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obelisk at Villa OpicinaSetting out the next morning, on my way to Piazza Oberdan, I first stopped by Pasticceria Bomboniera, one of Trieste’s oldest bakeries, and bought a slice of apple strudel for my breakfast. While some bakers, including my friends at Pasticceria Penso, prepare strudel with puff pastry, Bomboniera uses the paper-thin dough that is traditional throughout Austria and Hungary.

My destination for the day was Villa Opicina, a town high in the hills above Trieste, marked by a striking obelisk erected in 1830 to honor Emperor Franz Josef. While Opicina is most directly accessible by the tranvia—a combination electric tram and funicular—I decided to take the scenic route on bus #42.

From the transportation hub of Piazza Oberdan, the ride took about 40 minutes, passing through a dozen villages of the Carso (the name given to the rocky plateau surrounding Trieste), including Monrupino, Borgo Grotta Gigante, and Prosecco. My mission, once I reached Opicina, was to find an osmizza, a farmhouse open to the public for wine tasting and the sale of artisinal products like cheese and salumi. These temporary roadside taverns are indicated by a frasca—a leafy cluster of branches hung above the door. The custom began in 1784 with an imperial decree that allowed peasants to sell their excess wine and produce in an unlicensed restaurant for eight days each year. Given the region’s proximity to Slovenia, the word osmizza is thus derived from the Slovene word osem, meaning “eight.”

Since I didn’t have any directions to follow, I set out walking along the road from Opicina to Monrupino, keeping my eyes peeled for a frasca. Before long, I had gotten myself lost amid a maze of streets in a quiet neighborhood just off the highway. Thirty minutes later, I came to the end of a stretch of homes on a deserted country lane, so I turned around and headed back. I did spot a couple of houses along the way that had a tiny bundle of decorative twigs on their gates, but those gates were locked, the yards were empty, and the twigs just didn’t look like what I was expecting. It was clear I would need some guidance going forward.

All around me, leaves were beginning to turn various shades of red, orange, and brown. The smell of burning firewood filled the air, and a chilly wind was blowing in from the north, as if to say, “Winter is coming.” I realized that, of my numerous trips to Italy to date, this was my first ever visit in autumn.

I eventually emerged back on the main highway, fortuitously close to Antica Trattoria Valeria—just in time for lunch. There, I ordered the tris della casa, a trio of three different pasta dishes: gnocchi di ricotta, spatzle al basilico, and rollata di spinaci. The gnocchi were served in a cheese sauce and the spatzli in a basil cream sauce. The rollata (also sometimes called rotolo or strucolo) was the most unique of the three, taking the form of an Austrian strudel. A spinach filling was rolled up jellyroll-style inside a large sheet of pasta; after being boiled, thick slices were served with a drizzle of meat broth. I also had a side of kipfel di patate (also called chifeleti): U-shaped pieces of fried potato dough. In contrast to my lunch the other day at Siora Rosa, these were fresh, though still rather heavy and doughy.

Trieste seen from Villa OpicinaAfter lunch, I walked back to the obelisk, which marked the beginning of Via Napoleonica (a.k.a. Strada Vicentina), a footpath stretching along the cliffs to the town of Prosecco. In the hills above the path lay the Bosco Bertoloni, a forest traversed by several more hiking trails. As I meandered along the shady lane, I passed only a few other people, each out for a peaceful afternoon stroll or jog. Whenever an opening appeared amid the lengthy row of cliffside trees, exposing the blue vastness of the sea, I paused to gaze out over the graceful city sprawl in the distance.

Trieste's Via NapoleonicaAfter I had been hiking for about 45 or 50 minutes, the dirt path gave way to a paved road, flanked by the sea on one side and a massive cliff rising dramatically skyward on the other. Several people perched precariously on the face of this gray-and-white karst rock, practicing their rock-climbing skills.

Although the morning had been clear and sunny, a few clouds had drifted in after lunch. Shortly after I reached Prosecco, the rain suddenly began pouring down. Luckily, I didn’t have long to wait for the return #42 bus. It was so crowded, however, that I wasn’t able to squeeze past the other passengers to punch my ticket. This ride was decidedly much less scenic than earlier, what with my being squished and jostled and unable to see anything out the rain-fogged windows. Back in Trieste, the bora winds had picked up, rendering my umbrella completely useless. Anxious to be somewhere warm and dry, I hurried home to Residence Liberty as quickly as I could.

