The borders and rulers of Italy have always been fluid, at least until the twentieth century, and there are parts of the country that bear clear – and, for a food-lover, tasteable – signs of this. Sicily is a striking example, with its cultural strata of ancient Greek, Arab, Norman, Spanish and French dominance. Another is Trieste, on the Adriatic Sea in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region adjacent to Slovenia. For us as tourists, one difference is that Sicily’s travails took place in the relatively distant past, while the political status of Trieste and its region wasn’t entirely settled until well after the Second World War, following millennia of Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Austro-Hungarian rule. Politics apart, the city has long prided itself on being a diverse place where people of many origins and religions live together pretty much without the frictions that have been seen elsewhere.
Our planning began, as it often does, with a search on the OperaBase website for performances at the early-nineteenth-century Teatro Verdi in Trieste and at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, a two-hour train ride away. We found one of each within a couple of days of each other: a production of Carmen in Venice and, in Trieste, a little show we’d never seen: Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s 1901 Il segreto di Susanna, a one-act comedy whose plot hinges on a young wife trying to hide her cigarette-smoking from her husband. It lasts only an hour, but that still counts as a charming new opera and a gorgeous new theater for us. (The performance was excellent, part of an interesting mini-season of one-act operas, with tickets at only €10 apiece.)
An even bigger reason to go to Trieste (apart from the city itself) was the food. How can you not be curious about a city whose restaurants serve sparkling fresh seafood in dishes that recall nearby Venice and that also has a tradition rooted in Central European cooking, with lots of pork, sauerkraut and horseradish, as well as variations on goulash, dumplings and much else? There is also a café culture with Austrian and Hungarian-accented pastries, such as strudel, Sacher torte and the fruit and nut roll called a presnitz – and with its own coffee vocabulary, which has been usefully explained on the website SlowItaly.
It’s impossible to grasp a city’s food in three days, especially when there is also intensive tourism to fill the day, but we did our best to cover a few of Trieste’s diverse styles of cooking: Venetian, Central European and modern (though not high-tech Modernist). We arrived in the evening, a little frayed from our journey by air from London then by train from Venice, so we started by having dinner in our hotel, the Savoia Excelsior Palace, a handsome, grand structure built in 1911 to the tastes of the Austrian Emperor, with broad views over the Gulf of Trieste. The ornate sea-facing façade is as it was, and some interior spaces, such as the ample and relaxing bar, retain elaborate plasterwork and gilding from before World War I, all beautifully spruced up. Other areas, along with the guest rooms, have been modernized in a sleek, clean way without trendy gimmicks; we liked the peaceful “library” lounge, sky-lit during the day and atmospherically dark at night. Trieste is not a huge city – we walked everywhere – but it was nice to be in such a central location, a minute’s amble from the vast main square, the Piazza Unità d’Italia.
The hotel’s Savoy restaurant only sometimes serves what a Triestine grandmother might prepare for her family. Some of the cooking is more innovative than that, but the menu includes versions of many traditional local dishes, and even the more creative recipes have firm Adriatic foundations. We were happy to let the chef, Andrea Stoppari, put together a short sequence of his favorites. These included a terrific risotto with little matchsticks of squid – uncannily full of flavor and texture – and small long-stemmed artichokes. For a New Yorker, who will have to wait until the height of summer for such things to appear in the farmers’ market, seeing mountains of artichokes in the local shops induced moderate envy. In these parts, whipped-up reconstituted dried cod (baccalà mantecato) is traditionally served with polenta; Mr. Stoppari substituted lemony mashed potatoes. Was it better that way? Perhaps not, but the potatoes were a wholly successful alternative. The entire meal was delicious and was gracefully served in a tranquil though underpopulated dining room with picture windows looking out onto the sea (not that we could see it at night: the view was better at breakfast time). While offering some wines from beyond the region, the well-organized wine focuses on regional producers, well known and less so.
Along with pastries (do not fail to taste the ones at Viezzoli), one of the more notable Middle European contributions to Trieste’s dining customs is the buffet. Here, a buffet is not a help-yourself steam table, but a place where meats – mainly pork, mostly cured and often smoked – are served with freshly grated horseradish, mustard, a side of sauerkraut and a dish of boiled potatoes crushed and pan-fried with bacon and onions: patate in tecia. A few years ago, a friend of mine wrote about the best-known of the Triestine buffets – Buffet da Pepi – and his story says it all. At least on your first visit, order a mixed platter of meats from the caldaia (literally cauldron); we were three at the table, and a portion for two was ample, so do the arithmetic and order accordingly. There are only a few wines that they immediately admit to, but if you tell the waiter that you have something more interesting in mind he will probably suggest some delightful wines made in the region, such as the white vitovska (an indigenous grape) produced by Sturman. Or you can drink beer, like many of the regulars (who are legion).
On our final evening we walked ten minutes to Osteria l’Istriano, which had been recommended as a friendly, no-fuss neighborhood fish restaurant, which is exactly what it was: there were surely some non-Triestines there, but we were the only non-Italians. We ordered what pretty much everybody else did: a mixed plate of warm and cold seafood antipasti, followed by one portion of grilled seafood (sweet monkfish, shrimps and tiny cuttlefish) and one of fried (the breaded fish were sadly overcooked, but the more lightly fried shrimp and calamari were perfect, as was everything in the mixed grill). This might not have been the most interesting seafood option in town, but it provided a good slice of local life.
There was a lot we missed, and in visiting Trieste we barely got a taste of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and its food and wine. We’ll have to find ourselves another opera at the Teatro Verdi and spend some more time in the area.
Savoia Excelsior Palace. Riva del Mandracchio 4, Trieste; +39 040 77941; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.starhotels.com/en/our-hotels/savoia-excelsior-palace-trieste/. Especially compared with nearby Venice, lodging in Trieste is a bargain: You can get a double in this grand hotel for as little as $145 a night, depending on date and availability (breakfast is included).
Teatro Verdi. http://www.teatroverdi-trieste.com/en/ for schedule and tickets.
Buffet da Pepi. Via Cassa di Risparmio 3, Trieste; +39 040 366858; http://www.buffetdapepi.it/index-en.php. Open Monday to Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Less than €15 a head not including drinks.
Osteria l’Istriano. Riva Grumula 6; +39 040 306664; email@example.com; http://www.osteriaistriano.com/. Open Tuesday to Sunday, lunch and dinner (Sunday for lunch only). About €25 a head including house wine.
Caffetteria Viezzoli. Via della Cassa di Risparmio 7, Trieste; +39 040 36862. Open 7:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (Sunday 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.)
Trieste Tourist Office. The information center is at Via dell'Orologio 1, right off the main Piazza Unità d’Italia. They can hook you up with a guide (the woman who showed us around couldn’t have been more knowledgeable) and provide you with maps, including thematic ones (The Trieste of James Joyce, for instance). http://www.turismofvg.it/Information-about/Tourist-offices/Trieste-Tourist-office,