Trieste food taught me a history lesson about this intriguing seaport in northeast Italy. From sour cabbage to rich, deep chocolate, James Joyce to the Iron Curtain, here’s a guide on what to eat in Trieste.
Trieste Cuisine: A Walk Through History Through Italy's Food
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.
This is not "typical" Italian food as you'd know it: it's Trieste food.
The Trieste Food You Need to Know
Jota has memories of Slovenia written all over it and dates back more than 500 years. Originally a 'leftover dish', Jota is prepared using leftover pork, cabbage and a few beans. Better than it sounds, the trick is to prepare it a day in advance and allow the flavours to soak in to each other.
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Risi e Bisi
This is a traditional dish prepared mostly during spring. Risi e Bisi is originally from Veneto and it is made of rice and peas. It is very easy to prepare and mostly it is served during lunchtimes.
The La Calandraca is a dish that was originally prepared by fishermen to provide long-lasting sustenance during lengthy fishing trips. It’s a simple stew prepared using salted meats and potatoes.
You’ll find it wearing a number of different hats: Calandraca co'l vin (a glass of white wine is included in the recipe), Calandraca al bianco (cooked without tomatoes), and Calandraca (has a tomato based sauce).
This is a common side dish in Trieste, prepared to accompany various dishes in Triestine restaurants. Chifeletti is made from eggs, butter, flour and mashed potatoes which are mixed to make a soft dough.
The dough-like mixture is left to stand and then fashioned into crescent shapes and deep fried.
Legends link the crescent-like shape back to the 1600s when the Turks invaded.
Throw in enough sugar and Chifeletti makes a tasty dessert as well.
The name may sound sexy but the translation means fried pilchards, typically caught straight from the Riviera Barcola. Chefs prefer to use the biggest they can find and Triestines enjoy them with a bowl of radicchio and a glass of chilled white wine.
The waiter is still waiting...
"The mixed platone is good," he says and I acquiesce. Half an hour later, I want to applaud.
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The History of Trieste Cuisine
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 still reflects that that.
Trieste's culinary culture unfolds in down-to-earth taverns across the city. Most restaurants are family owned and designed to provide an intimate atmosphere during meals. It is customary to stand at the bar for lunch – and to enjoy yourself :)
Vienna's Influence on Trieste's Food
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. It's important to conduct thorough investigations when hot coffee and chocolate are concerned.)
It's said that James Joyce conceived his masterpiece Ulysses 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.
Typical Italian Food
Pizza and pasta at the Fratelli la Bufala: part of a network of restaurants dedicated to buffalo mozarella, contemporary art and wine.
Trieste is still modern Italy, when all's said and done.
Have you been to Trieste? Is it somewhere you'd like to go?
This post does form part of #ironroute, a journey from Istanbul to Berlin by train with InterRail.