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Trieste's Canal GrandeOn my third morning in Trieste, I got up early and headed straight for Pasticceria Penso, eager to spend more time in the bakery watching my friends Antonello and Lorenzo Stoppar bake and decorate the countless varieties of pastries for their shop. This time, however, the brothers were swamped preparing for the influx of tourists expected at the upcoming weekend’s Barcolana regatta. The guys didn’t have time to chat just then, so Antonello suggested that I come back in a couple of hours, when he hoped to have more free time to answer my culinary questions while they worked.

The weather being perfectly clear and my cold much improved, I decided to take a walk and explore a section of the city I had not yet seen: the area around Via Carducci and Via Cesare Battisti. Along the way, I had the misfortune of passing underneath a scaffold at precisely the wrong moment and getting a bucket of debris—perhaps sand or cement dust—dumped on my head. Brushing it off as best I could, I curtailed my walk so that I could return to my apartment and get cleaned up.

Shortly afterward, I returned to the bakery to find everyone working at just as frantic a pace as earlier. Antonello was obliged to postpone our visit once more. There were simply too many cakes to bake—and would be through the entire Barcolana weekend. With obvious chagrin, he invited me to come back on the following Tuesday, when he assured me things would be calmer.

I sat by the water’s edge for a bit, reassessing my plans for the day, until it was nearly lunchtime. I then decided to eat at Ristorante La Tecia, a casual osteria in the Borgo Teresiano district. Mike and I had eaten dinner there the previous year, and I remembered it being one of my favorite meals on that trip.

For lunch, I ordered cevapcici (grilled sausages), served in the traditional manner with diced onion and a roasted bell pepper sauce called ajvar (also spelled haivar). The menu listed the dish as being accompanied by French fries, but I asked if they might substitute patate in tecia instead—they were happy to oblige. A popular method of cooking vegetables in Trieste—and after which this restaurant was named—in tecia refers to the cast-iron skillet traditionally used. The potatoes were coarsely mashed, with savory bits of pork and onion throughout. To accompany my meal, I ordered a glass of red Terrano wine.

La Tecia soon became one of my favorite places to eat in Trieste. I always felt comfortable going there by myself, just like at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo in Udine. The lunch crowd at La Tecia seemed to consist of mainly white collar employees and other workers from nearby businesses. That particular day, there were two other women who were each also dining alone—I felt like I fit right in.

During lunch, it had unexpectedly started raining. As I didn’t have my umbrella with me, I scurried straight back to my apartment at Residence Liberty. While I was out, the maid had come in for her biweekly cleaning: the floors were swept, the bed made with fresh sheets, the kitchen stove and counters cleaned, and the trash taken out. I was excited that, in addition to giving me fresh towels for the bathroom, she also left me a dishtowel for the kitchen, as well as a new supply of toilet paper. (I had been wondering if it was my responsibility to buy my own toilet paper, just like I needed to buy dish soap, sponges, and napkins for the kitchen.)

As always, I had come prepared to wash my clothes by hand. I had brought a few clothespin hooks as well as a new travel clothesline that attached to the walls with suction cups. Since this was a residential apartment rather than a hotel, however, there were washers and dryers available downstairs off the lobby. I thought I would give them a try—it would sure save me a lot of hassle during my stay of more than three weeks. I had used a washing machine on two separate trips to Italy, when I was staying for an extended time in someone’s house, but this particular machine was not so user-friendly. There were no instructions—just a series of un-self-explanatory symbols—and no one was at the reception desk to ask. Even though I managed to come out with a clean, albeit excessively drippy, load, I decided to hang the clothes to dry in my spacious bathroom rather than spend more money on the dryer.

By this time, the rain was pouring down, and it seemed like a good idea to stay in for the rest of the afternoon. I would have many such days on this trip: not feeling any pressure to rush around sightseeing, but instead spending time working on my book Flavors of Friuli.

cevapciciHere is my recipe for cevapcici. As is customary throughout the Balkan countries of southeastern Europe, serve the sausages with ajvar sauce and finely chopped onion.

For the Cevapcici:
8 ounces ground beef
8 ounces ground pork
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Dash cayenne pepper

In a medium bowl, combine the ground beef, ground pork, onion, garlic, paprika, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Roll the mixture into sausages about 3 inches long and 3/4 inch in diameter.

Preheat grill (or heat a large skillet over medium-high heat). Place the sausages on the grill; cook until done, about 5–6 minutes, turning to brown each side.

