Posts Tagged ‘Muggia’

Piazza della Libertà, Udine

The original winged lion was an ancient bronze sculpture brought to Venice in the 12th century. Sitting atop one of two columns in Piazza San Marco, the lion eventually came to represent Saint Mark, the city’s patron saint, and has been the symbol of Venice ever since.

As the Middle Ages drew to an end, two competing powers were emerging, the Venetian Republic and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This brought forth yet another period of unrest in Friuli, when cities were forced to align with one of the two sides. In 1382, when Venetian forces threatened to occupy the entire coastline, Trieste turned to Hapsburg Austria for protection. Nevertheless, Venice went on a vast conquering spree, taking control of Udine, Pordenone, and Gorizia, as well as considerable territory beyond.

To demonstrate allegiance to their new rulers, cities often erected statues of the winged lion of Saint Mark. The following are four notable locations in Friuli where the lion makes an appearance.

Piazza della Libertà, Udine

It is no coincidence that Udine’s Piazza della Libertà bears a striking resemblance to Piazza San Marco in Venice. Along with most of Friuli and parts of Venezia Giulia, Udine was conquered by the Venetians in 1420 and remained under their rule for over 300 years. In the center of the square, the winged lion perches atop one of two columns, similar to those that defend the seaward rim of Piazza San Marco.

On one side, the Loggia del Lionello appears at first glance to be a small-scale version of Venice’s Palazzo Ducale, with its pink and white stripes and trilobed, arched windows. Lining the elevated portion of the piazza is the Porticato di San Giovanni, a long stretch of arcades in the center of which nestles Udine’s most recognizable monument, the Torre dell’Orologio (clock tower). Inspired by the zodiac signs on Venice’s famous clock, a golden sun radiates from a brilliant blue clock face. Two bronze moors strike the hour above the clock, while the winged lion makes another appearance below.

Yet a third winged lion stands guard over the Arco Bollani. Designed by the architect Palladio, this arch leads to a neat cobblestone path that winds up the hill to Udine’s castello, now a massive museum complex.

Palazzo Comunale, Venzone

The charming medieval-walled town of Venzone, situated at the base of the Carnian Alps, was one of many to be occupied by the Venetians in 1420. The Palazzo Comunale (town hall) had just finished construction a decade earlier, and its corner tower was soon adorned with the winged lion of Saint Mark. It should be noted as well that the tower bears a 24-hour clock similar to the one in Venice’s Piazza San Marco and with a central sun like the Torre dell’Orologio in Udine. The building also features several Venetian-Gothic trilobed, arched windows. Like most buildings in Venzone, the town hall was badly damaged in the earthquakes of 1976, but it was eventually reconstructed in its original style.

Palazzo dei Rettori, Muggia

The only town on the Istrian peninsula to remain within the Italian border, Muggia sports a distinct Venetian style that is punctuated by a quirky character all of its own. The central focus of town is Piazza Marconi and its two architectural landmarks: the Duomo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, with its striking Venetian-Gothic trilobed façade, and the Palazzo dei Rettori, currently home to Muggia’s town hall. On the orange and yellow palazzo, a stone relief of the winged lion of Saint Mark reveals a clue to Muggia’s long tradition of humor and satire. Look closely at the lion’s face—the sense of disgust is apparent as he sticks out his tongue at the town’s former rulers.

Castello di Gorizia

For four centuries, beginning in the Middle Ages, Gorizia was home to a powerful dynasty. From their hilltop castle, the Counts of Gorizia ruled a territory that extended from Tyrol to Croatia. In the early 16th century, the city was one of many occupied by the Republic of Venice. Although Gorizia was acquired by Austria’s Hapsburg monarchy after only a couple of years, a winged lion stands guard at the entrance to the fortified castle as a reminder of Venice’s brief rule.

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1. Ski the slopes of Monte Santo di Lussari

Among the towering, snow-capped peaks of Italy’s Giulian Alps, Monte Santo di Lussari stands out like a precious gem. Near the 5,870-foot summit, a pristine 14th-century sanctuary looks out over the forested valleys below. Legend says that in 1360 a shepherd knelt to pray atop this mountain and discovered hidden in the brush a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. The patriarch of Aquileia soon ordered a small chapel built on that very spot. For centuries, vast numbers of pilgrims from neighboring countries have journeyed to this religious site. Today, the telecabina, or “ski lift,” carries passengers from the village of Camporosso at its base to Borgo Lussari at the summit.

