The Cuisine of Northeastern Italy

It’s an irresistibly romantic notion, but the most important ingredient in the making of Prosciutto di San Daniele is wind. Faithful followers of the delicately cured pork from Friuli maintain that its savory fragrance is due to prevailing mountain air that washes over the Carnic Alps, blends with salty breezes from the Adriatic, filters through resin-scented forests and slowly ebbs over the humid Tagliamento River basin to allow for perfect maturation and seasoning. It’s the perfect wind.

Although that particular ham benefits from a specific wind, currents of change and culture from northern and southern Europe have shaped the culinary identity of this unique morsel of Italy. Treacherous alpine passes enabled the free exchange of cooking ideas, traded ingredients, herbs and spices.

Viennese sausages, apple strudel and goulash make random appearances in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Those foreign flavors enhance an already rich heritage of local foods. Cjarsjon is giant pasta stuffed with mountain herbs. Fish—particularly the beloved eel marinated in vinegar and sage—is consumed near the Adriatic. Another favorite dish is frico, a crispy wafer made from shredded Montasio cheese.

Trentino-Alto Adige also boasts many Austrian-inspired dishes made with cabbage, white turnips, wild mushrooms and potatoes. A local favorite are canederli, or balls of bread, herbs, egg, flour and cubed speck. The dumplings are served in broth or sometimes topped with spicy sauce.

Rich desserts are a favorite treat at the posh skiing resorts that pepper the valleys and passes of the Dolomites. Whipped cream, butter and hot chocolate are used generously with fried dough or torta fregolotta, a crumbly almond biscuit.

Key Ingredients

Eel: “Anguilla” in Italian, the slippery fish is caught in lower Friuli and served marinated in vinegar, in umido (doused in white wine), baked, fried or in risotto.

Montasio: This mild cheese from cow’s milk from Carina (Friuli) is sold after two months of aging (“fresco”), five months (“mezzano”) or ten months (“stagionato”). It is delicious melted over gnocchi or polenta.

Polenta: Although corn meal is popular across northern Italy, it is said to originate in Friuli. It is prepared fried as an appetizer or as porridge with sausage or wild mushrooms.

Pork: Common across Friuli-Venezia Giulia, pork is the base for Prosciutto San Daniele, Prosciutto di Sauris, blood sausages and smoked pancetta.

Speck: This salt-cured and smoked ham is flavored with juniper, laurel, garlic and pepper and is often used as an alternative to bacon in Alto Adige.

Roe Deer Venison with Tomatoes and Pumpkin Seeds

For hand-made pasta

1 pound semolina flour
8 ounces water
⅛ teaspoon salt

For store-bought fresh pasta

4 sheets fresh lasagna noodles, or egg roll wrappers, thawed, if frozen

For roe deer venison:

1¾ pounds (28 ounces) roe deer
venison saddle (ask your butcher for venison saddle)
2 tablespoons grape seed or olive oil
40g pumpkin seeds 1.4 ounces,
⅓ cup, toasted
1 cup cornmeal (to make polenta)
10 tablespoons butter
20 small datterini tomatoes (or vine ripened grape, cherry, or Campari tomatoes), rinsed
1 tablespoon each thyme, and marjoram
Sea or Kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

If not using store-bought fresh pasta, prepare hand-made pasta according to traditional methods. Roll out into thin sheets and cut four 9-inch squares.

Add oil to a smooth cast iron griddle or large skillet over medium-high heat. Toast pasta sheets until lightly and unevenly browned. Remove pasta from heat and set aside.

Remove bones from venison and pat dry. Season with marjoram, thyme, salt, and freshly ground black pepper, and bring to room temperature.

Prepare soft polenta with cornmeal according to package directions, and keep warm.

Melt butter in a smooth cast iron griddle or large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown venison in butter, about 5 minutes per side, until evenly browned.

Reduce heat to medium, season with salt and add tomatoes. Cook venison, until medium rare, about 5-10 minutes more (125-130ºF internal temperature). Transfer venison to a cutting board, cover loosely with foil, and rest for 5 minutes. Remove skillet from heat, reserving pan sauce.

Cut venison across the grain into thick slices. Place one sheet of toasted pasta in each dish. Divide polenta evenly and spoon over pasta. Place sliced meat on top of polenta and coat with tomato sauce. Garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds and serve. Serves 4.

Published on August 12, 2013
Topics: Food + TravelItaly Travel Guide