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This piece was originally published in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Dream of Italy. Photos of the Carnevale parade and megafrittata courtesy of the Associazione delle Compagnie del Carnevale Muggesano. (These photos show costumes from the 2003 Carnevale Muggesano.)

Elegantly dressed courtesans waltzing to Vivaldi at a masked ball, mysterious caped figures drifting past the shadows of the Grand Canal—for many travelers these are the images that an Italian Carnevale evokes. But for those with a penchant for the quirky and bizarre, a trip to the town of Muggia affords an alternative Carnevale experience with a week chock-full of wackiness.

Across the bay from Trieste, the capital of Friuli–Venezia Giulia, Muggia is the last stop before reaching Slovenia—and the only town on the Istrian peninsula to remain within the Italian border. Surrounded by Slavic territory, the town exudes an old-world charm that blends the essence of Italy with a hint of foreign exoticism.

While Muggia is an easy half-hour bus ride from Trieste, the ferry service from Trieste’s port makes for a considerably more scenic approach. Pastel-colored houses line the mandracchio (harbor), while the medieval castello looms overhead. Originally a prehistoric castelliere (fortified settlement), the castle was transformed numerous times over the centuries—by the Romans, the Patriarch of Aquileia, and later the Venetians—but eventually it was abandoned and left to ruin. The tower, built in medieval times, is the main surviving feature. In the 1990s, the castle was bought and restored by a local sculptor and is open to the public for cultural and musical events throughout the year.

Continuing on further up the hill, more medieval ruins may be found in Muggia Vecchia (old Muggia). With a panoramic view of the Gulf of Trieste, Muggia Vecchia is home to the Romanesque church Santa Maria Assunta, as well as the Parco Archeologico, where the remains of medieval dwellings lie scattered on either side of the main road. Inhabited from the 8th to the 15th century, the hamlet was gradually abandoned in favor of a new settlement by the sea called Borgo Lauro—what is now Muggia’s centro storico. It is here that the narrow, winding alleys and Venetian Gothic architecture reveal the town’s ties with “La Serenissima.”

In 1420, Muggia—along with much of northeastern Italy—fell under the reign of the Venetian Republic, and so the distinguishing marks of Venice steadily wove their way into the fabric of the town. Tucked away in a back alley, not so unlike one of Venice’s enigmatic calle, is the Casa Veneta, home to Muggia’s Museo Archeologico. This 15th-century palazzo features the white-trimmed, tri-lobed windows that are characteristic of the Venetian Gothic style.

Just steps away from Casa Veneta is Piazza Marconi, a small square bordered by more pastel-colored palazzi. At one end is the Duomo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, which features a striking tri-lobed façade and Gothic rose window. Across the piazza sits the Palazzo dei Rettori, home to Muggia’s government offices. This orange and yellow building dates back to the 13th century but was renovated following the Venetian occupation, adding to the façade a stone relief of the winged lion of Saint Mark, symbol of Venice. Many have since speculated that the lion’s disgruntled expression perhaps reflected the town’s displeasure with its new—and unwelcome—Venetian government.

As Muggia’s central gathering spot, Piazza Marconi makes an appropriate site for the commencement of Carnevale Muggesano, known in local dialect as “Carneval de Muja.” The festivities begin with the presentation of the Re Carnevale (Carnival King), followed by the Ballo della Verdura (Dance of the Vegetables). This ritual dates back to ancient times when it was choreographed to represent the mythological victory dance after Theseus killed the Minotaur. Today the dance marks the official opening of Carnevale on giovedì grasso (Fat Thursday). Representatives from the various groups perform their routine while waving boughs of greenery and giving the public a sneak preview of their elaborate—and typically quite imaginative—costumes.

While the Carnevale celebration thrived under Venetian rule, and even into the late 1800s, the event was interrupted during the turbulent era of World Wars I and II. After the final battles had ended, Muggia was reintroduced to the idea of a Carnevale masquerade by a group of friends who frequently convened in a trattoria to contemplate the joys of Carnevale season. They named themselves Brivido—meaning “shiver”—following a harrowing boating incident on a wet and windy day. One year they decided to dress up as gauchos and march through the streets playing music. As they repeated this annual affair, dressed next as gypsies and later as Apache Indians, the procession grew with more and more people joining in the merriment. Soon a few rival groups had formed, each costumed in its own fantastical theme. By 1954, the parade had blossomed into an official event.

Today, there are eight companies that participate in Carnevale Muggesano: Brivido, Ongia (dialect for “fingernail,” because the original members, who worked at the Trieste shipyard, often found themselves suffering from bashed fingernails), Lampo (“lightning,” the nickname of one of the founders), Bellezze Naturale (“natural beauty,” since the group’s initial mission was to bring awareness to Muggia’s unique charm), Bulli e Pupe (originally Muli e Pupe, dialect for “boys and girls”; the word muli eventually morphed into the word bulli, meaning “ruffians”), Trottola (“spinning top,” to convey a sense of fun and verve), Mandrioi (“beetle,” named after the Volkswagen model driven by one of the founders), and La Bora (the cold, northeast wind that blows through the province of Trieste each winter).

Every year, these groups choose a theme and design a tractor-pulled float with matching costumes. During the Sunday parade, performers dance, play music, and pantomime scenes. Themes have ranged from the contemporary (The Simpsons cartoon, Disneyland) to literary (The Wizard of Oz, Dante’s Divine Comedy), from geographical (Mexico, Africa, India) to culinary (coffee, chocolate, pasta).

