled into their first course, the children have already inhaled a plate of gnocchi and are off running in a hooligan band.) Emanuela looks over to a table of five grandmothers, all in flowered dresses, wearing gold crucifixes and clutching big, boxy handbags, adding, ''And the old people come here to eat the food they are used to and to watch the children play.''

I have enjoyed frasche myself as a twenty-something party animal, smoking harsh Italian cigarettes, drinking smooth local wine, and arguing with my Friulian friends about the EC. I've visited frasche with my children and watched them out of the corner of my eye squashing snails while I, well, argued with my Friulian friends about the EC. And I hope to still be eating at frasche when I'm old and my children have launched lives of their own elsewhere, and I can nibble salami with my husband and those long-suffering friends, and share a lifetime's worth of observations, anecdotes, and experiences, many of which we will have enjoyed together, at a frasca, sitting outside, pulling the soft center out of warm, homemade bread.