Exploring Trieste’s food and coffee culture

The easternmost major city in northern Italy, Trieste lays on that thin stretch of Italian coastline squeezed between Slovenia and the Adriatic sea. Given its geographical position, Trieste’s food culture features layers of influences from the various worlds that converge there. The fishing tradition, the main element of the cuisine of a port city, is enriched with elements from the Slavic and Balkan as well as the Habsburg traditions. This makes Trieste’s culinary identity quite peculiar and unique in the rich panorama of the Italian cuisine.

Trieste did not always belong to Italy. In fact, the city was ruled by the Habsburg Monarchy for over 500 years, serving as the main port as well as being the fourth largest city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Geographically located on the intersection between Italy, Austria-Hungary and the Balkans, Trieste has a very cosmopolitan history. Inhabited by various ethnicities and cultures, there has always been more than one language spoken on the streets of Trieste. After the end of the Second World War the city even enjoyed a period of independence, existing as a self-ruled entity known as the Free Territory of Trieste. Nowadays it is one of the richest cities in northern Italy. Architecturally stunning, easy to navigate even in just one day, Trieste is still somewhat overlooked by tourists who massively flock to nearby Venice. Yet, even Trieste has its own Grand Canal.

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
Canal Grande in Trieste

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.

On a bridge on the Canal Grande in Trieste there is a statue of James Joyce. The Irish author called Trieste home for over 10 years. Speaking of Trieste’s cosmopoltanism and multiculturality.

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
The statue of James Joyce on the Canal Grande

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Italy’s coffee capital

Yes, you read right. As much as every city in Italy will claim to have the best coffee, the best of the best will be in Trieste. Coffee in Trieste has been serious business since the days when the city was Austria-Hungary’s busy port. When coffee spread across Europe, Vienna became an important city in the development of the European coffee culture and coffee drinking tradition. All the beans that were imported by Vienna passed through the port of Trieste. It goes without saying that the Italian city developed its own expertise when it comes to handling the exquisite beans and Trieste became the centre of the coffee  production industry. Trieste is still famous nowadays for some of its notable coffee brands sold all over the world, namely Illy and Hausbrandt.

There is no more glorious way to start the day than heading to one of the many historic coffeehouses of Trieste. Located in beautiful historical buildings of the centre, these places have been in business for centuries. I decided to have breakfast at Caffè degli Specchi (Piazza Unità d’Italia, 7), a place that has been serving coffee to the people of Trieste since 1839. As a born and bred Italian, my own idea of a perfect breakfast is simple: cappuccino and a croissant. I need nothing more.

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
A traditional Italian breakfast in Trieste

One thing that is good to know about Trieste’s coffee culture is that the standard phrases used all over Italy to order coffee do not work there. There are special formulas when it comes to ordering coffee in Trieste. What is known as caffè espresso elsewhere in Italy, in Trieste goes by the name nero. Caffè macchiato in Trieste is known as capo. Not to be confused with cappuccino, that the people of Trieste call caffelatte. Don’t worry, the barista will not expect you to know this and will mostl likely make you a cappuccino if you order one, even if you don’t call it caffelatte. But if you really want to impress the barista you can always learn from the giant cheatsheet that sits (literally) outside and shows all the ways and names you can call coffee in Trieste.

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
When I say Trieste is serious about coffee I really mean it.

Caffè degli Specchi lays in Piazza Unità d’Italia, the very heart of downtown Trieste. The square lays right by the sea, with three sides lined by beautiful palace buildings and one side directly open to the sea. The palace that stands opposite to the open side is the City Hall. With your back to that building you can enjoy a great view of the sea. To me the architectural beauty and spotless state of preservation and cleanliness of the buildings exceed in beauty the view of the sea.

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
The City Hall on the left and the fountain of the four continents on the right
Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
Palazzo della Luogotenenza austriaca, or Palazzo della Prefettura
Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
Another view of the City Hall and the fountain
Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
Palazzo del Lloyd Triestino

Where Mitteleuropa meets the Mediterranean

Trieste’s culinary tradition is varied, just like every other feature of the city. The juxtaposition of cultures so different from one another and the incredible harmony found in their meeting point makes Trieste stand out from other Italian cities. Walking the streets of Trieste one can easily have the feeling of being in a different country. This is the result of the strong Austrian-Hungarian heritage and the coexistence of large foreign communities (Jewish, Slovene and Serbian, to name a few) that have shaped up Trieste’s peculiar identity throughout the centuries. It should come as no surprise that one of Trieste’s most famous dishes is called… Ljubljanska!

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
Ljubljanska with a side of patate in tecia

My boyfriend, who was born in Trieste, had described Ljubljanska as a true feasting experience. Simply put, it is a huge meat dish. More in detail, it is a breaded pork cutlet filled with ham and cheese. The Friuli version of a Wiener schnitzel, bigger. So big it is insane to finish it alone. We shared one at Vecio Buffet Marascutti (via Cesare Battisti, 2/B), a restaurant that has been serving “buffet” for over a century. The term buffet in Trieste describes restaurants that offer traditional food that mostly consist of meat. Boiled meat in various cuts, sausages, goulash and the famous cooked ham from Trieste. Do expect to find flavours such as horseradish and sauerkraut, because once again this culinary tradition has a lot to share with that of Austria and Hungary.

