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This review was originally published in the September 2010 issue of Dream of Italy.

My fondest memory of Trieste will always be the day I first stepped into Pasticceria Penso. My timing seems predestined—I arrived on a blustery February morning just as a few dozen chocolate cakes were being pulled from the oven. I was immediately invited back into the cozy kitchen to watch their transformation into torta Sacher. The patriarch of the family-run bakery, Italo Stoppar, doused each layer of cake with Maraschino liqueur, then spread on a thick coat of apricot preserves. His son Antonello drizzled the top with dark chocolate ganache, which was soon followed by a garnish of chocolate sprinkles around the sides. This was just the first of many such mornings; the next year, I arranged for an apartment across the street, so that I could spend countless hours observing their techniques—and sampling every cream-stuffed, chocolate-glazed, fruit-filled morsel I could possibly devour.

The bakery was founded in 1920 by Trieste native Narciso Penso. When he died in 1971, the store was bought by one of his young employees, Italo Stoppar, who had begun working at Penso in the 1960s after a stint as a pastry chef on the cruise ship Lloyd Triestino.

Today, as Stoppar passes on the trade to his two sons, Lorenzo and Antonello, Pasticceria Penso is truly a family business. Brother-in-law Giovanni also helps out in the kitchen, while Italo’s wife, Rosanna, and Giovanni’s wife, Silvana, tend to customers. The mood is light, the kitchen functioning like a well-choreographed ballet, each person silently knowing everyone else’s next move. Italo’s role is both slicer and icer. He can usually be seen preparing the layered cakes and jelly rolls—slicing the cakes into layers, spreading them with buttercream frosting, whipped cream, ganache, or caramel, and finally slicing the sheet cakes into the proper rectangular serving size. His steady hand also garnishes birthday cakes with whipped cream flowers and flourishes, piping special messages in chocolate icing. Lorenzo is in charge of dough, filling tartlet pans with crostata crust and rolling puff pastry for strudel. Antonello handles a little of everything, from applying fruit garnishes to measuring and mixing cake batter, from sorting and grinding almonds for marzipan to melting chocolate for ganache.

True to Trieste’s multiethnic roots, Pasticceria Penso specializes in the pastries from Austria and Hungary, such as the ever-popular Sacher and Dobos cakes, as well as the ubiquitous local desserts presnitz, putizza, and pinza. In all, they make around thirty-five different types of pastries, cakes, and cookies, which are purchased by locals for both special anniversary celebrations and as a Sunday post-church ritual. The sturdier pastries are also shipped to clients throughout Europe, the United States, and Australia.

In a city that clings to heritage and tradition, Pasticceria Penso is surprisingly one of just a few surviving bakeries from its era. The quality of their product is surely what has kept Penso in business for so many years. They use only butter—unlike many modern bakeries that rely on margarine to prolong shelf life—and always top-quality ingredients, from the richest, darkest baking chocolate to the Bulgarian rose oil that flavors the pink fave dei morti cookies. Their key to success is perhaps identical to the inherent nature of Trieste itself—classic Viennese precision combined with pure Italian passion.

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Cividale's Ponte del DiavoloWhen traveling, there is almost no feeling worse than that of waking up sick. This was my fate one chilly winter morning in Udine. Always being prepared for the worst, I was well stocked with cold meds. I grabbed a lozenge for my sore throat, rolled over in my hotel bed, and went back to sleep. When I awoke several hours later, I determined that I didn’t have the flu, just a cold, and so decided to venture out anyway. I chose the easiest, quickest day trip from Udine: Cividale del Friuli, a delightful medieval town on the banks of the Natisone River.

