It’s time to introduce my husband, Mike. Although we were not yet married at the time of this trip, we had been dating for about seven years. Mike had joined me in Udine the night before, and we were taking the train to Trieste first thing in the morning. As the train was pulling into the station, we noticed masses of cyclists racing along Viale Miramare. Apparently, the Giro d’Italia bike race was in progress.
We made our way to the nearby Hotel Italia where we had reservations, dropped off our bags, and went back out into the chaos. Many streets were blocked off to traffic, and crowds of onlookers filled the squares and sidewalks. Before long, we opted for an early lunch and ducked into one of my favorite spots, Buffet Da Pepi. Given how much Mike loves all things pork, I had been waiting several years to introduce him to their piatto misto, a pig-shaped platter of assorted types of pork—including ham, bacon, sausage, and tongue—served with sauerkraut, mustard, and freshly grated horseradish. We also split a bowl of liptauer cheese, which was served with slices of rye bread. As I later learned in Vienna, liptauer is typically mixed with a number of savory ingredients such as onion, anchovies, capers, mustard, pickles, parsley, chives, and caraway seeds, as well as paprika, which colors the dish a vivid pinkish orange. In Trieste, however, I always found liptauer to be white in color; at Buffet Da Pepi, the cheese was light and fluffy with a strangely bitter flavor.
After lunch, we crossed the vast Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia, which was jammed with parked cars and people milling about the various kiosks. Our next stop was Pasticceria Penso, where I had made friends with the Stoppar family on my last visit to Trieste. Antonello was working, and after a brief chat—it was nearly time for the bakery to close for the afternoon—we bought two pastries to share: a slice of dobostorte (Hungarian sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel) and a granatina (a triangle of chocolate mousse reminiscent of the Hungarian cake called rigojancsi). We ate our treats a couple blocks away at the Molo dei Bersaglieri while waiting for the boat to Castello di Miramare.
The ride took nearly an hour, but it was well worth it to approach the castle from the sea. Even though the sky was overcast, the whitewashed Miramare was an imposing sight, perched on its promontory overlooking the dark, churning waters. From the harbor of Grignano, it was a short walk uphill to the castle’s entrance. As soon as we arrived, it started raining—this was the second time it had rained on me there, and I would have to wait and get those elusive “blue sky” pictures another day.
We stayed only long enough to tour the castle’s lavish apartments. Miramare was home to Archduke Maximilian (brother of the Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph) and his young wife, Carlotta of Belgium—that is, until Maximilian was captured and executed in Mexico. From the outside, the castle’s stark white façade appears to be taken straight from the pages of a fairytale. Inside, the rooms are decorated with sumptuous furnishings, all dating back to the mid-19th century. There were Chinese- and Japanese-style drawing rooms, an enormous red and gold throne room, a library containing around seven thousand books, Maximilian’s study designed in the style of a ship’s cabin, and a music room where Carlotta often played the piano. We had planned on taking the bus back to Trieste, but after waiting for some time, we realized it wasn’t running, most likely due to the bike race. Fortunately, we were able to catch a return boat.
That evening for dinner, I was thrilled to finally have a dining companion, so we splurged on the elegant (and expensive!) Ristorante Al Bagatto. I started with the zuppa di pesce (fish soup), which was unusual—at least in my experience—in that the mussels, clams, and other shellfish had already been shelled. Mike ordered his all-time favorite pasta dish, spaghetti alla carbonara.
Next, even though it was not on the menu, I requested scampi alla busara. The menu did list spaghetti alla busara, but I was more interested in trying the seafood without the pasta, since it was on my lengthy list of recipes to try. The chef was happy to accommodate my wishes, and served a plate of langoustines alla busara—in a light sauce of tomatoes, garlic, and parsley. The shellfish were tricky to pick apart, not to mention super messy. Although they were extremely delicious, it was almost not worth the effort for the miniscule amount of meat inside.
While it was gratifying to cross off another dish from my list, I felt envious of Mike’s yummy-looking plate of fritto misto. Never before had I seen such teeny tiny creatures deep fried in my life! Fortunately for me, Mike has always been generous when it comes to food. Exquisitely crisp, those morsels of baby octopus and tiny fish crunched like popcorn and burst with the saltiness of the sea.
By the time we left the restaurant, rain was pouring down in sheets, and the wind was blowing the drops practically sideways. We were drenched by the time we reached our hotel. Nevertheless, I was overjoyed to finally be sharing Italy with the love of my life.