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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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