Armed with a mission to discover everything there is to know about Friulian cuisine, I arrived in Milano on a cold February evening to find myself without a hotel reservation. I typically stay at the inexpensive Hotel Speronari, just steps from Piazza del Duomo, but when I emailed them months earlier, their response had somehow gotten lost in cyberspace. So I then booked a room at Hotel Nuovo—upon arrival, however, I discovered that they had “lost” my reservation! Desperate, I asked them to call over to my trusted Hotel Speronari, who luckily had a room available for me, albeit a more expensive double.
The next morning, after a quick visit to Milan’s magnificent Gothic cathedral, I took the train to Trieste. There, I checked into Nuovo Albergo Centro, a bare-bones hotel in the center of the grid-like Borgo Teresiano district near the train station. I was paying for a private bath (now that I was in my 30s, I felt I at least deserved that luxury), but although the bath was private, it was inconveniently located outside my room and down the hall.
After settling into my room, I took a walk to get my bearings. My previous visit to Trieste (also in February, several years prior) was a quick day-trip, and because of the pouring rain, I hadn’t explored as much as I would have liked. This time, I was pleased that the Serbian orthodox church San Spiridione was open, the inside a brilliant burst of blue, gold, and silver. I passed the vast, waterfront Piazza dell’Unita d’Italia, bordered on three sides by elegant Austrian-style government buildings.
Shortly, I happened upon a bakery called Pasticceria Penso. I had read in my guidebook that it was one of Trieste’s oldest, and so I went in to inquire about the recipes for three of Trieste’s traditional pastries: putizza, presnitz, and pinza. Working the counter was a sweet, older lady named Silvana. She had once visited San Francisco (my hometown) and seemed excited that someone was conducting research on their desserts. But the store soon became quite busy, and Silvana asked that I return another day so that she could give me the recipes I had requested. I left with three slices of pastry in tow: apple strudel, ricotta strudel, and sachertorte.
After browsing through a nearby bookstore—and beginning my Friulian cookbook collection with four new cookbooks—I stopped in for an early dinner at Buffet Da Pepi. In Trieste, a buffet isn’t at all what we Americans call a buffet (i.e. an all-you-can-eat Las Vegas meal); rather it began as an old-world-style fast-food counter where merchants and shopkeepers could grab a quick midmorning snack. Today, buffets usually provide a few tables for a sit-down meal, typically remain open all day, and close before the late Italian dinner hour. Established in 1897, Buffet Da Pepi is said to be the oldest still in existence—and it seems to be the most popular as well.
While many of Trieste’s buffets offer a variety of local dishes, including jota (bean and sauerkraut soup), goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew), gnocchi di pane (bread dumplings), and baccalà in bianco (salt cod purée), Da Pepi specializes in pork. My favorite thing to order is the piatto misto, a pig-shaped platter of assorted types of pork, such as ham, bacon, sausage, and tongue, accompanied by sauerkraut, mustard, and freshly grated cren (horseradish).