The Crossroads Cooking Of Trieste

Sandro Michahelles

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 illycaffe, 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 Unita 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 cafes, 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.

The cafe tradition in Trieste dates to the time of Maria Theresa, when Triestines began importing, roasting, and drinking coffee. They have never lost the habit, perhaps partly because illy—which is generally (and to my mind justly) considered the best espresso in Italy and therefore the world—is roasted here and only here. In their literary associations, the cafes rival those of Paris. James Joyce, who lived in Trieste for the better part of 14 years, finished Dubliners and started Ulysses in Trieste cafes. Rilke, Freud, and Italo Svevo also spent long hours at cafe tables.

The exquisite Pasticceria Caffe Pirona has a picture of a young James Joyce on one wall, looking tortured but natty in a straw boater and bow tie. It still sells Joyce's favorite confection, a horseshoe-shaped pastry called presnitz, full of walnuts, candied orange peel, and raisins. Caffe illy offers not only superb coffee and chic, minimalist decor by the London-based architect Claudio Silvestrin but also fine local wines and delicious small plates of food (pastas, ham smoked over cherrywood and sliced by hand, coffee-flavored bavarian cream). In the throbbing, more modern part of town stand a pair of local institutions. Tiled and spotless, Cremcaffe has a long chrome bar where up to 5,000 cups of coffee a day are served to clients standing two deep. In hot weather, people order tiny glasses of cold, unsweetened coffee, undiluted by ice cubes, with whipped cream on the side. Antico Caffe San Marco is the local showplace of art nouveau (called stile Liberty here); a richly paneled, L-shaped room with marble-topped tables, it is filled with chess players, newspaper readers, and weltschmerz.

For a taste of the past that won't provoke a lament for the present, Suban, a mainstay of Trieste restaurants since 1865, is the place to go. Suban serves delicious grilled meats and dessert crepes (palacinke) straight from Vienna. But the don't-miss-it dish there is a definitive version of the city's favorite soup: jota, a burly amalgam of sauerkraut, pancetta, potatoes, beans, and cumin seeds. A real bora buster, that.

Trattoria Da Giovanni is one of those restaurants someone has to tell you about; there's no sign outside, and it's not in the guidebooks. (My wife, Betsey, and I found it through Manhattan restaurateur Lidia Bastianich, who was born in Istria, spent some of her girlhood in Trieste, and visits the city often.) But it is a great lunchtime favorite, a plain, decor-deprived little room, jam-packed with men in suits and little old ladies and utility workmen in fluorescent coveralls. Regional wines are served from the barrels behind the bar, including an exceptionally fruity, tangy tocai vaguely reminiscent of ginger ale. The food, cooked in a broom closet kitchen by two motherly sisters, is notably light but full flavored—pasta with a graceful tomato and calamari sauce, spicy and tasting vividly of the sea; herby polpettone, or meat loaf, so loose textured that only the chef's willpower seemed to be holding it together; and a near-weightless frittata with beans, broccoli, and carrots. I theorized that it must be a lot like what a good Trieste home cook would prepare, and the businessman at the next table said I was right.

There is plenty of good fish in Trieste itself, notably at Al Bragozzo and at Al Bagatto, which produces a knockout fritto misto, completely greaseless, featuring minuscule shrimp and squid. But you would make a mistake if you didn't head for Trattoria Risorta, in Muggia, a little town with a Venetian-style campanile, across an inlet from the city itself. Triestines say that the fish on their side of the Adriatic tastes better than the fish on the Venice side because the sea bottom near Trieste is rocky rather than sandy. I'm ready to believe it after spending a long evening at this unpretentious trattoria, sampling Dante Bertoldini's pure-tasting sea bass (branzino) with chanterelles and his rich shellfish ragout, which includes plump, firm crustaceans called gamberi. Seven inches long, they resemble langoustines. In the summertime, if you sit on the terrace by the sea, you'll be checked out by a multitude of envious neighborhood cats. No matter what the season, you will bask in the warm attention and profit from the expertise of Signor Bertoldini, a tall transplanted Venetian.

At Savron, a small tavern near the hillside hamlet of Opicina, on the Slovenian border, the kitchen led us back to the days of empire. Michele Labbate, the dapper owner, whose dining-room walls are hung with decorative plates and hunting trophies, plied us with beer from Villach, in Austria, and a menu listing dishes like thinly sliced veal with caper sauce, which shared a plate with a similarly thin slice of roast pork with anchovy sauce (a little too salty); bread dumplings (semmelknoedel) with goulash; boar sausages; roast pheasant; and gnocchi stuffed with apricots and served with cinnamon and brown butter (a little too sweet). A zucchini-and-ricotta-stuffed strudel made for a light and savory first course at lunch. I couldn't help wondering what a Florentine or a Neapolitan (or an Italian-American) would make of it.

Another day, we visited Devetak, a trattoria (or gostilna, in Slovenian) 20 miles north of Trieste near Savogna, on a country road not far from Slovenia. We arrived in a somber mood, having just passed the immense World War I ossuary at Redipuglia, where 100,000 Italian soldiers, killed in months of now largely forgotten fighting along the Isonzo River, are buried. But the Devetaks cheered us immediately with wines from Agostino Devetak's amazingly diverse cellar and the inspired cooking of his wife, Gabriella Cottali.

It was hard to imagine a more heartfelt hospitality: the trattoria was being redecorated, so the Devetaks gave us dinner at their own table. Gabriella, dark-eyed and dimpled, brought out homemade bread and honest, rustic food with tongue-gnarling names and crystalline flavors—frico (fritters made with montasio cheese), zlicniki (goat cheese with olive oil and nuts), mlinci (oven-dried handmade pasta, sauced with butter, herbs, and wild fennel), what she called "our old Sunday dish" (a juicy, meltingly tender shoulder of veal), and, for dessert, struccoletti (walnut strudels). "It's just home cooking," said Cottali. "Maybe you won't like it." She needn't have worried.