The Adriatic doesn’t exactly have the best reputation when it comes to Italian fare. “It’s not real Italian,” many of my Roman friends say of the north.
While Southern Italians claim the freshest fish – and the most piquant spices – and inland Milan can at least claim the buttery risotto as its “regional dish”, coastal cuisine on the Adriatic has little to call its own. But real Italian or not, Trieste has a strong culinary culture.
Mixing traditions from Northern Italy, the former Austria-Hungary, and the Balkans, Triestine cuisine is an exercise in crossroads invention: buffets that stand between apertivo offers and Mitteleuropean counters offer salt cod and fresh anchovies alike, sliced meat and boiled pork in the Germanic style, paprika-ed goulash and horseradish-infused cheese on thick rye bread. For dessert – try strudel (or the omnipresent Italian gelato: equally authentic, equally good).
Elsewhere in Italy, coffee is downed at a counter-top in an espresso cup, but the Triestine like to linger over their caffé: the city’s intricately decorated, wood-paneled coffeehouses have more in common with the Hapsburgian institutions of Vienna and Budapest than the frenetic counters of Rome. Of these, the one with the most literary pedigree is the century-old Caffé San Marco, a ten-minute walk from the sea, whose literary regulars included James Joyce, Italo Svevo, and Umberto Sava. “There are still reservation signs there for local professors,” says one admiring local.
No less splendid is the waterfront Caffè Tommaseo, which dates back to 1830, with its molded archways and carved angels overlooking diners. Less well-known, tucked away in the shadow of the art nouveau Borsa (Exchange), is Bar Torinese: its wood-paneled walls designed by the architect Debelli: who otherwise specialized in luxury transatlantic oceanliners like il Vulcana. But for setting, Trieste’s grande dame of the caffé world is Caffé degli Specchi, in the heart of Piazza dell’Unita, which looks out both over the square’s magnificent Austrian-style municipal buildings and the waves of the Adriatic beyond.
It may not be classically Italian. But it’s perfectly, distinctively, Triestine.
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