For the Ajvar:
1 large red bell pepper
1 small eggplant
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
Dash cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 400°F. Place the bell pepper and eggplant on a baking sheet; bake until the eggplant is tender and the bell pepper skin begins to brown, about 30–40 minutes. When the bell pepper is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin, stem, and seeds. Slice open the eggplant and scoop out the flesh. Place the bell pepper and eggplant in a food processor, along with the olive oil, vinegar, sugar, and cayenne pepper; purée until smooth. Season to taste with salt.

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Risiera di San SabbaOn my second morning in Trieste, it was a relief to see the sun finally beginning to peek out from an otherwise cloud-covered sky. I still had the sniffles but was feeling a little more energetic after getting close to nine hours of sleep. Since I would be spending about three and a half weeks in Friuli–Venezia Giulia’s capital city, it was a welcome change not to feel pressured to spend every waking moment in a ceaseless cycle of sightseeing. My new leisurely approach left plenty of time to sleep in, to wander aimlessly, to relax and enjoy myself without feeling hurried. In advance, I had laid out a general plan for my stay, with no more than one destination each day and lots of open-ended time to hang out with my friends at Pasticceria Penso across the street.

I set out midmorning to catch a bus to the Risiera di San Sabba, located in the industrial outskirts just south of Trieste. This former rice-husking plant was taken over by the Nazis during World War II and served as a prison for hostages, political prisoners, and Jews, as well as a transit camp for deportees on their way to Auschwitz. When the Germans fitted the building with a giant gas oven, the Risiera became Italy’s only concentration camp to be used for mass exterminations. At least five thousand prisoners are believed to have been executed here between the 1943 German invasion and the liberation of Trieste in 1945.

Risiera di San SabbaIn 1965, the Risiera di San Sabba was declared a national monument. Inside the austere brick and concrete structure, visitors can view actual prison cells, the death chamber, and a permanent exhibit of photographs and documents. The crematorium was destroyed by the Nazis during their retreat, but some of its remains are still visible along one wall of the stark courtyard. Today, the space where the oven once stood is memorialized with a large steel pavement and serves as a chilling reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Feeling rather somber afterward, I slowly made my way to the bus stop and rode back into Trieste’s city center. There, I had lunch at one of the city’s traditional buffets, Siora Rosa. Not a buffet in the American “all-you-can-eat” sense, but more of an old-world fast-food counter providing quick bites for dockworkers and shopkeepers, this particular establishment had been in business since before WWII.

I ordered the parsuto in crosta, a traditional Triestine dish in which a leg of prosciutto is wrapped in a layer of dough and baked to form a crust. The thick, pink slices of ham were served with another local specialty, chifeleti di patate. These were prepared with potato dough similar to gnocchi, formed into U-shapes, and deep-fried. I was expecting them to have a nice, crispy outside and a soft interior, but these had been reheated in the microwave and came out dismally soggy and limp. To wash it all down, I ordered a glass of local, red Terrano wine.

After lunch, I stopped at a bakery on Via di Cavana and bought a mini version of each of Trieste’s three native desserts: presnitz, putizza, and pinza. While I had previously sampled these at Pasticceria Bomboniera—and would soon have a chance to try them again at Pasticceria Penso—I wanted to taste yet another bakery’s recipes for the sake of comparison. In addition, I bought a small bag of fave dei morti, the tiny pink, brown, and white almond cookies that were popular during the months of October and November.

Trieste's Municipio buildingI had plenty of questions for my baker friends, about these desserts and much more, so next I paid a visit to Pasticceria Penso. Brothers Antonello and Lorenzo Stoppar were both there, and as usual, they invited me into the kitchen to watch them work. I would have many such days in the coming weeks, perched on a stool with a front-row view, the life cycle of desserts passing before my eyes in a calm flurry.

When the shop closed at 1:00pm for the family’s afternoon break, I took a long walk through the winding streets around Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia and found both a bookshop and an Internet café still open. After checking my email—I had brought along my laptop for writing, but there was no available Internet service at Residence Liberty—I headed back to my apartment.

My thrown-together dinner was much the same as the previous evening: a salad of greens and tomato slices, bread, cheese, a scrambled egg, and leftover string beans and potatoes. I also sautéed some eggplant with onion and garlic.

Getting used to my new kitchen was requiring a great deal of adaptability and patience. When I first arrived, the fridge was not cold, so I had turned down the temperature—apparently much too low, for this morning all my food was frozen. The microwave was so tiny that the only dish that would fit was a small saucer, and even that needed to be tilted awkwardly sideways—not ideal for reheating food. And without the luxury of a drying rack or sufficient counter space on which to set my dishes, I had to dry each piece immediately after washing, using a hand towel from the bathroom—the same towel that was doing double duty as a potholder.