A prize is awarded to the most lavish or comical—not surprisingly, the original group Brivido has won first place most often. In 2011, their winning theme was Water—firstly fresh water, featuring a giant sun float, followed by rainbows with a colorful array of balloons, rainclouds carrying umbrellas, and snowflakes joined by frolicking snowmen; next salt water, starring penguins and walruses, dancing ocean waves, and a colossal animatronic Triton riding a fish; and finally water “da Brivido,” with townspeople of all ages dressed as old folk partaking in the eternal water of youth.

Trottola was a close runner-up, with the broad theme of “El Se Trasforma!” (in essence, things that transform). Highlights included the Transformers, with cleverly designed costumes that transformed cars into walking robots; fairytale frogs hoping to be kissed by a princess; gigantic hatching eggs; and a huge popcorn popper complete with ears of corn. Other notable themes of 2011 were Bellezze Naturali exploring life underground (from the garden to the sewers), Mandrioi representing coffee in all its incarnations, and Lampo taking a voyage to the Caribbean.

Among the whimsical costumes, however, you will seldom see a masked face. In fact, the town has abolished the donning of masks except in rare cases when they are absolutely necessary for a specific costume. Contrary to the practice of traditional Carnevale celebrations where anonymity is sacred, the people of Muggia have chosen to expose their individual character. This comes, perhaps, as a natural response in a town that has struggled to assert its identity in the face of domination by so many foreign cultures.

The culinary ritual dubbed “A ovi” takes place on the Monday following the parade. This tradition, which dates back to the 1800s, begins with townspeople traipsing door to door begging for eggs. The eggs are then used to make the megafrittata—thousands of eggs and several hundred pounds of pancetta cooked in a giant thirteen-foot-wide frying pan. On Ash Wednesday, to mark the final day of the event, the groups perform a tragicomedy routine. Following a solemn funeral procession, townspeople then throw a lifelike “corpse” of Re Carnevale into the sea.

So if you think dancing espresso cups, slithering sewer rats, and human popcorn sound intriguing, cast aside your Venetian masks and head to Muggia for an unforgettable Carnevale celebration.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Cjalsòns di Piedim (Pasta Filled with Chocolate and Nuts), a unique dish perfect for Valentine’s Day, either as a decadent pasta course or as an unconventional dessert. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Braciole di Maiale al Latte (Pork Chops Cooked in Milk). Braising meat in milk is a common technique in Friuli, and pork loin or ribs may also be prepared this way. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Torta Rigojanci (Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Cream Filling), a decadent Hungarian dessert perfect for the holidays. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Strucolo de Spinaze (Spinach-Filled Pasta Roll). Strucolo means “strudel” in the Triestine dialect, though restaurants may also refer to the dish as a “rotolo” or “rollata.” It is quite common throughout the Carso, often served with the pan sauces from a roasted or braised meat. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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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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This review was originally published in the September 2010 issue of Dream of Italy. Since my last visit, La Subida has been awarded one Michelin star.

Situated in the heart of the Collio wine zone is one of Friuli’s most esteemed restaurants, Trattoria Al Cacciatore de La Subida (known to locals simply as La Subida). On the outskirts of Cormòns, surrounded by rolling hills and lush vineyards, La Subida serves impeccable dishes inspired by the nearby border where Friulian and Slovenian cultures merge.

Opened at Christmastime in 1960 by Slovenian Joško Sirk and his wife, Loredana, La Subida was originally a small osteria and inn, which soon became a popular gathering spot for hunters. A recreational cacciatore (hunter) himself, Sirk takes great pride in the land and has built a small complex of apartments adjacent to his restaurant, complete with tennis courts, children’s playground, horse stables, and swimming pool. For Sirk, building these rustic farmhouses has been an obsessive hobby and the realization of a longtime dream.

To the Sirk family, Trattoria Al Cacciatore is not just a restaurant—it is their home, filled with special belongings, mementos, and memories. Daughters Tanja and Erika have grown up here and now help out in the dining room. Joško and Loredana are always there as well, interacting with their guests, even joining them at the table. After a while, dining at La Subida is like dining with family.

The Sirks look at their cuisine as a slice of life, a part of their culture and heritage. The menu leans toward the Triestine—jota (bean and sauerkraut soup) and gnocchi di susine (plum-filled dumplings), for example—but also offers a variety of Friulian dishes, including frico, frittata, and orzotto (barley cooked risotto-style). They specialize in the Slovenian pastas mlinci and zlikrofi, as well as wild game, which is roasted or grilled to perfection. The stinco di vitello (braised veal shank), carved tableside, simply melts in one’s mouth. While their food remains authentic, each dish is refined to an exquisite level through added touches such as fried sage leaves, elderberry flower syrup, and herb-infused sorbets.

The best way to experience this slice of culture is with La Subida’s multi-course tasting menu. After an aperitif and some light snacks under the lime tree or inside by the fogolâr (fireplace), diners will feast on an appetizer, two or three first courses, two meat dishes, a palate-cleansing sorbet, and a dessert that inevitably includes a plate of homemade biscotti. This must all be accompanied, of course, by local Collio wine from Joško’s cellar.

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