Italy’s Friuli region, the northeastern shoulder that abuts Austria and Slovenia, is often called the Little Fatherland. As the gateway between Italy and Central Europe (it was invaded by Hungarians, Huns, Ostrogoths, Lombards, Franks and Germans before being conquered by the Venetian Republic in 1420), Friuli draws heavily from Germanic and Slavic cultures as well as Italian. The Friulani speak their own language, a version of Romansh. They’re industrious, deeply attached to their land and fiercely independent. Fasin di besoi—“We do things ourselves”—is a favorite dictum here. The lively regional capital, Udine, has a thriving university and a wonderfully preserved Venetian quarter. The historic Astoria Hotel Italia, in the heart of old Udine and known for its very good restaurant, is a comfortable base for exploring the region (rooms, from $100; 24 Piazza 20 Settembre; 39-043/250-5091; hotelastoria.udine.it). For the soul of Friuli is best revealed in its charming, lightly touristed towns (Venzone and Gemona are among the prettiest), its picturesque countryside and the pastures and vineyards that produce the area’s distinctive wines and cuisine. It’s all easily accessed from Venice, no more than two hours by car but a world away.
Wine in Corno di Rosazzo
Teresa Perusini was 15 years old when her father, Giampaolo Perusini, a Friulan winemaker, took her to Paris for her first glass of Château d’Yquem, arguably the best sweet wine in the world. “One day,” he said to her, “our Picolit will be this good.”
In recent years Friulan winemakers, who are known for crisp, dry whites, including Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, have increasingly shifted focus to regional specialties such as Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friulano, Verduzzo, Refosco and the sweet wine Picolit. The oldest and most characteristic of Friulan wines, the exquisite, honey-colored Picolit has been celebrated here since Roman times. But after phylloxera ravaged Friuli’s vineyards in the 19th century, they were largely replanted with French grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay—that thrive on these sun-drenched hills. Picolit, a challenging grape with low yields, virtually disappeared.
Giacomo Perusini, Teresa’s grandfather and the author of the most authoritative treatise on Picolit, brought it back to life in the early 1900s. Today Teresa and her husband, Giacomo de Pace, manage the Perusini vineyards in Corno di Rosazzo in eastern Friuli, where they make 5,000 bottles of Picolit a year. “The role of small vintners like myself is to preserve the richness and diversity of this region,” Teresa says. Like other prominent Friulan winemakers (Felluga, Attimis, Rubini, Gigante), she produces wines using French grapes. But her heart is closest to old Friulan varietals like Picolit and her flagship white, Ribolla Gialla, a wine that dates back to the 1300s. “It is shy, slender and subtle—an Audrey Hepburn of a wine,” says Perusini, “compared to Pinot Grigio’s Sophia Loren.”
In addition to tastings, the Perusini estate offers two guest farmhouses and six apartments (from $125; 13 Via Torrione, Gramogliano; 39-043/267-5018; perusini.com).
Roses in Artegna
Seventeen years ago I told my husband I wanted an antique rose for our thirtieth anniversary,” Eleonora Garlant recounts with a smile. “Instead he gave me one for each year of our marriage. And I never grew a modern rose again.” Today Garlant, 72, has more than a thousand varieties of roses in her garden in Artegna, a town north of Udine that’s best known for its looming castle and medieval churches. Garlant’s collection is arguably the largest of its kind in Italy. Some of her roses come from as far as Chile and Tibet; others grow wild in nearby valleys. But what makes her garden unique—and the reason it attracts rose enthusiasts from all over Europe—is that every spring as many as a half-dozen new varieties come to life here.
Garlant attributes the serendipitous hybridization to sheer abundance, especially of Rosa botanica, which she calls “the mother of all roses,” and to a colony of hawfinches. “They crack open the rose hips with their strong beaks, eat seeds in various combinations and then deposit them randomly,” Garlant says.
The garden is built around three vegetable patches tended by her husband, Valentino Fabiani, a retired mechanic. Each is enclosed by walls of classic roses—Albertines, Parks Yellows, Empress Joséphines, Madame Alfred Carrières and Pendulinas, lovely pink Alpine roses that grow in the nearby mountains. Just beyond the vegetable garden, varieties of albas, damasks and gallicas climb up trees, cascade down pergolas or rise from the ground in an array of colors and scents.
Every year in May Garlant holds a small ceremony to name her new roses, usually after family and close friends. She can only guess from which roses they descend. “Not all of the new ones are beautiful or delightfully scented,” she says. “But a rose is never ugly. Different, yes; ugly, no.”
Garlant’s garden is open to the public on June 2 and by appointment from mid-May to mid-June (5 Via Vicenza; 39-043/298-7208).
Prosciutto in San Daniele
Each June the town of San Daniele stages a paean to the pig, the Aria di Festa—four days of events celebrating the area’s famous prosciutto, exalted for its sweetness and delicate aroma. To many connoisseurs San Daniele is home to the best Italian ham, softer and more succulent than archrival Parma’s.
Along what is sometimes called the Via del Prosciutto, the fields around San Daniele, northwest of Udine, are dotted with artisanal producers like Bagatto, Prolongo, Testa & Molinaro and L’Artigiana, as well as larger ones like Dok Dall’Ava, a family-run company that opened the area’s first modern ham-curing facilities.
Prosciutto has been a staple here since Roman times, thanks to the mild winters and cool, breezy summers. Traditionally hams were left to dry in the open air. The curing process required less salt than elsewhere, resulting in a sweeter flavor. Hams are now cured in sophisticated facilities, and San Daniele prosciutto is big business. When Natalino Dall’Ava arrived from Vicenza in 1960, fewer than 15,000 hams a year were made. Today the San Daniele Consortium, which has 31 members, produces three million.
What’s the difference between a Parma and a San Daniele ham? For starters, the first is cured without leg and hoof; the second has both. “This way,” Dall’Ava says, “the humidity travels up the leg bone and comes out at the top, forming a patch of mold around the hoof. It is a way of drying the meat without adding salt.” The ham is covered with a mix of flour, yeast, lard, pepper and paprika and aged at least 14 months. Dall’Ava’s wife, Paola, who oversees the company’s new prosciutteria, explains the distinction this way: “Ours is sweeter, more fragrant, with hints of nuts and wild berries.” And Parma? “To me, it’s just pork.”
At Dok Dall’Ava’s prosciutteria guests can sample typical San Daniele ham, as well as prosciuttos made from wild boar, venison or goose. It also has a first-of-its-kind school for ham curing (29 Via Gemona; 39-043/295-7335; dallava.com).