“Fusion cuisine”—by which various elements of various Eastern and Western food cultures are combined in both artful and wacky ways—may seem a contemporary, if passé, culinary buzzword. But nowhere does the term make more sense than in the beautiful port city of Trieste and its surrounding region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in northeastern Italy, where you may just as easily hear dialects of German and Slovenian as Italian.
For 600 years this deep-water port belonged to the Hapsburg Monarchy, which lost control during World War I, then was claimed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire until after World War II, and today it is a free state, with 200,000 residents, who are happiest being called Triestians, who speak a cadenced Venetian Italian inflected with German and Slovenian words.
The city is impeccably clean and tidy, surrounded to the north by green hills that lap over into Slovenia, where the towns have names like Lokev, Sežana and Pliskjovica. By the same token the broad streets and the architecture of the main square could easily be mistaken for similar buildings in eastern Europe, like Warsaw, Vienna, or Belgrade—whose architecture was itself influenced by Italian neo-classic and Baroque styles. There is an ancient Roman stone arch and also the San Giusto Cathedral, built on 5th century Roman foundations, with its Byzantine mosaics. Ringing the Piazza dell’Unità on three sides are façades built under the reign of the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780), who granted the people a good degree of autonomous rule.
Trieste is still a lovely old fishing port, sometimes called the “Austrian Riviera,” and, at the end of the 19th century, it shared with Vienna a high reputation for art and literature, drawing Sigmund Freud and James Joyce by its quiet, dignified character. Indeed, Joyce has a statue on waterside, striding and, being terribly nearsighted, looking like he’s trying not to fall in. He had come to the city in 1904 with Nora Barnacle (whom he married in 1931), and spent several years there, finishing his short story collection Dubliners and beginning work on his masterpiece, Ulysses. His favorite hang-out was the Caffé Pirona, a pastry shop in the old quarter since 1863, taking its present name in 1902. It is now owned by the Di Marchi family, serving the same traditional sweets like the fruit-studded preznitz and coffee mit schlag (whipped cream).
There is a very strong coffee culture in Trieste and there seems to be a café or two on every street, usually with tables and chairs outside. In this regard, too, the fusion of one culture with another is imbedded in the history of the region. Coffee culture began in the Muslim Middle East and was once even considered subversive by the Vatican. It was only natural that nearby Venice would pioneer the idea of the coffee house by the 17th century (the first coffee house opened there in 1654), soon adopted in France and England, but they didn’t make much headway in Austria until 1683, after which Vienna became famous for its cafés. The Italians invented espresso, but it was a Hungarian named Francesco Illy who invented the first automatic espresso machine in 1935—in Trieste, where the Illy headquarters is still located.
Caffè San Marco is more than a century old, with its décor of copper leaves and tiles in German Art Nouveau called Jugendstil (“young style) from the fin de siècle.
Al Bagotto has been set near the sea for more than 60 years, and it has become a must for wine lovers, who will find wooden wineboxes set on the tables of this small, comfortable trattoria, run by the Leonardi family since 2018, with young chef Nada Jovic and wine specialist Marko Kutniak, who may point you to a wine from the Carso region, like Zidarich Vitovksa. When I first visited some years ago I recall the original owner, Giovanni Marussi, pointing to his fish tank and recommending the best that came from the market that morning. Today the menu is more global, with specialties like glazed lobster with celery cream, crunchy pasta and wasabi caviar ; red prawn crudi with chickpea cream, sweet-and-sour daikon and mushroom shiitake’s; followed by tagliolini pasta with raw scampi on guancialebacon and a carbonara and egg sauce (€22) and risotto acquarella of cuttlefish ink and dumplings with a purée and sprouts; then come second courses like salt cod with green cabbage, lard and smoked pecorino; finishing with a Viennese Sacher torte with smoked chocolate biscuit .
