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.
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.
Please note that this post contains affiliate links. If you purchase/book any of the linked products or services, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost for you. Earnings will help support the maintenance of this blog. Thank you!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.