Italian food. There was a time when I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, but I can barely remember that now. The moment my train slowed to a stop in Trieste (and, if I’m honest, quite a while before that) my daydreams wandered through memories, conjuring up a fresh ravioli here, a rich ragu there.
Pizza, pasta, lashings of homemade ice-cream…None of which particularly belong to Trieste.
When I sat down in the Buffet da Pepi, I stood out because I wasn’t standing. In Trieste, it’s customary to stand at the bar for lunch, as you wolf down platefuls of pork and mountains of mustard. You’re supposed to know which cut you want and how you want it served, leaving me feeling sheepish under the gaze of the busy waiter.
It’s wet and cold outside, and steamy, warm and loud in here. Groups of friends and colleagues lounge at the bar, while staff in white shirts race, dart and dive to haul hunks of meat from hot water ready to slice and serve with sauerkraut.
The waiter is still waiting…
“The mixed platone is good,” he says and I acquiesce. Half an hour later, I want to applaud.
The pork is sweet, salty and succulent, the sort to give rise to the phrase melt-in-your-mouth. The sauerkraut brings a refreshing sour balance and, after scraping off most of the mustard, I find the perfect balance.
Yet the pork at Buffet da Pepi comes with more than just great garnish. It comes with a personal history that dates back to 1897 and a regional history that stretches for centuries. Trieste lived under the Habsburg rule of Austro-Hungary until the end of the First World War – and much of the city reflects that.
Outside and around the corner lives a cafe that many describe as a vestige of a Viennese coffeehouse. Having since been to Vienna, Caffe Tommaseo in Trieste seems to me to be a more decadent, enjoyable version (but if anyone disagrees with my assessment I’m more than happy to return to both cities to conduct a more thorough investigation…)
It’s said that James Joyce conceived his masterpiece Ulysees while sipping cappuccino around Trieste and so in the spirit of literary improvement I drank coffee and ate chocolate cake on his behalf. Art is a sacrifice, as they say, and I was ready to surrender to my craft…
Caffe Tommaseo, although recently renovated, seduces through its history, its atmosphere and, yes, through its chocolate cake.
In addition to the gilt-edged antique till, the polished wooden floor, the whipped cream and the white walls, this legendary cafe also provides free, fast wifi. Heaven.
But in case I leave you with the false impression that Trieste is simply a patchwork of complicated history, great pork and good chocolate, it’s only fair that I point out the third and final dining establishment.
Pizza and pasta at the Fratelli la Bufala. Trieste is still modern Italy, when all’s said and done.