Even though I had become very accustomed to traveling alone, evenings on this trip would prove to be a rather lonely time of day for me. During dinner, and for several hours afterward, I would usually watch television, endeavoring to improve my Italian language skills. Sometimes my fiancé and I would talk briefly on the phone. Sometimes I would organize my notes and make plans for the next day. More often than I’d like to admit, however, I found myself turning to repeated, mindless games of Solitaire to pass the time until I was ready to hit the sack.

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Trieste statue On my first morning in Trieste, I woke up with a full-blown cold. The symptoms had crept up on me during my lengthy train ride from Budapest, and it was clear that I needed to spend this first day taking it easy.

Upon my late arrival the previous evening, I hadn’t had time to fully take in my new accommodations at Residence Liberty. In the morning light, I could see that the apartment was quite spacious—bigger, even, than my old studio apartment in San Francisco—with a separate narrow kitchen, a large bathroom off the foyer, and high ceilings in the main room. The living area was furnished with a couple of upholstered chairs, a small round table, an armoire, and a desk. The double bed occupied one corner and could be curtained off by floor-to-ceiling draperies, giving it the feel of a separate room. Blue-and-yellow floral curtains framed the windows that, from the eighth floor, overlooked a sea of terracotta-tiled rooftops. Though the windows rattled noisily in the strong bora winds, it was still mesmerizing to lie in bed that morning and watch the rain patter rhythmically against the glass.

I had been thrilled at the prospect of having my own kitchen for a change, but disappointment set in when I saw that there was no oven—just a stovetop burner atop the mini-fridge—and that the microwave was scarcely large enough to hold a saucer tilted sideways. Nevertheless, it was imperative that I stock the kitchen with essentials to last for my three-week stay.

When I could no longer postpone the inevitable, I pried myself out of bed, took a hot shower, and headed outside to the blustery streets. As luck would have it, I found a tiny supermercato on the next block, and there I bought staples like milk, juice, butter, eggs, bread, cheese, yogurt, and muesli, plus a few cans of fruit and fish. Since my kitchen was completely bare, I even had to buy salt, pepper, and olive oil, as well as supplies such as dish soap, sponges, and napkins.

The supermarket did not carry any fresh produce, so I dropped off my bags of groceries at the apartment and then headed to the Mercato Coperto on Via Carducci. This indoor market was filled with produce stands, and I picked up an assortment of bananas, apples, tomatoes, lettuce, eggplant, potatoes, string beans, onions, and garlic.

On my way back from the market, the handwritten menu outside a restaurant called Bagutta Triestino caught my eye. Their daily special was minestra di bobici—not only would this soup be perfect on such a rainy October day, but I could cross off another dish from my “to-try” list. This was my fourth trip to the region specifically for the purpose of researching its cuisine for Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy, and I had already tried most of the dishes that would eventually make it into my book. There were still a few, however, that remained elusive, mostly due to the seasonal nature of certain ingredients. Bobici was one of those that I had so far been unable to find.

Originally a specialty of the Istrian peninsula—and meaning “corn” in the Triestine dialect—bobici is a vegetable soup containing three key ingredients: corn, beans, and potatoes. Bagutta Triestino’s version was also loaded with carrots, onion, and fava beans. The steaming bowl was just what I needed for my stuffy head!

Later, after a much-needed nap, I set to work preparing my first meal in my new apartment. Because of my lengthy stay in Trieste, my game plan was to eat lunch out every day and then stay in and cook for dinner—a strategic means of saving both money and calories. The kitchen, however, was only marginally equipped for cooking. Since the only cutting board and skillet were too filthy and full of gashes to use, I resorted to slicing everything on a plate (with an extremely dull knife) and using the one medium-sized pot for cooking absolutely everything. This made the whole process more time-consuming than it should have been, having to cook each element in succession rather than simultaneously.

First, I boiled some potatoes, coarsely mashing them, skin on, with some butter, salt, and pepper. Then, in the same pot, I boiled the string beans and gave them a final sauté with some garlic and olive oil. Finally, I scrambled an egg—yes, in that same pot—which I served with the vegetables, an undressed salad of greens and tomato slices, a slice of bread, and some cheese.

Since the kitchen had no storage containers, and I hadn’t bought anything like plastic wrap or aluminum foil, I covered the bowls of leftover potatoes and string beans with plates before stashing them in the tiny fridge. Washing dishes was tricky, too, as there was no drying rack or dishtowel. I snagged the extra hand towel from my bathroom, but there was no place in the kitchen to hang it, except over the back of a chair. By the time my meal and chores were finished, I was beat and ready to collapse into bed and shut my eyes until morning.