2. Enjoy a plate of hot, steaming goulasch at Albergo Ristorante Rododendro

During ski season, the few taverns and restaurants on Monte Santo di Lussari are always teeming with guests. Even if you’re not a skier, take the telecabina to the top, where you can tuck into a warm meal at one of the village’s rustic taverns or simply admire the snowy panoramic views across the Valcanale and Tarvisio basin. If you can get a table in the rustic dining room of Albergo Ristorante Rododendro, you’ll have a wide selection of traditional Friulian dishes, including orzo e fagioli (bean and barley soup), gnocchi di pane (bread dumplings), frico con polenta (cheese and potato pancake with polenta), cervo in salmì (venison stew), and goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew). Dessert offerings include strudel di mele (apple strudel), torta ai frutti di bosco (wild berry cake), and sachertorte (chocolate cake with apricot jam and ganache).

3. Attend the Krampus festivities in Tarvisio

In Central European folklore, the Krampus is a half-goat, half-demon character that is something of an anti-Santa Claus, in that he punishes children who have misbehaved rather than giving them presents. Many regions, including the Alpine towns of northern Italy, hold festivities dedicated to both Krampus and St. Nicholas.

Tarvisio is the site of one of these events. Every year on December 5, people dress up as Krampus—a costume consisting of goat or sheep fur and a wooden devil mask with horns—and roam the streets carrying torches, ringing cowbells, and searching for “bad” children. They are accompanied by St. Nicholas, who rides in a cart pulled by several Krampus. The parade concludes with St. Nicholas subduing the Krampus (representing the triumph of good over evil) and handing out small gifts and candies to the children.

4. Browse the stalls at Udine’s Mercatino di Natale

Every December, Udine’s Piazza della Libertà gets decked out for the holidays, as the Torre dell’Orologio (clock tower), Tempietto di San Giovanni, and arches of the Porticato are all strung with glistening lights. Underneath the pink- and white-striped Loggia del Lionello, a brass band plays Christmas carols, the festive notes luring shoppers to the city’s annual Christmas market.

In the center of the raised piazza towers a giant Christmas tree surrounded by several dozen market stands. These red, white-roofed stalls sit in rows along a grid of green carpet and display a variety of trinkets and edible treats. Here, you may browse homemade jams and honey, as well as handcrafted items such as candles, tree ornaments, and soaps. Local bakeries showcase regional desserts alongside stalls featuring foods imported from other regions. As the sun sets, shoppers can nibble on roasted chestnuts or samples of crostini with prosciutto di San Daniele, accompanied by a warm cup of vin brulé (mulled wine).

5. While in Udine, enjoy a traditional Friulian meal at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo

It was at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo that I fell in love with the cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. One of the Udine’s oldest, the restaurant is housed in a 17th-century building that once served as a stable and rest stop for deliverymen. Amid the atmosphere of an old-world tavern—wood-beamed ceilings, hardwood floors, red-checked tablecloths, and walls cluttered with colorful paintings, newspaper clippings, period photographs of Udine, and memorabilia of all sorts—chef Mario serves up hearty portions of local dishes such as cjalsòns (herb-filled pasta topped with cinnamon and smoked ricotta), gnocchi di susine (potato dumplings stuffed with plums), baccalà (salt cod stew), sarde in saor (marinated sardines), cevapcici (Slavic grilled sausages), salame all’aceto (salami cooked in vinegar), and brovada (pickled turnips). In true Friulian style, most second courses are served with polenta. For dessert, order the gubana—a spiral cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices.