I took the 10:30 train and arrived within 20 minutes. A short walk from the station brought me to Piazza Alberto Picco and the town’s most revered bakery, Pasticceria Ducale. The display counters were brimming with chocolate-glazed, fruit-filled, and sugar-dusted pastries, but I chose instead to buy the town’s signature dessert, gubana—a large, spiral cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices. (I should say, to be more accurate, “gubana delle Valli del Natisone,” since there are two types of gubana, the other being “gubana Cividalese.”) While much gubana is nowadays mass-produced, such as the popular Vogrig brand, Pasticceria Ducale is one of the few bakeries still baking it the old-fashioned way.

gubana cividaleseWhile making my purchase, I explained my project to the signora and asked one of my most nagging questions: Is there any difference between gubana and the similar-looking pastries from Trieste, putizza and presnitz, or are they simply regional names for the same dessert? She explained that Trieste’s putizza contains chocolate, while gubana delle Valli del Natisone does not; otherwise they are very much the same. She also believed that gubana Cividalese and presnitz were identical, being made with puff pastry instead of yeast dough. (Since then I have learned that, while this may be true for modern versions of the pastries, historically there is one important difference. Because Trieste’s wealth during the Hapsburg era brought an increased availability of exotic imports such as spices, nuts, and liqueurs, presnitz was considered a more refined pastry and typically comprised a significantly longer ingredient list than gubana.)

Dulcis in FundoWhen I timidly made my standard request for a recipe, she stepped into the back room and brought out a beautiful cookbook that featured their bakery’s version of gubana. Called Dulcis in Fundo (a play on words that means literally “sweet at the bottom” and figuratively “to save the best for last”), the book was a compilation of recipes from Friuli’s most prestigious bakeries. Divided into four sections corresponding to the region’s four provinces, it was filled with gorgeous color photos and thorough information on the culinary history of Friuli’s desserts. To my surprise, she proceeded to give me the book as a gift! So far, this was one of the nicest gestures anyone had shown me and truly demonstrates the inherent kindness of the Friulian people. To this day, I treasure this cookbook as one of my favorites.

Since I had previously been to many of the town’s main sights—Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Tempietto Longobardo, Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta, Ipogeo Celtico—this visit I was more interested in the town’s bakeries. I next strolled to Panificio Cattarossi, located near the entrance to the Ponte del Diavolo. There I sampled a tiny gubanetta Cividalese, a palm-sized spiral of puff pastry prepared with the same ingredients as the larger, snake-like gubana Cividalese.

Ristorante Al MonasteroThe sky was overcast and threatened snow. I shivered inside my down-filled jacket, longing for something to warm me up—perhaps a hearty stew. Just as the clock struck noon, I turned into Ristorante Al Monastero. Instantly, I was warmed by the fire in the fogolâr (fireplace) in one of the cozy back rooms. A chubby Bacchus peered down from a fresco set amid wooden panels in the ceiling. Grape-motif plates and yellow tablecloths completed the elegantly rustic picture.

To start, I ordered cjalsòns, which had become a must-have for me in any restaurant. I was determined to try as many varieties as possible. These were three rather large half-moons, made with potato-based dough and stuffed with spinach, raisins, and pinenuts. Instead of the usual butter, these were served in a cream sauce, but did come with the typical topping of cinnamon and ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta cheese). Overall, they were a bit heavy and not as flavorful as the cjalsòns that had enchanted me several years earlier. I was learning that I prefer a lighter pasta dough to this doughy, gnocchi-like version.

Next, I satisfied my craving for stew with a generous plate of goulasch. Tender chunks of beef were simmered in a rich, spicy sauce redolent of red wine and paprika and served with grilled polenta, roasted potatoes, and veggies. Although goulasch, or “gulyas,” is Hungarian by origin, it has become a staple in restaurants throughout Friuli-Venezia Giulia, since the region was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Udine's Casa VenezianaAfter my leisurely lunch, the weather had turned even nippier. Seeing as all the shops were closed for the afternoon, I took the train back to Udine right away. Once there, I embarked on a two-hour passeggiata that circled past Udine’s main sights in the Venetian-styled Piazza della Libertà, over the hill to the vast, round Piazza Primo Maggio, along the murky canal on Via Zanon, and winding up in Piazza XX Settembre to see the stately Casa Veneziana. Originally built several blocks away on Via Rialto, this immense, stone palazzo was reconstructed here in 1929 to make way for a new municipal building. Its dull, grayish-pink façade is marked by arched Gothic-style windows, Udine’s coat of arms, and a crest of the winged lion. (Having served as a parking lot for many years, Piazza XX Settembre was renovated in 2010 as a pedestrian area with farmers’ markets, free Wi-Fi, and a book-exchange program.)