Kapuziner Keller is a big happy beer hall of a kind you’ll find anywhere in Austria or Bavaria, with long communal tables and lots of German and Italian pennants. It draws a young crowd that comes for the various beers on tap and for the mix of Austrian and Italian food cooked on a lava grill and served on the bare wooden tables. Indeed, the menu in this unassuming, very gregarious beerhall sums up what is so revelatory of Trieste’s gastronomy and history: Kapuziner’s menu lists everything in both German and Italian—a platter of wursts is subtitled affettati misti bavaressi (“mixed Bavarian sausages”), while Röstbraten in Balsamik-esseg und Parmesan mit Tofkartoffeln is copied as tagliata di manzo all’aceto balsamico e parmigiano con patate saltate. Those Speck-inflected dumplings with the gulasch are called Knödel in German and canederli in Italian on the menu. Then there’s the double listing for Wiener schnitzel and costoletta alla milanese—a flattened veal chop with its bone still attached, lightly breaded, sauteed in butter until golden and very crisp but still juicy on the inside, served with sliced lemons—an icon of both Viennese and Milanese gastronomy.
Located up a winding hill street called the Via Comici, the wonderfully rustic, multi-room Antica Trattoria Suban dates back to 1865, and is still run by the family that gives the restaurant its name, now under paterfamilias Mario Suban, who loves nothing better than to show off his regional cuisine. You might easily mistake the décor of dark wood and pretty folk motifs for a chalet in the Tyrol, yet there seems an equal number of Audis and Alfa-Romeos parked outside, since its cooking draws people from all over the region and across several borders.
I began with a carpaccio of beef marinated in the local olive oil and served with a celery salad, then had a trio of dishes that were an amalgam of Italian pastas and eastern European dumplings—potato gnocchi with tender beets and melted French Brie cheese; faggottini (“little bundles”) of potato with spinach, sausages and veal; and
palacinke alla mandriera—a Hungarian crêpe perfumed with a quite minty local basil. With this I drank a delightfully fresh, young Riesling Renano; then came a fillet of pork with arugula and a mixed grill of beef and lamb, accompanied by a velvety Merlot. I finished with a semifreddo del Papa(pope’s dessert), a kind of frozen custard cake with raspberry and blueberry sauce, with which we sipped a slightly sweet and fairly rare Picolit from the Colli Orientali (“Oriental Hills”).
One of the liveliest restaurants and most popular among Friulians who want to eat very well is Lokanda Devetak, located near the Slovenian border and run by the Devetak Agostino family since 1870, now in the hands of Gabriella, Nerina and self-taught chef Michela, who is from Brescia and married into the family. The bread is made in the restaurant, the vegetables picked from the garden, and the olive oil is the finest from the region. More than 16,000 wines are cellared below the dining room. Upstairs looks very much like a private house prepared for a large family dinner, with fine linens and lace. You half expect someone to strike up a trill on a zither.
With exceptional grace Nerina and her staff minister to guests who find an extraordinary amalgam of dishes that seem to get more and more localized, from Slovenia, Austria and Italy to Friuli and Carso, which is the hill region wherein the restaurant is set. Begin with a selection of local salumi and prosciutto crudo, with a lemony Pinot Grigio from a vineyard named “Runc” as an aperitif, then have the snidjeno testa gnocchi with rabbit sauce or braised pork in red wine and laurel. Then a pretty tart of wild asparagus and freshly whipped mayonnaise, accompanied by a Sauvignon Blanc from a Carso winery named Boris Skerk. (I should add that many of the wines I sampled in the region were from young producers who were unknown even twenty years ago.)
Next came a juicy suckling pig with white polenta and a fondue of cheese accompanied by potatoes with pork cracklings—a dish one might readily expect to find on tables throughout eastern Europe—with a robust red wine from Isonzo called Vencjar by Giovanni Blason. Dessert was an old family recipe for a yeast cake (traditionally served at Eastertime) called La Gibanica, whose name derives from either of two linguistic possibilities—a Friulian dialect for the word “abundance,” because it is usually stuffed with raisins, cocoa, candied fruit and grappa, or Slavic for “snail,” because it is often shaped in a coil.
Specializing in seafood is L’Antica Ghiacceretta in the city center, where it is enchanting to dine al fresco. The menu changes with the seasons and what the sea brings in. Here you begin with pasta or a dish of Canaroli rice from Rustichella d’Abruzzo. Second course is fish and the third might be a light coconut ice cream or fruit tart.
Prices are approximate for a three-course dinner for two, without wine, but including service and tax.
Kapuziner Keller—1 Pozzo del Mare; 011-39-040-307997. $80.
Antica Trattoria Suban—2 Via Comici; 040-54368. $100.
Al Bagotto—2 Via F. Venezian; 040-301771. $120.
Lokanda Gostilna Devetak—48 San Michele del Carso; 0481-882005. www.devetak.com. $110.