6. Warm up with an Illy espresso or hot chocolate in one of Trieste’s Viennese-style coffee houses

While they truly love wine and beer, Triestini are even more notorious as coffee drinkers. Claimed by many to be the world’s best coffee, Illycaffè got its start in Trieste in the early 1900s. Of the 6 million cups of Illy espresso or cappuccino that are enjoyed daily around the globe, a good number are imbibed at home in Trieste’s old-time cafés. The legendary ones—Caffè San Marco, Caffè Tommaseo, Caffè degli Specchi, and Caffè Tergesteo—date from the 19th to the early 20th century. Authors James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Italo Svevo, and Umberto Saba were known to be regulars.

7. Indulge in a putizza from one of Trieste’s historic bakeries

Photo courtesy of Pasticceria Penso

One of several desserts considered native to Trieste, putizza is a rich spiral cake filled with dried fruit, chocolate, nuts, and spices. Like Friulian gubana, a similar spiral pastry, it was originally baked only for the Christmas and Easter holidays but is now available year round. For a taste of the city’s best putizza, I recommend visiting one of the century-old bakeries such as Pasticceria Penso or Pasticceria Bomboniera. Both prepare an excellent putizza, though there is one slight difference I noticed in sampling the two. Penso melts the chocolate for their filling, while Bomboniera leaves the chocolate in large chunks. Taste them both to decide your favorite!

8. Take advantage of the off-season with a crowd-free stroll in the seaside town of Grado

Located on an island and adjacent peninsula in the marshy lagoon off Friuli, Grado was once a fishing village but is now a popular destination for beachgoers. Though lacking the pristine, white sand of nearby Lignano Sabbiadoro, crowds still flock to Grado’s beaches and spas during the summer season. In winter, however, the town takes on an entirely different character, with the winding alleys of the medieval centro storico largely devoid of tourists. An expansive seaside promenade that curves around the town center makes for a relaxing afternoon stroll, as do the boat-lined canals that run through the harbor.

9. While in Grado, sample the town’s signature dish, boreto alla Gradese

When dining in Grado, don’t miss the town’s best known dish, boreto all Gradese. Also called boreto alla graesana in local dialect (and not to be confused with the soup called brodeto), boreto alla Gradese is a selection of small fish steaks cooked with garlic and vinegar and served with white polenta. Many restaurants in Grado offer the dish on their menu, but one of the more elegant is Tavernetta All’Androna, run by the brothers Attias and Allan Tarlao.

10. Attend the quirky Carnevale Muggesano

Photo courtesy of Associazione delle Compagnie del Carnevale Muggesano

In contrast to the elegant, baroque images evoked by the nearby Carnevale di Venezia, Muggia celebrates the absurd and bizarre with townspeople dressed in quirky garb such as cartoon characters, farm animals, and platters of food. Among the whimsical costumes, however, you will rarely see a masked face. Contrary to the practice of other Carnevale celebrations where anonymity is sacred, the people of Muggia have elected to keep their identities exposed.

Carnevale Muggesano began after World War II, when a group of friends dressed up as gauchos and marched 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.

The week of festivities opens with the “Dance of the Vegetables,” when representatives of each group perform for the public. This is followed by the “megafrittata,” a culinary ritual that begins with townspeople traipsing door to door begging for eggs. The eggs are then used to make what is possibly the world’s largest frittata, cooked in a giant 13-foot-wide frying pan. On Ash Wednesday, to mark the final day of the celebration, the groups perform a tragicomedy ritual: following a solemn funeral procession, townspeople throw a lifelike “corpse” of the Carnevale king into the sea.

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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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Having woken up with a stuffy nose and headache—my second cold of the trip—I spent the entire morning in my apartment at Residence Liberty, organizing maps and schedules for my return trip to Vienna the next week. When it was getting towards lunchtime, I walked to the train station and caught the #20 bus to Muggia. I was looking forward to having a good meal at Taverna Cigui, located on the outskirts of Muggia and known for its local Triestine and Istrian cuisine.

Making a guess as to which would be the closest stop, I got off the bus and hiked uphill for 30 minutes to the hamlet of Santa Barbara. I found the farmhouse at the end of a country road, surrounded by vineyards and olive trees. The front door was locked and all seemed to be deserted, except for a loud noise emanating from around the side of the house. I followed the sound to find a woman vacuuming a rug on the porch. Her back was to me, and she obviously couldn’t hear me over the machine, so I waited patiently for her to finish. Finally she turned around, startled to notice me standing there. To my dismay, I learned that the restaurant was closed while the owners were in Austria and wouldn’t reopen until later that week.