By this time, my cold was progressing, and I couldn’t face the thought of braving the elements later that evening. So instead of planning a dinner out, I stopped by a market on Via Roma for some prosciutto di Sauris, Montasio cheese and grilled zucchini. After a light picnic in my room—and a slice of that gubana for dessert—I was fast asleep by 8:30pm. Dulcis in fundo!

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It was a blustery February morning, and I had returned to Pasticceria Penso, one of Trieste’s oldest bakeries, to inquire about some local dessert recipes. Several days prior, I had peeked in the shop, but it had quickly grown too busy for me to disturb the clerk, Silvana, with my questions. This time, perhaps the weather had deterred the crowds, for I was greeted graciously by Rosanna, the matriarch of the family. She offered me a freshly baked napoletana (puff pastry filled with pastry cream) and whisked me behind the counter and into the kitchen, where her husband (and the bakery’s owner), Italo Stoppar, and his two sons, Antonello and Lorenzo, had just pulled a couple dozen chocolate cakes out of the oven.

Italo explained that they were making torta Sacher (called sachertorte in German). Like dobostorte, kugelhupf, and apple strudel, sachertorte is one of the fancy Viennese desserts to find its way into Friuli, by way of the region’s Austrian heritage. The cake was created in 1832 by Franz Sacher, cook and pastry chef for the Austrian prince Klemens von Metternich. In 1876, the chef’s son Eduard founded Vienna’s elegant Hotel Sacher and has ensured that the family recipe be kept a guarded secret.

When the cakes had cooled sufficiently, Italo proceeded to slice them into two layers and trim off the rough edges. A huge bucket caught all the chocolate trimmings, and it was all I could do to keep myself from sneaking a handful. The next step was to douse the cakes with Maraschino liqueur (a trick that I later found not only gave the cake extra flavor but kept it nice and moist) and slather on the apricot jam. Finally, Antonello assembled the layers and glazed the cakes with a rich chocolate ganache, while Italo decorated the sides with chocolate sprinkles and piped the word “Sacher” on top. I was in chocolate heaven!

Before I said good-bye, the Stoppars lavished me with all sorts of treats: a whole presnitz (dried fruit and nut puff pastry spiral), pinza (sweet, round, brioche-like loaf), a slice of torta Sacher, and a promise to send me all the recipes that I had requested. Here is their version of torta Sacher:

Cake:
1/3 cup hazelnuts, skinned and toasted (see toasting instructions below)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
5 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup cake or pastry flour, sifted
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted
Pinch salt
• • •
Apricot Glaze:
1/4 cup Maraschino liqueur
2/3 cup apricot jam
• • •
Chocolate Ganache:
4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
• • •
Chocolate sprinkles (optional)

Toasting the Hazelnuts:
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup water to a boil over high heat. Add 1/3 cup hazelnuts and 1 tablespoon baking soda; cook for 5 minutes. Remove the hazelnuts and place in a colander under cold running water; rub off and discard the skins. Transfer the skinned hazelnuts to a baking dish; toast until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Cool completely before using.

For the cake:
Preheat oven to 325°F. Finely grind the toasted hazelnuts in a food processor.

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, adding the vanilla extract with the last yolk; beat the mixture until thick and pale in color, about 5 minutes. Stir in the flour, cocoa powder, and ground hazelnuts. 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 8-inch round cake pan. Bake until a wooden pick inserted near the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool 15 minutes before removing from the pan; cool completely before glazing.

For the glaze:
Slice the cake in half horizontally; shave a thin slice off the top layer to create a smooth surface. (Any air pockets may be filled in with the shaved-off pieces of cake.) Brush the Maraschino liqueur over the top and sides of both cake layers; repeat with the apricot jam. Stack the two cake layers on a wire rack.