Minestra di BobiciHere is my recipe for minestra di bobici. The sweet corn and salty pancetta provide lots of flavor, making this one of my all-time favorite soups.

4 ounces dried borlotti (cranberry) beans
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 ounces pancetta, chopped
6 cups water
1-1/2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 ears corn, or about 2 cups whole kernels
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1. In advance, place the beans in a small bowl and cover with water. Let soak for at least 12 hours, or overnight; drain.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and pancetta; cook and stir until the onion softens and the pancetta is brown and crisp, about 15 minutes. Add the beans and 6 cups water; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low; simmer, covered, for 2 hours.

3. Add the potatoes to the pot; return to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium; cook until the potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes.

4. Shave the corn kernels off the cobs using a sharp knife; rub the blunt edge of the knife over the cobs to extract their milky liquid. Add the corn kernels and the liquid to the pot, along with the black pepper; cook 10 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season to taste with salt.

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TriesteOn the morning of my departure from Budapest, I awoke extra early in order to catch my 8:35am train to Trieste. Despite hitting the morning rush on the subway ride to the station, I still managed to arrive with 40 minutes to spare. Since the agent did not make a seat assignment when I booked my ticket two days earlier, I had been concerned about finding a seat if the train were to be full. I needn’t have worried, though, as only one other person shared my compartment during the entire journey.

At breakfast in my hotel, I had swiped a few snacks for the trip: a slice of whole wheat bread, a bit of cheese, and an apple. I also had the sandwich and bananas that I had purchased the previous afternoon. It was going to be a really, really long day!

I settled into my window seat to watch the passing scenery. When we passed Lake Balaton, I thought at first that we had inexplicably reached the sea, for the expanse of blue was so vast that the distant horizon appeared nothing more than a blur of sky and water. The other passenger in my compartment was an older Italian gentleman who relentlessly persisted in his attempts to converse. Normally, I’d relish the chance to practice my Italian, but I was by now getting a sore, scratchy throat—the beginnings of a bad cold.

When the train pulled into the station at Zagreb, Croatia, the gentleman got off, and I would end up having the compartment all to myself for the duration of the trip. By midday, the sky turned gray and cloudy, and I tried to distract myself by reading one of the paperback novels I had packed. With each border we crossed, there was a lengthy wait as officials boarded the train and checked every passenger’s passport.

Despite the gloomy weather, I found the countryside in Slovenia to be quite lovely. The train ran alongside a river with quaint-looking houses on the opposite bank. Shortly, rain began to fall. When we stopped in Ljubljana, masses of people boarded the train, though I still remained alone in my compartment.

Finally, the train pulled into Monfalcone, Italy, where I was to make my connection to Trieste. We were running a half hour behind schedule, arriving just as my connecting train pulled into the opposite platform. Surrounded by a small crowd of people trying to make the same connection, I scrambled off the train, found the stairs to the sottopassaggio (underpass), and lugged my rolling duffel back up to the correct platform—only to watch the train pull away. We had all missed it by mere seconds! A quick check of the schedule revealed that there was, fortunately, another train to Trieste in just 10 minutes.

By the time I arrived in Trieste, it was 8:15pm. Since I had been to Trieste several times before, I knew exactly where I was going: the Residence Liberty, kitty-corner from my favorite bakery, Pasticceria Penso. It was a 20-minute walk from the station, but the rain had mostly tapered off into a light drizzle. As my sore throat was now progressing into a sneeze and runny nose, I was just happy to have finally arrived.

When I had emailed Residence Liberty the previous week to confirm my reservation, I had given them my anticipated arrival time and was assured that they would wait for me. It was thus without any qualms that I approached the apartment building and, seeing that the front door was locked, rang the bell for the reception desk. No one answered. I kept pressing the buzzer over and over, as the minutes ticked by. Still no answer. Just as I was starting to panic, the door opened. It was only a guest leaving, but he let me enter, announcing ominously that the reception had already closed. Now I truly began to panic! Sure, I felt relieved to be indoors out of the chilly night air, but I still wanted nothing more than to curl up in the comfort of what would be my bed for the next three weeks.

Steeling myself to spend my first night in the lobby, I began to look around for a place where I could at least sit down. The sound of my luggage wheels must have been startling, for just then a weary-looking older man appeared around the corner of the darkened reception desk. He looked at me as if to say, Who the hell are you? When I introduced myself, he informed me that the reception was closing in 15 minutes, at exactly 9:00pm. Apparently, he had not been privy to my previous email exchange.