Drenched with sweat, partly from the unusually hot, muggy weather and possibly also from a slight fever, I made my way back downhill to the nearest bus stop to return to Trieste. Given my past difficulties trying to find a restaurant that didn’t close on Mondays, I headed immediately to one that I knew would be open, a place I had been to once before: Ristorante Al Granzo.

When I was there the previous year, I had gotten sick after eating their granzievola alla Triestina. But since this was a dish I planned to include in my cookbook Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy, I wanted to sample it one more time before recreating it at home. Still, it was with some apprehension that I took a seat at my table.

To start, I was served a complimentary antipasto: a mini panna cotta topped with one tiny shrimp and a balsamic reduction. The granzievola alla Triestina was just as I remembered: warm crabmeat mixed with garlic, parsley, and bread crumbs, served in the shell of a spiny spider crab. Next, I had the zuppa di pesce, which I noted in my journal was the worst I had ever eaten. The soup contained two mussels, a couple of razor clams, one extremely tough calamaro (squid) stuffed with crabmeat, a bunch of tiny whole shrimp, and some pieces of fish that had an unpleasantly bitter taste.

Not surprisingly, my stomach was sick again after eating at Al Granzo. Whether due to food poisoning or the cold I was fighting, I was feeling quite chilled by the time I got back to my apartment. I spent the rest of the day curled up in bed under all the blankets I could find. I never did get to eat at Taverna Cigui.

Here is my recipe for granzievola alla Triestina:

1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 pound lump crabmeat
1 cup water
1/4 cup lemon juice

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the bread crumbs and parsley; cook and stir until the bread crumbs begin to turn golden brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the crabmeat, water, and lemon juice; cook until the crabmeat is warm, about 4–5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt.

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crostata at Trieste's Pasticceria PensoAs soon as I was awake and dressed the next morning, I headed straight to Pasticceria Penso. As usual, the kitchen was a flurry of activity. Twenty-five sachertortes had just been pulled from the oven to cool. The patriarch of the family, Italo Stoppar, was spreading sheets of sponge cake with chocolate pastry cream, then rolling them up jellyroll-style. His elder son, Lorenzo, was filling pastry horns with vanilla pastry cream, then dusting them with powdered sugar. Younger son Antonello was busy adorning crostate (tarts) with a colorful assortment of berries and kiwi.

I stayed for a couple of hours, chatting and observing, feeling in that moment as if I truly belonged there. Years earlier, when brainstorming things to do with my life after my dance career had suddenly been cut short, I had made a list of “fantasy jobs”—one of the top entries had been to work in a bakery. Even though I was not actually working at Penso, my experience of hanging out in the kitchen nearly every day sufficed to satisfy that craving.

Lorenzo Stoppar at Pasticceria PensoDuring our chat, Antonello casually mentioned how he wanted to open a bakery in San Francisco. This was not the first time an Italian had shared such an idea with me. When I was staying in Castiglioncello during the 1990s—first as a dance student, and later as a Pilates instructor, at the summer festival Pro Danza Italia—I had made the acquaintance of Rossano Bocelli, cousin of singer Andrea Bocello and owner of my favorite hangout, Gelateria Bocelli. I remember talking at length with him about his dream of opening a gelateria in San Francisco. At the time, I had actually taken him seriously, but of course those plans were never to materialize. So when Antonello expressed a similar desire, I knew better than to expect him to follow through. Still, I allowed myself a brief moment of fantasy, imagining myself quitting my job teaching Pilates in the dungeon of a gym in San Francisco’s Federal Building and spending my future days immersed in chocolate, pastry, and buttercream.