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
Antipasto misto at Buffet Marascutti

Before taking the Ljubljanska challenge we started off with an antipasto misto. We got a selection of cheese and cold cuts from the Friuli region, including cooked and cured ham. You can find cooked ham (prosciutto cotto) all over Italy, but Trieste has a special tradition, including a variety baked wrapped in a bread crust. Deeply nostalgic for the flavour of prosciutto cotto triestino, my boyfriend couldn’t get enough so the following day we checked out another historic place, Buffet da Pepi (via Cassa di Risparmio, 3), for a ham sandwich. Another historic restaurant, this one has been around since 1897, when the House of Habsburg still ruled the city.

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
Piazza Unità d’Italia as seen from Molo Audace at sunset, the best time for photos and for a Spritz!

It’s aperitivo time

You can’t say you have visited Northeast Italy without trying a Spritz. A cocktail that originated in Veneto during the Habsburg rule (say what?!), Spritz is a Prosecco-based cocktail. One of the most common ways of making it is by adding Aperol, thus turning it into Aperol Spritz. A little anecdote for your knowledge: Prosecco wine takes its name from the village of Prosecco, just outside Trieste. Although the most prestigious varieties of Prosecco come from the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, initially the wine originated from Trieste! Aperitivo is another timeless tradition that you really can’t miss out. If you walk into a restaurant too early and the kitchen is still closed, just sit down and order an aperitivo.

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
Aperol spritz – what else do you need before dinner?

So do they eat fish in Trieste?

Despite being a port on the Mediterranean, Trieste’s culinary fish tradition differs from the rest of Italy. Surprisingly it proves already quite different from that of Venice, only 150 Km away. Traditional fish dishes of the cucina triestina are overall poor. Not as in mediocre, oh God no. Poor in its literal sense, of humble origin. Simple, but very flavourful. As suggested by our hostess, we went for a fish-based meal to Osteria Salvagente (via dei Burlo, 1/C).

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.

We started off with the Aperol Spritz pictured above, and then ordered an antipasto misto. A platter of mixed appetizers, all fish-based. While my boyfriend was loving the sardoni in savor I discovered I am a total fan of the baccalà mantecato. Years ago, when we visited the Lofoten islands in Norway, we learned that Italy is one of the main importers of Norwegian stockfish. That’s the main ingredient in the production of baccalà. After the antipasto we ordered a main course. My boyfriend ordered pasta with fresh tuna and I chose the parmigiana di mare. Parmigiana di melanzane (or melanzane alla parmigiana) is a layered dish of fried eggplant slices, tomato sauce and Parmigiano. The version I had in Trieste also incorporated anchovy fillets. Say eggplants and Parmigiano – I need nothing more. It was divine.

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
Parmigiana di mare and pasta with fresh tuna in the back.

Any room for dessert?

If there’s any room left for dessert Trieste has an interesting tradition that, again, originates from Central Europe. Surprisingly, I did not explore the world of Trieste’s desserts. I was always too full. Remember my oversize Ljubljanska? Or the fried fish I had after my parmigiana, which I didn’t even bother to photograph. No room for dessert – officially. But then I would walk out of the restaurant, walk around for one hour, and a sudden craving would build up in me. Gelato!! When it comes to gelato, Trieste is as Italian as the rest of the country. In Italy we pretty much rock at gelato, it’s really really difficult to get to taste one that is below average. So yeah, while in Trieste I had my fair share of gelato.

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
Sacher gelato is a thing and you can find it in Trieste!

Since Trieste is special and has historical bonds with Austria, in Trieste I found Sachertorte-flavoured gelato! One of my very favourite cakes, the main reason I visited Vienna and a cake I love to make at home, Trieste had Sacher in its gelato version. I was in heaven, no lies. I kept going back to Gelateria De Martino (viale XX Settembre, 14) for my daily gelato fix. Sacher gelato is my newest obsession.

Where to stay in Trieste

For our two-night stay in Trieste we chose the hostel ControVento (piazza Venezia, 1). The hostel is centrally located, at walking distance from the main attractions and from the restaurants we visited. Since we travelled to Trieste by car, we were also able to find free parking on a street nearby. It took some cruising, but we eventually did (please notice that we did not visit Trieste on a weekend). We had a private double room that was quite spacious and with a very comfortable bed. The hostel is in an apartment in a historic building, on the 4th floor. It offers private as well as shared rooms, and very cozy common areas and kitchen. I honestly don’t mind sharing the bathroom if that can spare me some money. If you don’t have the urge to get a cappuccino from a coffee shop in the morning like I did, as a guest at ControVento you can enjoy a simple free breakfast.

Trieste ControVento hostel
Our room and the pretty stairs inside the palace building

I very much enjoyed my stay at ControVento, but if a shared bathroom is not an ideal option you can find other deals on Booking.com:


Booking.com

This was only my second time in Trieste, despite the fact that my boyfriend was born there. We always promise ourselves that we should visit more often, but there is always so much to see when we go to Italy. Still, even if just as a daytrip from Venice, Trieste is definitely worth visiting. My country is so amazingly diverse, and it is to cities like Trieste that Italy owes its cultural richness.