Given that he actually was closing up for the night, I felt like I had dodged a bullet of monumental proportions. What if the next train had been 15 minutes later than it was? What if I had not been let into the building when no one was answering the doorbell? I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I waited for the elevator to carry me up to my apartment on the 8th floor.

As I was unpacking my essentials, I suddenly realized how hungry I was. I did have one banana left, but I wanted to save it for breakfast, since I wouldn’t be able to buy groceries until sometime the next morning. I took a quick trip out around 9:30pm, hoping to find something to eat. There was only one place open in the immediate neighborhood—a takeout pizza joint, where I got a slice with mushrooms and scarfed it down within minutes. I made it back to my apartment just as the rain began falling again, eager to crawl straight into bed.

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Dobos torteIt was my second and final day in Budapest. I had planned a self-guided walking tour of the eastern Pest side of the river, arranging my route not only to see some of the famous sights but also to hit as many bakeries as possible—not to sample sweets in all of them, necessarily, but to indulge in the visual fantasy of pastries and chocolate.

My morning consisted of a three-hour stroll past such landmarks as the Great Synagogue, Varosliget Park, the Széchenyi Baths, and the Budapest Zoo. I only managed to find one of the pastry shops along the way but resisted the temptation to order anything. I did locate Gundel, purportedly the city’s finest restaurant and where I was hoping to have lunch. One of my main reasons for visiting Budapest was to sample authentic Hungarian gulyás, and I had read that Gundel’s version was outstanding. However, as I stood perusing the menu posted outside, I was disappointed to find that the dish was not being served that day.

So I took the Metro’s yellow line—the oldest subway in continental Europe—back toward the city center and Deák Ferenc square. Since it was a direct trip with no transfers, I was able to buy a single ticket and avoid the hassle I had experienced the day before. From there, I wandered awhile longer, searching unsuccessfully for yet another restaurant on my list.

I ended up near Csarnok Vendéglő, where I had enjoyed a delicious meal my first evening. I decided to eat there again, since I remembered seeing gulyás on the menu. The restaurant was packed with a noisy lunch crowd, but I was able to snag a free table outside. Naturally, I ordered the gulyás, which was more of a soup than a stew, prepared with a little beef and lots of potato and carrots. I also tried the mushroom appetizer: stuffed with chicken livers, the mushroom caps were pressed together in pairs, deep fried, and served in a red wine gravy. For dessert, I was hoping to order the chocolate palacsinta (crêpe), but sadly, they were all out.

After lunch, I walked to the Parliament building and sat in the square to rest a bit and reassess my schedule. Because of my change in plans at lunchtime, I wouldn’t be able to make it to some of the bakeries farther afield, but there was one located just north of Parliament. Once I had rested sufficiently, I paid a visit to Szalai Cukrászda and treated myself to a slice of dobostorte. Like all the ones I had seen in both Vienna and Budapest, this one had the requisite six thin layers of sponge cake, the top slice covered in thick, crunchy caramel and the rest filled with chocolate buttercream.

My next stop was the Great Market Hall, just a couple blocks south of my hotel. The vast Neo-Gothic building comprised three floors, the main level filled with rows and rows of food stalls, selling a variety of produce, meats, spices, and sweets. There, I replenished my supply of bananas—my perpetually reliable, easily transportable snack, which I would need for the following day’s train ride to Trieste. On my way back to Hotel Art, I also picked up a sandwich for my lunch on the train.

For dinner, I went to a restaurant called Greens, which was on my trusty guidebook list and that I had passed by earlier near the Synagogue. The review raved about the variety of vegetable dishes, all prepared Hungarian-style, such as pumpkin stew and spinach in cream sauce. There was no menu posted outside, so I took a chance and went in. As it turned out, the only vegetables on the menu were fried cauliflower and fried mushrooms. So instead, I ordered the paprikás csirke (chicken paprikash) and a “mixed” salad. The salad consisted primarily of iceberg lettuce tossed in a creamy, pickly dressing, with four tomato slices, a mound of pickles, and a dollop of sour cream. The chicken was prepared with a creamy paprika sauce that was surprisingly bland, and served on a huge plate with about three cups worth of tiny, doughy dumplings. When I had finished eating as much as I possibly could, it looked like I had barely made a dent in the food. They offered palacsinta on the dessert menu here as well, but I was so stuffed, I reluctantly had to forgo the crêpes yet again.