Around midmorning, I left to do a couple of errands. One of my goals on this trip was to procure a spiny spider crab shell in which to photograph the dish granzievola alla Triestina for my cookbook Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy. Called granzievola in the Triestine dialect (and granseola in Venetian dialect), this crab is native to Mediterranean and northeast Atlantic waters—a species I had no chance of finding back at home.

granzievolaThe night before, I had searched the phone book in the lobby of my apartment building, Residence Liberty, for seafood markets within walking distance. I set out from the bakery on a carefully planned circuit, hoping to buy a crab to cook in my tiny apartment kitchen, thus providing me with my sought-after shell. Although I had seen granzievole on prior trips to Venezia’s Mercato di Rialto, there were none to be found here in Trieste. I was told at several markets, where the workers were not too busy to ask, that it was still too early in the season and that I may start seeing granzievole toward the end of October.

Feeling defeated, I gave up and moved on to my next errand: visiting a couple of nearby bookshops I had discovered while scanning the yellow pages. I had better success there, with the purchase of two new cookbooks on Triestine and Istrian cooking to add to my growing collection.

Muggia's duomoAs it was time to start thinking about lunch, I walked up to Piazza della Libertà, a hub for buses outside the train station, and caught the #20 bus to the tiny fishing village of Muggia, south of Trieste on the very outskirts of the region. I arrived a half hour later and headed straight along Muggia’s waterfront to Ristorante Lido.

I had read about Lido in Friuli: Via dei Sapori, a gorgeous coffee table book that features a number of local restaurants, so I was expecting it to be fairly upscale in comparison to the casual osterie I had been frequenting. When I arrived, the spacious dining room was empty, save for a table off to the side where the hotel’s staff were enjoying their midday meal.

As a complimentary appetizer, I was served a little plate of fritto misto, mainly itty bitty fried calamari and breaded sardoni barcolani (European anchovies). Next, I ordered the granzievola appetizer. Unlike the “alla Triestina” preparation that is mixed with bread crumbs and served warm (and which eventually made it into Flavors of Friuli), this was a simple crab salad in a dressing of lemon juice and olive oil. But I was thrilled to see the crab served in its shell! Could this be my solution? As the waiter began to clear my plate away, I hurriedly explained about my cookbook project and asked if I could take the crab shell home with me. Despite my rather unusual request, he responded with surprising graciousness and took the shell to the kitchen to be washed. Minutes later he returned with a foil-wrapped package containing the shell—I couldn’t have been happier!

For my main course, I had scampi alla busara, an Istrian dish of langoustines served in tomato sauce. I had eaten scampi once before in Trieste and was prepared for the messy ordeal of breaking open the shells to extract the delicate meat. Fortunately, Lido provided all the proper tools: a nutcracker and tiny fork, a huge lobster bib, and most importantly, a finger bowl of water and some packages of moist towelettes.

Illy espresso cupAfter lunch, I took the bus back to Trieste and was walking home to my apartment when an Illy espresso cup caught my eye in the display window of a bar. I had been looking for a cup to take home with me so that I could style a photo for Flavors of Friuli, but all the cups I had seen so far had been sold in expensive packages of four or more. This one was being sold individually for a reasonable 4.50 Euros. I felt thrilled to have scored, in one day, not only a granzievola shell but also my coveted Illy cup!

A little further along the waterfront, I came upon the Chiesa di San Nicolò dei Greci, the city’s Greek Orthodox church. Though plain on the outside, its sumptuous interior popped with gold gilt, a checkered marble floor, paintings that covered walls and ceiling, and silver chandeliers holding dozens of sparkling tapered candles.

Back home that evening, I prepared a dinner plate of leftover zucchini and string beans, a tomato, some fresh mozzarella, and a slice of bread spread with baccalà mantecato (puréed salt cod) and settled in to watch an episode of “Survivor” on my laptop.

scampi alla busaraHere is my recipe for scampi alla busara. Since langoustines can be tricky to find in the United States—most are imported from Scotland—you may substitute any type of fish or shellfish that you like.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons dry bread crumbs
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce, or 1-3/4 cups
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 pounds whole langoustines

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add the onion and garlic; cook and stir until the onion begins to soften, about 8–10 minutes. Add the bread crumbs; cook and stir until golden brown, about 2–3 minutes. Stir in the tomato sauce, white wine, parsley, and black pepper. Place the langoustines in the pot; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, covered, until the langoustines turn pink, about 3–5 minutes. Season to taste with salt.