For the ganache:
Melt the chocolate with the cream in a double boiler, stirring until smooth. Pour the ganache over the top and sides of the cake. Decorate the sides of the cake with sprinkles, if desired. Using a large spatula, transfer the cake to a serving plate; refrigerate until the ganache has set.

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I had arrived in Trieste to begin the research for my book Flavors of Friuli. Being particularly interested in the city’s local foods, I set out first thing in the morning for the waterfront, to what was labeled on my map as the Pescheria, or “fish market.” What the guidebook had failed to mention, however, was that the immense, brick structure had long ago been converted into an exhibition hall. The side of the building nearest its clock tower also contained the city’s aquarium.

Having previously visited aquariums in Milan and on the island of Elba, I felt compelled to see what Trieste’s had to offer. I should mention first that I live in San Francisco, just a couple hours from the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium—so I was clearly destined for disappointment. The first floor held a pair of lonely penguins, a coral reef tank with two brightly colored fish, and an octagonal tank with some sharks and rays. Upstairs housed the reptiles and amphibians, but it seemed that all the snakes and lizards were asleep. The only active creature was a snapping turtle that had been confiscated as an illegal pet—its shell had sadly been deformed from malnutrition.

When I left the aquarium, the sun had finally come out, and although the air was still frosty, I felt invigorated sitting in the vast Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia. For the first time, I was able to admire the sun reflecting off the brilliant gold mosaics on the Palazzo del Governo. It was still too early for lunch, but I decided to do some “recon” work, scoping out the countless restaurants on my list. Most were still closed, but I studied the menus that they typically post outside the door. Around 11:30 I came across one spot that was already open, Buffet Da Gildo. The menu outside listed gnocchi di susine (plum-filled gnocchi) and goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew)—two of the dishes on my “to try” list. Unfortunately, there was no menu inside. The waitress quickly rattled off a couple choices: one soup and one pasta. I ordered jota, a soup prepared with beans, potatoes, and sauerkraut that is considered one of Trieste’s native dishes.

Later, I stopped by Pasticceria Bomboniera, one of Trieste’s oldest bakeries (Pasticceria Penso, which I had visited the previous day, and Pasticceria Pirona are the others). I was still curious to taste the city’s three signature desserts—presnitz, putizza, and pinza—but I soon gathered that they are not typically sold by the slice. So in the spirit of research, I bought one of each and returned to my hotel room for a decadent midafternoon tasting. The presnitz was a puff pastry spiral filled with dried fruit and nuts, practically indistinguishable from gubana Cividalese. The pinza was a plain, sweet, round loaf, rather like brioche or challah, with a decoratively scored top. The putizza turned out to be my favorite—similar to the dried fruit and nut spiral cake called gubana delle Valli del Natisone but with two distinct differences: a much greater filling-to-dough ratio and, most importantly, it also contained chunks of dark chocolate. On a subsequent trip, I was able to acquire the bakery’s recipe, which was the inspiration for my version in Flavors of Friuli.

For dinner that evening, I chose Ristorante Al Granzo. As their personalized tableware affirmed, the restaurant has been in business since 1923. For my appetizer, I ordered granzievola alla Triestina (crabmeat cooked with garlic, parsley, and olive oil). Granzievola translates as “spiny spider crab,” and it is typically served in its shell. Anticipating that I would eventually need to shoot photos of all my recipes, I asked the waiter if he would wrap up the shell for me to take home. At first he was reluctant (I think the restaurant preferred to reuse their shells), but he agreed after I explained about my project. Was it my imagination or did I see the kitchen staff peer out at me and snicker?

The meal concluded with an uninspiring portion of homemade panzerotti al salmone (salmon-stuffed pasta in cream sauce) and a side of boiled spinach. The complimentary glass of prosecco was a welcome touch, but overall I found Al Granzo to be a bit stuffy. It didn’t help that I was the only guest in the dining room for my entire meal.

That evening, back in my hotel room, it was a nice surprise to discover the Valentine’s Day card my boyfriend (now husband) had hidden in the bottom of my suitcase!

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