In Trieste, S.A.L.T. Travels to L’Argine a Vencò
For S.A.L.T.’s long awaited debut in Friuli Venezia-Giulia we had no doubt about what kind of experience we wanted to design for our guests. Rather than focusing on the more obvious cafes of Trieste, our port of call, we decided we’d head out of town, through breathtaking Carso and Collio, areas famous among true connoisseurs for their natural wine production. Our destination: a once in a lifetime tasting at L’Argine a Vencò, the restaurant of Michelin starred chef Antonia Klugmann, one of the most celebrated young voices of contemporary Italian cuisine. It was day to remember, perfectly captured in the video below.
Housed in an ancient mill, surrounded by an orchard, vegetable plots, vineyards and wild nature, the restaurant, co-owned by Antonia and her sister and right hand Vittoria, is a peaceful oasis. Antonia is one of my dearest friends so this is a uniquely soulful place I have been visiting for years, and know well. I knew guests would not only immediately grasp the deliciousness and fiercely inventive nature of her cuisine, but also understand how truly site-specific it is. This is a meal you could only have here, on the Italian frontier, a stone’s throw from Slovenia.
Collio and Carso border with Slovenia. Street signs here are bi-lingual. This part of Italy is bound to the Balkans by history, culture and blood, and the mutual influence is impossible to ignore. Antonia’s family is Jewish (Polish-Ukranian to be exact), Emiliana and Pugliese. Almost all the paternal side of her family died during the Holocaust; many on the maternal side fought as partisans during the war. This all comes through in her thinking, feeling and cooking.
I first met Antonia when she was working at Venissa, a restaurant with vineyard on the island of Mazzorbo, Venice. A law school dropout, with a professional cooking course and a few stints as intern under the belt, she was already showing the hallmarks of what was to become her style: a strong connection to the surrounding environment – in that case, the complex ecosystem of the Lagoon, where she started exercising her love for foraging; a natural disposition for plant-based dishes, and for a conscientious approach to sourcing (often discarded minor cuts of meat, sustainably sourced fish.) She was already technically impeccable, disciplined and unrelenting towards herself (she plays tennis after all).
In Venissa she told me about her dream to go back to her native region of Friuli (she was born in Trieste) to open her own restaurant. She did, together with Vittoria, who is also the Maître D’, and it has become a true destination. Since the opening, ten years ago, she has gained a Michelin star, a mention on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Discover list, a stint as Masterchef Italia judge, and the role of ambassador for World Wildlife Fund, the only chef to hold it.
Antonia’s gastronomic vocabulary is now perfectly in focus: hers is a non ego-driven cuisine (she presides over a small brigade like a firm yet fair older sister, giving everyone space to shine,) bursting with flavor, particularly on the smoky agrodolce spectrum, and deliciousness; her dishes are comforting and concise, beautifully presented and rich of nods to the natural world: she plates with the eyes of someone who loves and collects art, and who could have had a career as a photographer.
Adam Sachs, director of S.A.L.T., interviewed her in July 2020, for the first episode of S.A.L.T. Lab Radio, and they were reunited on the day this video was shot, for Silversea’s first official Sea and Land Taste experience at L’Argine. It was a happy reunion, and in a way it felt like coming full circle, from when the program was just moving its first steps, during the pandemic, to its current status of world-wide ever expanding phenomenon. It was a special day, made even more monumental by the attendance of Barbara Muckermann, President and CEO of Silversea and a true food explorer herself, plus a group of very special friends and guests.
This made the day’s planning also nerve wrecking. We spent quite some time discussing the menu: would our guests be ok with ravioli filled with liver paté served in a lamb broth spiked with a couple drops of whisky? They most definitely were, even though Muckermann joked “too much information” when Antonia started listing the anatomic parts of the lamb used to make the broth.
Upon our arrival Antonia and Vittoria welcomed us in their garden, a wide expanse, bursting with life, color and shapes, following the gentle curve of a levee. They showed us their orchard of ancient fruit trees, the synergistic plot, where several types of vegetables and herbs coexist, resulting in an extremely biodiverse and balanced ecosystem.
A long strip was planted with a heirloom variety of corn – corn is to Friuli what Durum wheat is to Sicily – mixed with squash: much like the Mexican “milpa” (an association of corn, bean and squash,) the system enriches the soil with precious nitrogen. “I saw the ‘milpa’ in the Yucatan and was reminded about a similar technique from Friuli, so I decided to use it, with help from Francesco,” (a photographer turned farmer, Francesco Orini, whose organic farm, Prima Radice, also produces a plum beer in collaboration with L’Argine), Antonia tells me.
Soon it was time to sit for lunch. We had a fried eggplant “filet,” served cold with a blackberry/edelberry compote and two kinds of fermented lemon: honey-fermented and sauerkraut-style (whatever was left over from service would end up in eggplant Parmesan for staff meal – first commandment: thou shall not waste.) There was candy-sweet melt-on-your-tongue Adriatic Squilla mantis in a velvety almond sauce and the most delicate sole filets, served with tarragon and dried plum tomato. The fresh strozzapreti with onion, wild pepper, cardamom and bay leaf were as satisfying as a T-bone steak, elementary and complex at the same time. Pre-dessert was chicory, white chocolate and apricot and dessert was a bitter herb crème brûlée served with smoked ricotta ice cream and sclopit, or Silene vulgaris, a wild herb that is particularly loved in Friuli.
Many bites and glasses of wine later – L’Argine also has an impressive natural wine list, with a particular focus on some of the most interesting local producers – there were more speeches, and hugs, and promises to see each other again. We were handed a bottle of L’Argine’s plum beer to take home. A few of us couldn’t resist and popped it open on the ride back. As we watched the hills of Collio roll back behind us, we were reminded of one of Antonia’s signature quotes: “I want guests to close their eyes, take a bite of my food and immediately know that it’s Antonia cooking, in the Italian North-East, in that specific season.”
That is exactly how she made us feel.