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prosciutto di SaurisCheck out my new travel “Highlights” on Afar.com: a prosciutto festival in Sauris and Muggia’s disgruntled winged lion of Saint Mark.

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Muggia's Palazzo dei RettoriEarly the next morning, Mike and I took a boat to Muggia, located just south of Trieste near the Slovenian border. My previous visits to Muggia had been in February, and with an overcast sky both times, conditions were less than ideal to take photos of Muggia’s distinctive trilobed Duomo. In fact, on my second visit, I had made a special trip from Udine just to see Muggia’s Carnevale parade, but to my dismay, the parade was cancelled due to rain. Today was a brilliant, sunny day, but unfortunately at 9:00 in the morning, the sun was in the wrong place. With the light shining from the east, the Duomo was backlit and would make for a white, overexposed sky. Mike and I hung around a full 15 minutes before catching the next bus back to Trieste.

Trieste's Castello di San GiustoDeciding to explore the city’s old section, we climbed the Scala dei Giganti (Giants’ Stairway) to Castello di San Giusto. Much of the castle was closed off due to construction, and we ended up circling the hill several times before finding a way through. Once at the top, we were able to visit the Cattedrale di San Giusto, as well as the nearby churches Santa Maria Maggiore and San Silvestro.

We descended the hill on the opposite side, past the ruins of the Roman amphitheater. Then, we wandered through Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia and along the Canal Grande, stopping at a few bookstores along the way, so that I could browse their local cookbook collections.

Trieste's Palazzo del GovernoFor lunch, I had selected an old-style buffet from my guidebook, but it happened to be closed that day. I was determined to continue pursuing my goulasch quandary, so we settled on the next restaurant we found that listed goulasch on their menu—Birreria Forst. With an atmosphere something like a cross between a beer hall and a diner, it was comfortable enough, although lacking the charm of many smaller establishments. I did order the goulasch (although, once again, there were no tomatoes in the sauce), which was served with patate in tecia. In typical American style, Mike ordered “toast”—a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with French fries.

Castello di MiramareAfter lunch, we returned to Castello di Miramare in hopes of finally getting my “blue sky” shots. We arrived by bus this time but found that the castle’s entrance up the hill from the Grignano harbor was closed. Massive wrought-iron gates were locked with a heavy chain; there was no getting through. The only option was to walk back down to the harbor, then back up along the highway to look for one of the castle’s other two entrances. Fortunately, we succeeded in finding the second entrance, and I was thrilled to finally get some gorgeous images of Miramare. The views from the castle’s balcony promenade were especially breathtaking! We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling through the park’s 54 acres—a network of paths winding around manicured gardens and peaceful lakes.

We exited the park through the same gate we had entered, hoping that there would be a bus stop nearby. The problem was that we didn’t know if the closest stop was behind us or ahead of us, so we took a gamble and headed along the highway toward Trieste. This turned out to be the wrong choice, for we walked all the way to Barcola before coming across a bus stop. And of course, by the time we got there, we had just missed the bus by a few seconds! So, we found a bench along the promenade, facing the sea and with Trieste not far to our left. Despite the hot afternoon sun beating down, we were content—myself especially, since I had finally succeeded in getting my photos of Miramare. Eventually, I would return to Muggia, too—at the proper time of day for photos.

Back in Trieste, we opted for a late afternoon snack of gelato at Gelateria Zampolli. I ordered yogurt, fragola (strawberry), and mela verde (green apple)—although my Italian was obviously not clear, for I received only two flavors, apple and “strawberry yogurt.” Mike had a cup with baci, nutella, and dulce de leche.

It was our final night in Trieste, and we wanted our last dinner there to be extra special. As usual, I was armed with a list of restaurants from my guidebook, but some had apparently closed and a few others appeared to be generic Italian (or what has been dubbed “national” cuisine, as opposed to the more distinctive regional cuisine). Ultimately, we settled on Ristorante Al Cantuccio, which was across the street from Ristorante Al Bagatto (where we had dined on the night of our arrival). It was another elegant (and expensive) splurge! I ordered the spaghetti al pesto con sgombro (pasta with pesto and mackerel), and Mike started with tagliatelle with shrimp in a balsamic sauce. My second course was filletto di rombo (turbot fillet) with sage and potatoes, while Mike had calamari with thyme, balsamic vinegar, and potatoes.

wineOn this trip, we had gotten in the habit of ordering a mezzo litro (half liter) of house wine with our meals. At Ristorante Al Cantuccio, however, wine was only available by the bottle, so we requested some Vitovska, a white wine from the Carso area around Trieste.

