Frico: Italy's Cheesy, Potato-Filled Comfort Food

If you didn't know by now, Italian food is about way more than pasta and tomato sauce. The types of cuisine found in the numerous regions of the boot-shaped country couldn't be more varied, interesting, and delicious. For example, in Tuscany, the cuisine stays true to its roots and excels in peasant food or recipes based heavily on vegetables, legumes, and bread. In northeastern Veneto, you'll find a lot of fish-based dishes because of its proximity to the Adriatic Sea. And in the Lombardy region in northern Italy, people opt for polenta and rice over pasta and butter over olive oil.

While potatoes do make plenty of appearances in traditional Italian food (hello, gnocchi!), they are typically not equated with Italy the way they are with countries like Ireland or the United States. Still, you will find the tubers sliced and baked onto pizza in many parts of Italy, roasted and served as a side dish, and fried into croquettes in Sicily. Although perhaps not as well known as other Italian potato dishes, the humble frico combines lots of cheese and potatoes into one warm, highly comforting dish. You may think that a dish like this is more suitable for the chilly parts of eastern Europe or the mountains of Switzerland, but like many delicious Italian foods, the frico came from a people who wasted nothing and turned scraps into something magical.

The history of frico

In northeastern Italy lies the region of Friuli, which borders Austria and Slovenia. In the eastern corner bordering Austria, you will find the Carnia Mountains, the place where Montasio cheese has been produced since the 13th century. Friuli was historically a poorer region where Italian peasants like shepherds and lumberjacks made do with ingredients that were easy to find, plentiful, and affordable. Fortunately for them, plenty of cheese scraps came from the places where Montasio was made, so the common people used those scraps to make frico, a filling, calorie-laden dish perfect for sustaining energy and warming up a chilly body.

At its most basic, frico is a combination of potatoes, cheese, and onions, although you will find several recipes that include extras like a bit of meat, spices, and herbs. Still, the dish stays true to its simple, unpretentious, and practical roots. Everything is cooked in a pan until both sides are toasted and browned, resulting in something that resembles a large, thick potato pancake or a Swiss rosti. It is served as both a starter and a main course, often sliced in wedges or rectangles for serving.

How is frico made?

The potatoes used to make frico can take a number of shapes; some recipes specify to grate raw potatoes, while others thinly slice them or dice them up before smashing them when they are cooked through. The shape doesn't seem to matter as much as the fact that a lot of cheese is incorporated into the potatoes. 

Begin by browning some sliced onions in olive oil in a pan. Then, add equal parts of grated potato and Montasio cheese and cook everything together for about 15 minutes. Add another generous amount of oil to the pan while the heat is cranked up so that the bottom of the frico gets browned but not burnt. Then flip and brown it on the other side before serving.

The result should be something that is pleasantly crispy on the outside but soft and incredibly cheesy on the inside — a complete dream of textures. Montasio is a mild, semi-soft cheese with a taste reminiscent of Parmesan. Admittedly, it can be difficult to find in the United States, so some suitable substitutions could include Gouda, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Swiss cheese. A perfectly crispy frico sounds like a perfect meal all on its own, perhaps with a green salad on the side for good measure.

Don't confuse it with the other frico

This Friulian frico shouldn't be confused with another Italian creation that goes by the exact same name. The additional frico is even simpler than the aforementioned one; in fact, it is made with a single ingredient: Cheese. Montasio cheese is grated and placed in circle shapes on a non-stick Silpat or parchment paper and baked in the oven until you are left with flattened, crispy discs of cheese. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this frico, which looks like an oversized potato chip but is actually a big, crunchy sheet of nutty cheese, but just know it's not necessarily suitable for a meal (although some would argue this point, no doubt).

For this type of frico, Asiago or any dry cheese would work, but something like Swiss that has a lot of moisture in it would not properly crisp up and give you that desired crunchy texture. This crisp frico is great as a snack, a salad topping, a crunchy component to top soups, or even served in a stack on a charcuterie board. When it comes to crispy cheese, is there ever really a bad place to put it?