Trieste's food culture features influences from the Slavic, Balkan and Habsburg traditions, making this port city's culinary identity quite unique in Italy.
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33 thoughts on “Exploring Trieste’s food and coffee culture

  1. I only passed by Trieste for one night on a cycling trip from Venice to Poreç (Croatia) but your article desperately makes me want to return for a long weekend! Your photos are beautiful 🙂

    1. It’s great to hear you have been. Before meeting my boyfriend, who is a Trieste-born, I had never been there myself and I’m Italian! It’s such a gem, yet so few people know abut this gorgeous city.

  2. This post has made me so hungry! The breakfast looks yummy! The top photo of the Canal Grande reminds me a lot of a white Nyhavn in Copenhagen haha!

    1. The breakfast was the best, that cappuccino was seriously a state of the art one! I have to agree with you, it sort of does remind of Nyhavn, minus the colours, that’s right 😀

  3. I love Trieste – it’s such a unique city. And the food is absolutely delicious. Great tips for where to go!

    1. Thanks! I’m happy to read other people love that city as much as I do. I was seriously not disappointed with any rstaurant, the food was delicious everywhere. After one week in Italy (of which 3 days in Trieste and the rest spent with my parents) I gained 3 kilos!!

    1. Oh this is sweet to hear! I’m glad my post brought back sweet memories. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to travel through my pictures!

  4. Love how you served up the history of Trieste together with all this delicious food! It certainly looks like a good place to escape from the madness of Venice.

    1. Thank you, that is exactly my point. There is this gem of a city that is not so far away from Venice and that really deserves a little more attention in my opinion. I felt great as a guest in Trieste!

  5. Wow, that coffee looks fantastic! Coffee normally doesn’t settle well in my stomach so I tend to avoid it while traveling. But it looks like this may be the place to just take that risk for a day 😉

    1. Although this is the city of coffee, I would still play safe and choose tea if I were you. There’s nothing worse than getting sick while travelling. A city that takes coffee so seriously can only have the same respect for tea!

  6. We’ve been to South Tyrol, Italy numerous times but never visited Trieste. Looks like we’ll need to venture that way to try the Ljubljanska, which sounds scrumptious! And, it looks like such a beautiful town and reminds me so much of why we love northern Italy.

  7. The food here looks amazing, but the buildings and canals are what would really draw me there! I will have to put this on my list to escape the mass toursits in Venice!

    1. I think that people should really know more about this wonderful city, so close to Venice yet so different, and much much more peaceful crowd-wise!

  8. Nevermind the incredible buildings, all I really want now is a croissant!

    Ok now seriously, great post! My cousin lived in Trieste for a year and I’m awfully sorry that I hadn’t visited her before she came back… But it’s never too late for a weekend out. Thank you for all your recommendations!

    1. Right yeah? When you get such good food everywhere you really don’t care about the architecture. Fill your stomach first, then youcan appreciate the beauty even more! Don’t tell me about misse dchances to visit friends orfamily when they were living somewhere and now they don’tlive there anymore. It has always been a dream of mine to visit Korea and both my Korean friends now live elsewhere. I still want to go but meeting them there would have been like an added value (plus I love having a local that can guide you around!).

  9. I must admit I don’t know Italy that well and haven’t actually ever heard of Trieste but it looks so beautiful, especially the canal, and is very much on my radar now, so thank you for sharing!

    1. You’re very welcome! It’s great to hear my post made you discover a new place. And I have to agree with you, the canal area is delightful!

    1. Yes! And this is one feature that I love about my host country Sweden: the Swedes love to take time for coffee and cake. Heaven! I am surprised that, given these food habits, Trieste is not filled with Swedes. Any person in love with coffee and a good croissant should move there. To that café specifically 😀

  10. I had no idea that Trieste is the Italian Coffee Capital, although I am coffee addicted 😀 I love that you added this little “coffee dictionary”. Very helpful for tourists. And all that food looks so delicious. I am so hungry now 😀

    1. I thought it was useful to add those specific coffee terms because as an Italian I felt like this was a potential language barrier. Or rather, I went ahead and ordered a cappuccino and luckily I was served what I ordered in standard Italian, but it was weird knowing that everybody else called what I was drinking a caffelatte 😀

  11. to be frank i never knew about trieste before and its great to know about it. specially the influence of different cultures over the food habits. Loved the pic with croissant it looks delicious.

    1. Thank you. I am also always excited to know about places that have various cutural influences in their culture.

    1. And this is what I miss from living in Italy. When I was at university I would often go out for breakfast with a friend of mine in between lessons and it looked like that. Well, maybe a tad less fancy, but equally delicious!

  12. I learned something new with this post! Had no idea about Triste or it being the Coffee capital of Italy. It looks so much like Venice in some of those photos. Saving this lovely post for future.

    1. It is a very charming city and I’m happy my post is helping to spread the love for this Italian pearl. The coffee there is really excellent!

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