I must digress for a moment now to reminisce about my very first trip to Italy, when I found myself in a similar situation. I was 22 years old and traveling with my mom. We were having lunch at a seafood restaurant in Portovenere, when the waiter brought us a full bottle of wine instead of the requested quarter liter. This was before I had studied any Italian, so neither of us comprehended the waiter’s instructions. Looking back, I believe he was telling us to drink only as much as we wanted and that would be the amount he’d charge us for; however, all we understood was “bevi, bevi,” so that we did—we drank the entire bottle! The same thing happened more recently at my lunch at Arta Terme’s Ristorante Salon, but luckily my Italian had much improved by then. The waiter, Matteo, brought the bottle, I drank a glass, and that was the amount that appeared on my check.

Back to our dinner at Al Cantuccio: we had finished our meal, having enjoyed a glass of wine each. When the check came, we were surprised to see the charge for the entire bottle. I considered arguing the point, but given that my Italian was still far from fluent—and the fact that a bottle was truly a bargain at only 10 euros—I chose instead to finish the bottle myself. So, as Mike was paying the check, I hastily chugged down the last couple glasses, feeling slightly naughty as I did so. It was a fun and tipsy stroll back to our hotel!

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Muggia's Piazza MarconiThere was to be no respite from the weather—it was still pouring rain on this final Sunday of Carnevale. My plans were to watch the famous mask parade in Muggia, so I set out, braving the elements once again. I took the train to Trieste, then a bus to the town of Muggia. When I finally arrived, several hours later, I was perplexed to find no crowds milling around waiting for the parade to begin. Did I have the right date? Yes, large banners advertising the celebration lined the streets along my route to the city center. I reached Piazza Marconi where, on an unassuming, white memo posted outside the orange and yellow municipal building, I read the words: the parade was cancelled, rained out, postponed until the following Sunday. My spirits sank. The very next day I had to return to Milano for my flight home, so I would miss the Carnevale Muggesano.

Carnevale MuggesanoAs I wandered around in disbelief, struggling to come to terms with this latest setback, I stumbled into Muggia’s tourist office. It was filled with memorabilia from past parades; tables were covered with boxes of snapshots and postcards for sale. I rummaged through, trying to imagine myself in the midst of the action. Instead of the typical Carnevale images of masked figures in elegant Baroque attire, Muggia’s parade seemed to be characterized by bizarre and quirky themes—townspeople were costumed as cartoon figures, farm animals, and platters of food. The other thing that stood out was the absence of masks. I learned that Muggia has forbidden the use of masks in its parade, except when absolutely necessary.

My disappointment was slightly mitigated when one of the representatives offered me a free CD of official photos from the previous year’s parade. Feeling slightly more cheerful but not in the mood to scope out a new restaurant in the rain, I headed back to the unfortunately named Lilibontempo Trattoria Ex-Hitler for lunch. When I had dined here on my first trip to Muggia, I received a warm welcome from the owner, who had spoken in length about the region’s cuisine and described in full detail the preparations of two recipes. This time, the restaurant was packed, and Lili was preoccupied—too much so to remember me, it seemed. I ordered the same dish as before, the Gran Piatto Istria, a lackluster assortment of local seafood specialties. Then, after an hour’s effort, I finally grabbed Lili’s attention long enough to get my check and pay my bill.

