In Italian gastronomy, as in Italian art, a few miles make all the difference. Trieste is only about an hour's drive east of Venice. But it is six miles from the Slovenian border and was once a place where Europe's three great civilizations—Latin, Germanic, and Slavic—intersected. Stroll up the corso Italia into the modern business center, and you'll hear people switching from Slovenian to Italian to German and back. Likewise, menus list goulash and crauti (sauerkraut) along with pasta and the same sweet, fresh fish that constitute the mainstay of the Venetian diet.
Roman in ancient times, the city belonged to Austria and then Austria-Hungary for more than 500 years. It was the Austro-Hungarian empress Maria Theresa who made Trieste the chief port of a domain that, by the middle of the 19th century, stretched from the Balkans north to Poland, from Romania in the east to northern Italy in the west. Coffee, black pepper, nutmeg, saffron, dates, and other exotica from Africa and Asia flowed across Trieste's quays, along with outbound goods like Central European paprika and caraway—and all these were taken up by local cooks. Strudels, baked but also boiled like pasta, entered the city's repertoire, as did gnocchi, most often stuffed with fruit and eaten as dessert. Italian food became an unmistakable element in the city's culinary mix, even though Italy did not take possession of Trieste (and the Istrian peninsula below it) until just after World War I.
Then, in 1946, Winston Churchill broadcast to the world the fate that had befallen Trieste: in an electrifying speech at Westminster College in Missouri, he said that an iron curtain had descended across Europe "from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic". Eight years later, Communist Yugoslavia relinquished its claims to Trieste in exchange for retaining most of Istria. Nevertheless, the cold war slowly cast the grand old city into the penumbra of obscurity. Once so cosmopolitan and influential, Trieste found itself at the far edge of the Western world, on a highway to nowhere.
While Venice and Florence and Rome were overrun by visitors, few foreigners ventured to Trieste. Those who did sensed a pall of melancholy shrouding the city—as much a part of its atmosphere as the bora, the fierce wind that periodically rakes its streets. Young people fled, and Trieste, like cold-war Berlin, became a town of old people living their lives in limbo.
When at last the cold war ended, Trieste again became a vital link between eastern Europe and western Europe, and fate eventually furnished a new leader in the person of Riccardo Illy—whose grandfather founded illycaffè, the famous coffee company, there in 1933. As mayor, Illy cleaned the handsome Hapsburg buildings in the city center, opened them to public use for concerts and meetings, and created pedestrian precincts to revive street life. Along the way, he helped convince the people of Trieste that they had, in the words of his proud father, Ernesto, "a future and not just a past".
Today, now that the vast empire once served by Trieste's bustling port has gone, the city makes its living more from science than from shipping, with a major university and a series of research institutes scattered around town, dealing in theoretical physics, neurology, genetic engineering, and space optics, among other things. Luckily—as is nearly always true—cultural traditions and landmarks have persisted long after the disappearance of the geopolitical circumstances that shaped them. Near the water are squares reminiscent of Prague's, as well as the Serbian Orthodox church of San Spiridione, whose soaring, powder blue dome would look right at home in Belgrade or St. Petersburg. The monumental piazza Unità d'Italia is wide open to the Adriatic, as if to symbolize not just Trieste's embrace of the sea but also its welcome to all comers—for the city's tolerance is proverbial: in addition to the Latins and Slavs and Germans who make up its core population, other peoples have arrived over the centuries from many parts of the globe, from Morocco and Egypt to Britain and France, to find both work and the freedom to live in peace. Today, nationalities are jumbled together in and around Trieste like boulders in a moraine. "But here," a Triestine of my acquaintance told me, "we have Bosnians and Serbs, Croats and Kosovars, and they don't slit each other's throats."
Such long-standing openmindedness has fostered a cuisine that reflects Trieste's vibrant past, and you'll taste it in kitchens both within the city and in the countryside nearby. Trieste itself has innumerable buffets, which are local institutions, often specializing in boiled meats, that bring together elements of the trattoria, the bar, and the charcuterie. Then there are the cafés, which can stand comparison, in their number, their decor, and the quality of their coffee, with those of Turin, Venice, and Vienna. And, of course, there are any number of restaurants serving food influenced by Venice, Slovenia, Austria, and Hungary.
Even at a tiny, working-class buffet like L'Approdo, near the piazza Goldoni, the variety of snacks is astonishing—salt cod and fritto misto from the steam table, a dozen hot and cold salads, and a half dozen meats sliced to order from the bone, including prosciutto di San Daniele from nearby Udine province, one of Italy's two great hams (the other is the prosciutto from Parma). The most famous of the buffets, Buffet da Pepi, serves boiled pork with strong horseradish ("cren" in the local lingo), hot sausages, and brovada, which are autumn turnips soaked for 30 days in wine lees, then shredded and cooked. Antico Buffet Benedetto, not far from the train station, specializes in panini, elegant open-faced sandwiches. Some of these have typically Italian toppings, like salami or cheese, but others bear the unmistakable stamp of Mitteleuropa, like herring or liptauer, the Hungarian blend of cheese and paprika. Many buffets serve German beer on draft.