As 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.
During 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.
The 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.
As 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.
After 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.
Here 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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