Osteria Al Vecchio StalloAfter a return bus to Trieste and train to Udine, it was nearly time for dinner. Once again, I walked through the door into Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo precisely at 7:00pm. Instead of being seated at what was becoming my table, I was seated in the bar area. It was still the weekend, and they were booked with 8:00 reservations. I started with an order of gnocchi di susine (plum-filled dumplings). As I cut my way into the first of three giant balls of potato dough, my fork finally found a small prune in the center. The dough was thick and bland, and I longed for more fruit. Melted butter and cinnamon added some sweetness but did little to enhance the overall flavor. My sarde in saor that followed were much tastier. The sardines were huge, marinated in vinegar and onions and served with polenta. Anti-smoking laws had not been passed yet (that happened the following year in 2005), so I was anxious to finish my meal as quickly as possible. I was, in fact, out the door by the time the 8:00 dinner rush arrived.

My mood was somber on my walk back to my hotel. Not only did I miss out on what had promised to be a fantastic Carnevale celebration, but my trip was coming to a close. The next day I would endure the five-hour journey back to Milano, where I would make my usual rounds of visiting the Duomo and getting an order of melanzane alla parmigiana from Rosticceria Fontana. After an early bedtime and restless night sleep, I would wheel my single piece of luggage across a dark, deserted Piazza del Duomo to catch the first airport shuttle to Linate. Although I was anxious to return to the comforts of home, I was already looking forward to my next trip three months later.

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This month I have an article featured in the Dream of Italy newsletter: “Muggia Carnevale Unmasked.” If your idea of the Italian carnevale revolves around elegantly dressed courtesans waltzing to Vivaldi at a masked ball or mysterious caped figures drifting past the shadows of Venice’s Grand Canal, then you’re in for a surprise. In Muggia, not only are masks taboo, but you are more likely to see participants dressed as snowflakes, sewer rats, or platters of pasta.

The Dec 2011/Jan 2012 issue is now available to subscribers at DreamofItaly.com.

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On my last day in Trieste, I took bus #20 from the train station and, after a half hour of winding through the city’s southern suburbs, arrived in the town of Muggia. The last stop in Italy before reaching the Slovenian border, Muggia sits on the bay overlooking a distant Trieste. With its abundance of Venetian architecture, the town exudes a certain charm that blends the essence of Italy with a hint of foreign exoticism.

First, I strolled through the old city center, a tiny maze of narrow alleys lined with bars, bakeries, and butcher shops. The hub was Piazza Marconi, bordered by pastel-colored stucco buildings and starring the Venetian-Gothic Duomo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo with its striking trilobed façade and rose window.

Across the square sat the yellow and orange Palazzo dei Rettori, current home of Muggia’s town hall. Like many Venetian buildings in the region, it featured a stone relief of the winged lion of Saint Mark, but this one struck me as particularly bizarre—the lion was sticking out his tongue, as if disgusted with his former ruling empire.

Nearby on Via Oberdan, I passed the Casa Veneta, a 15th-century Venetian-style building with white-trimmed Venetian-Gothic windows. From there, I left the city center and hiked uphill to Muggia Vecchia (“old Muggia”) to see the Romanesque church Santa Maria Assunta. Across the street from the church was a small archeological site featuring medieval ruins.

Once down the hill again, I made my way to the waterfront. Backed by more pastel houses, the harbor retained the atmosphere of an old-world fishing port. Hungry for lunch and intrigued by the sign hanging out front, I ducked into a restaurant called Lilibontempo Trattoria Ex-Hitler. (It turns out the previous owner bore a marked resemblance to the Nazi dictator.) There was only one other table seated: two American men who had both ordered spaghetti alla marinara. The waitress told me a boat of American tourists had just docked in Trieste, and that it was a fairly unusual occurrence to have any American guests there.

I was invited to help myself to a lavish buffet of seafood salads, and so I started with samples of salmon, sarde in saor, octopus salad, and shrimp in salsa rosa. For my main course, since I always seem to have trouble making a decision, I ordered the “Gran Piatto Istria,” a selection of local seafood specialties that included calamari, sardoni panati (breaded sardines), ribaltavapori fritti (miniscule fried fish), seppioline (small cuttlefish), and scampi grigliati (grilled langoustine). The plate also included sides of insalata russa (mayo-based potato salad) and rice.

Except for the crispy and addictive ribaltavapori, the meal was not particularly memorable. But I was delighted when owner Lili Bontempo came over to chat, and I persuaded her to give me her recipes for jota (bean and sauerkraut soup) and brodetto di pesce (seafood stew).

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