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torta RigojanciArriving in Budapest the previous afternoon turned out to be somewhat more of a culture shock than Vienna had been. After many years of traveling throughout Italy, I had begun to take for granted the fact that I spoke the language. Even though I didn’t speak German, I had learned a few key phrases to help me get by in Austria—plus I was so familiar with the exchange rate that I could convert euros to dollars in my sleep. Hungarian, however, proved to be a decidedly more challenging language—I had bought a phrasebook but only managed to learn a couple of words—and the national currency took me back to my pre-euro visits to Europe. Fortunately, I found the people in Hungary to be incredibly friendly, and if they didn’t speak any English themselves, they could often round up a young person who did.

On my first morning, I was delighted by the selection at Hotel Art’s breakfast buffet. Along with the yogurt and muesli that I had become accustomed to, there were scrambled eggs, an assortment of salami and sausages, cheese, bread, and a platter of tomato and cucumber slices. After I had my fill, I set out to find the Keleti train station, so that I could buy my ticket for Trieste, where I would be heading two days later.

The closest Metro station was two blocks from my hotel, but once underground I found the ticket options to be rather perplexing. The choices included tickets with unlimited stops, three or fewer stops, a transfer with unlimited stops, and a transfer with five or fewer stops. I knew I needed to transfer from the blue to the red line, and so counted out on the map how many stops that would make, but then I couldn’t find any place to purchase tickets. I asked at a nearby newsstand, and though the girl working there didn’t speak English, she got her friend to assist me. This young man, who had been hanging around outside her store smoking a cigarette, steered me to a ticket window—small and rather hidden off to the side—and conveyed to the clerk exactly what I needed.

Once at Keleti, I succeeded in purchasing my train ticket, although I was surprised to learn that seat reservations were not given here. From the station, I retraced my course via Metro and then set off on foot toward Buda, the section of Budapest on the western side of the Danube River.

At the river, I crossed the Chain Bridge and climbed the steep steps to the Royal Palace (a.k.a. Buda Castle). I had hoped to visit Mátyás Church, but they had just begun mass and weren’t letting in tourists until later in the afternoon. On my way to the castle, I passed Ruszwurm Cukrászda, one of the city’s oldest bakeries. There, I bought a slice of Rigó Jancsi, snagged a spoon from the gelato counter, and took my treat to a bench outside. The squares of chocolate sponge cake were thinner than I expected and rather stale. The chocolate cream filling, on the other hand, was piled about two inches thick, and the top layer of cake was glazed with a sinfully rich chocolate ganache. While I had read that this dessert was popular in Trieste—and I was therefore hoping to include it in my book Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy—this was the first time I had ever tasted it.

As I was polishing off the last crumbs of my decadent treat, I felt the mist of a light drizzle beginning. Nevertheless, I continued my exploration, strolling around the outside of the castle to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a viewing terrace built in the late 19th century, complete with towers and turrets straight out of a fairytale.

As it was nearing lunchtime, I descended the steps and headed to Horgásztanya Vendéglő, professed by some to be Budapest’s best fish restaurant. I ordered the fish stew with carp, which was served in a mini cauldron hanging from a hook on a small cast iron stand. The dish came with a fiery paprika sauce on the side, so that I could make my meal as spicy as I liked.

After lunch, I decided to make the climb up Castle Hill once again, in hopes that Mátyás Church would be open. It was—and well worth the effort, for the interior was as gorgeous as the church’s brilliantly tiled roof. The walls were painted floor to ceiling in colorful, though somewhat muted, patterns: stripes, swirls, dots, flourishes, leaves, and flowers, the intricate designs lending an exotic Byzantine character to the Gothic arches and stained-glass windows.

From there, I made the descent a second time, but instead of returning to the eastern Pest side of the river, I walked south, past the Chain Bridge and Elisabeth Bridge, all the way to Szabadság Bridge. I spotted Hotel Gellért, famous for its spa and thermal baths, but was more interested in seeking out the Cave Church, a tiny chapel built inside a grotto underneath Gellért Hill. The walls were made of nothing but bare, natural rock, its niches filled with Catholic statues and altars.

