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Cuisine of Trieste

What does gnochi de susini, a sweet and sour tasting first course, have in common with scampi in busera, fragrant as the sea and dressed with tomato and some herbs? What does an unusual soup like jota with sourkraut and pork have in common with the extremely simple but very Mediterranean pasta dish known as bigoli co le sarde salade? The answer is that all these dishes are typical of Trieste cuisine. They are an integral part of the tradition; some are still popular while others have been virtually forgotten. Their dissonant, yet appetising flavours constitute another example of the different origins, customs and traditions brought by those who have lived in Trieste.

The simple ingredients of less elaborate, more traditional dishes reveal the difficulties and hardships of life suffered by the peasants who used to live on the Carso, a fascinating plateau where the land is difficult to cultivate.

This tradition is matched by the agricultural and sea-related traditions of Istria and by more bourgeois traditions from Mitteleuropa where varieties from specific countries (Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary...), or those from different religions (especially Jewish) can be found.

All these different root can be found in delicious desserts and pudding, such as the strucolo from Austria, the presnits and putiza from the Carso and the crostoli and fave from Veneto. There are influences from nearby Slav countries, Greece, Turkey, not to mention the exchanges witnessed over the years with other parts of Italy.

Lashings of prestige were given by the chefs working on board the glorious Lloyd Triestino and Austroamericana ships. Thanks to them, these traditional dishes have been served to and appreciated by passengers from all over the world.

Dining in Trieste

It may well be the least industrialised city of the Triveneto region and that with the highest average age in the country; it may also be a city whose mottos are 'no can do', 'leave well enough alone' and 'if it ain't broke why fix it''. It may be - as an erstwhile local newspaper editor put it 'the Naples of the North, minus the creativity of the Neopolitans'. In short, the city may well have many shortcomings. However, this does not necessarily mean that the fiercely conservative city of Trieste does not know how to appreciate fine cuisine and the good life.

Historically, Trieste has always been a melting pot of cultures and traditions, stretched out as it is between the sea and the Carso, only several kilometres from the border with Slovenia. The cuisine here has its own unique flavours and characteristics. The cafés and restaurants of central Trieste and the upland plains (the hilly area which lies behind the city) offer typically Central European dishes a fusion of local cuisine and that of Hungary, Austria and the Slavic countries.

The people of Trieste are crazy about their food. Take away their factories, nightclubs, football team or amusement park but don't take away their food. Sunday lunches with friends and dinners at the local trattoria (always at reasonable prices) are worth more to them than anything else. In recent years, hordes of tourists have also found this to be true, with a little help from the marketing strategies of the mayor Riccardo Illy (also a successful coffee merchant, capable of selling sackfuls of Arabic coffee all over the world, from the Maldives to Bahrain).

Trieste is not really the sort of place you would happen to pass through due to its location in the northernmost corner of Italy. However, there are hundreds of good reasons to come to Trieste, not least for its cuisine. Prepare yourself then, for a brief guided tour of some of the best eateries in the city.

If you should find yourself on or around the Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia (the largest seaside square in Europe), pop in to Pepi for a snack. This seemingly unassuming little café has even enjoyed a mention in the New York Times. Here, at any time of day or night, you can try boiled pork, toasted ham sandwiches, sausages with sauerkraut and horseradish and paprika sauces. These can be washed down with either beer or Terrano - a full-flavoured red wine from the Carso region which even has a street named after it. Prices here are relatively low.

Alternatively, you could try Tommaseo or Specchi - two of Triestes oldest cafés. These both have elegant lounge areas and warm, friendly atmospheres. A word of warning: if you order a capuccino in these parts, you will get what is known in the rest of Italy as as caffè macchiato caldo, served in a small cup with frothy milk.

If however, you would prefer to combine elegance with tradition and modernity with delicious flavours, you should try the Subantrattoria which offers gastronomic delights for carnivores. Even Pope John Paul II has dined here! In an impeccably elegant setting, you will be able to choose from an excellent selection of both international and local dishes including Jota, a hearty bacon rind soup, goulash, tripe, veal stew, bread gnocchi or gnocchi stuffed with jam or prunes, ham and an excellent selection of desserts.

Seafood is a must in a place like Trieste. There are dozens of seafood restaurants here and they are all of the highest quality so you will be spoilt for choice. However, you should definitely visit either the Faro (a trattoria offering magnificent panoramic views of the gulf, set at the feet of the imposing Faro della Vittoria and only a five minute drive from the city centre) or the Nuovo Antico Pavone - an elegant restaurant on the coast.

Trieste is a small place, and it is possible to traverse it within half an hour (either on foot or by bus). As you walk across it, you will pass a large number of excellent cafés and restaurants. There are several which are not to be missed, including Stalletta for its cold starters, meat and hotplate dishes and Dardo Rosso for its delicious Steak Tartar - both of these are in the densely-populated working class district of San Giacomo, near San Giusto Castle. Another good place is Stanlio e Ollio - a candle-lit restaurant offering up imaginative cuisine on the Viale XX Settembre, a fifteen minute walk from the Piazza dell'Unità.

Still in the city centre, you should try and pay a visit to San Marco - the large literary café (in Via Battista, parallel to Viale XX Settembre) which was frequented by the writer Claudio Magris and by both Svevo and Saba before him as well as to Pirona - a small pastry shop on Largo Barriera Vecchia. It is one of the oldest of its kind in Italy and was visted for breakfast by James Joyce every morning between 1910 and 1914. Today it sells a wonderful selection of cream pastries and other delightful Central European sweets such as presnitz (a pastry made from nuts and dried fruit, in the shape of Christs crown of thorns), putizza (puff pastry) with honey, fave (almond balls with rose oil and cocoa), crostoli, fritole and fritters with pine kernels which are typically made for the carnival.

We can now turn inland towards the upland plains of the Carso, only a fifteen minute drive from the city. It is here that the majority of Italys Slovenian community lives. Besides being able to enjoy magnificent views and go on memorable walks, you will be able to visit family-run farm shops and osmizze, where farmers can (in accordance what was originally an Imperial decree) sell their own produce usually in spring and summer.

In many of the small villages around Trieste such as Monrupino, San Dorligo, Basovizza and the charming Muggia (which stands suspended between land and sea in the east of the province), you will be able to try cheeses such as Tabor, home made salami, gnocchi and various meats as well as a selection of regional wines such as Malvasia, Vitovska Garganja and Terrano.

In conclusion, a word of warning: The people of Trieste (escpecially those in the Carso region) are not particularly hospitable and tend to go to great lengths to avoid having to make conversation perhaps through laziness, or perhaps through force of habit. You have to accept them as they are: slightly mad, rather surly, occasionally good-natured and often anchored to the past, with a penchant for day-dreaming. However, if you get to know them (and Trieste), you will not be able to help but fall in love with this marvellous city which the journalist Julian Evans once described in Condè Nast Traveller as the true capital of the Adriatic in no way inferior to Venice. Bon appetit!

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This page compliments of Marisa Ciceran

Created: Tuesday, December 11, 2001; Last Updated: Sunday, October 14, 2012
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