Budapest's Pilates Balance StudioBy this time, fatigue was beginning to set in, so I returned to my hotel to rest for an hour. I wanted to feel refreshed for my late-afternoon appointment with Zsuzsanna Bokor, owner of Hungary’s first Pilates studio. As a Pilates instructor myself (and author of Balance on the Ball: Exercises Inspired by the Teachings of Joseph Pilates), I had recently written for the new Pilates Style magazine. I was now planning on submitting two articles for their “International” section: one on the Pilates studio in Milano, which I had visited in July, and another on this studio in Budapest.*

Budapest's Pilates Balance StudioMy plan was to walk all the way to Oktogon Square, where Zsuzsanna had arranged to meet me outside a Burger King. It was quite a distance to cover by foot, but I left my hotel extra early and even found time to stop and peek inside the magnificent Hungarian State Opera House on the way. When I arrived at Oktogon, it appeared that Burger King was a popular meeting spot for all sorts of people converging in this busy octagonal crossroads. Girls, boys, women, men—some alone, others in groups—all loitered casually in front of the American fast food icon, only to vanish once their companions arrived.

Budapest's Pilates Balance StudioI had seen Zsuzsanna’s picture on her website, so I knew who to be on the lookout for: an attractive brunette in her early 30s. I was startled, then, to be approached by a man, tentatively addressing me by name. It turned out to be Zsuzsanna’s husband, Gabor, whom she had sent to fetch me. We went directly to the Pilates Balance Studio, where Zsuzsanna and two of her instructors, Krisztián Mélykúti and Czech-born Vladka Mala, were waiting. Like me, they all had a background in dance—except Gabor, who was an orthopedic surgeon. Zsuzsanna and Krisztián were professional ballet dancers, and Vladka was a contemporary dancer. They all spoke English, and the interview flowed seamlessly. Even my camera, which had begun to malfunction in Vienna, managed to remain on long enough for me to snap a few photos of the instructors demonstrating Pilates moves.

After the interview, Zsuzsanna and Gabor invited me to dinner. I followed them to a nearby restaurant called Karma. The daylong showers had stopped by now, so we sat at one of the outdoor tables, a relief for me after having put up with far too many smoky dining rooms in the past few days. The menu was an ecclectic mix of international cuisines: Hungarian, Italian, Asian, Mexican, and Indian. I wasn’t terribly hungry, so I ordered a plate of grilled mozzarella and vegetables. Zsuzsanna had a quesadilla, and Gabor had tandoori chicken. To drink, they ordered sparkling lemonade for us all, though by the time the sun went down, the icy beverage had me shivering with cold.

We lingered at the restaurant until after 8:30pm, talking about our lives, our hopes and dreams. It was especially interesting to hear their take on the fall of Communism and how things in Hungary had changed over the past fifteen years. Having lived in Ohio for several years—Zsuzsanna once danced for the Cincinnati Ballet—their English was flawless. I felt overjoyed to have made friends who were not only close in age but also shared a similar background and values. Although we have since lost touch, I will never forget our friendship that chilly October evening.

* Shortly after I sent in my articles, Pilates Style hired a new editor. In fact, their entire editorial staff seemed to have turned over in a very short period of time. Although I submitted my pieces several times during the following year, they were never published.

torta RigojanciHere is my version of Rigó Jancsi (torta Rigojanci in Italian). The cake was named after the Hungarian gypsy violinist Jancsi Rigó, whose passionate affair with a beautiful American millionairess caused a worldwide scandal in the late 19th century. For picture-perfect slices, trim the cake edges before assembling.

Cake:
6 eggs, separated
1-1/4 cups sugar
2/3 cup cake or pastry flour, sifted
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted
Pinch salt

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar to the “ribbon stage,” about 5 minutes. (The batter will be pale in color and will leave a ribbon-like trail when drizzled over the surface of the batter.) Stir in the flour and cocoa powder.

2. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks. Soften the batter by stirring in a little egg white; fold in the remaining egg whites. Pour the batter into a greased and floured 11- by 17-inch jelly-roll pan. Bake until a wooden pick inserted near the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Cool completely before removing from the pan. Slice the cake into two 8-1/2- by 11-inch sheets.

Chocolate Ganache:
6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream

Melt the chocolate with the cream in a double boiler, stirring until smooth. Pour the ganache over one sheet of cake. Refrigerate until the ganache has set; slice into twelve squares.

Cream Filling:
8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
3 cups heavy whipping cream, chilled

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler, stirring until smooth; remove from heat. Pour the cream into a large bowl. (For best results, chill the bowl in advance.) Beat until the cream forms stiff peaks. Stir about 1 cup whipped cream into the melted chocolate. Pour the chocolate mixture into the bowl of whipped cream; whisk vigorously until the chocolate is thoroughly incorporated. Spread the chocolate cream over the remaining sheet of cake. Place the twelve glazed squares on top of the cream layer. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

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