Read our expert foodie guide to Friuli-Venezia-Giulia in Italy. Sandwiched between Vienna and Venice, and bordered by Slovenia, Austria and the Veneto, this corner of Italy has an eclectic food culture that spans tiramisu, apple strudel, nutty coffee, rustic ham-stuffed loaves and minerally white wines
Looking for things to do in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia? Read our expert foodie guide to Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Trieste, Italy. Including a guide to Trieste’s Venezia and Collio wine region for Friuli wine…
Where to eat and drink in Trieste
A sour spat is raging over Italy’s most famous dessert. Who invented tiramisu? Those in the Veneto splutter that the dessert is theirs, created in Treviso in 1969. However, last summer the Italian government decreed that neighbouring Friuli-Venezia Giulia was the birthplace of the creamy, coffee laced concoction after cookery writers Gigi and Clara Padovani unearthed documents proving once and for all that tiramisu had been served in restaurants there since the 1950s.
At Harry’s restaurant, cocooned within the Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta on stately Piazza Unita d’Italia in Trieste, Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s capital, I dip my spoon into a shot glass frothing with cocoa dusted whipped cream, plunging down to the icy shot of deep, dark espresso underneath. On the side is a slim wafer sandwich oozing creamy mascarpone custard.
‘Like a tiramisu’ is the tasting menu’s wishy-washy stance, the deconstructed dessert a surprise amid the heavy-draped, old-world elegance. But then, you’d expect a restaurant in the same stable as the Veneto’s infamous drinking den, Harry’s Bar in Venice, to sit on the fence.
The Romans, Byzantines and Austro-Hungarians have all left their mark. You can clamber around a Roman amphitheatre, wander through grand palazzo-lined piazzas and the Jewish ghetto’s narrow alleys, and soak up the sumptuousness of Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian’s 19th-century palace, Miramare Castle. It’s a melting pot of cultures – and cuisines.
Coffee, not a coffee-laced dessert, is Trieste’s claim to fame, however. This is the home of coffee giant Illy – and its university (unicaffe.illy.com). In the 18th century Trieste became a gateway for coffee into Europe, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries opulent Viennese-style coffeehouses sprang up where writers and revolutionaries would huddle in corners. The oldest still in operation is Caffe Tommaseo, founded in 1830.
Coffee culture remains king. People here drink almost twice as much coffee as anywhere else in Italy and even have their own vocabulary – a “capo in b” is a mini cappuccino in a bicchiere or small glass. If you want an espresso, order a “nero” – but only in Trieste. Anywhere else and you’ll wind up with a glass of red wine.
Sandalj, overlooking the city’s Grand Canal (Venice’s has the edge), has been an importer of green coffee beans for more than 70 years. Here, I have a tutored tasting. Two tiny espresso cups are lined up, one taller and thinner to “nose”, 31/2g of sugar added to the short cup. It’s easier to tell if the bitterness is covering a defect in the beans if you add sugar, I’m told. The tasting is done on a spoon with a short, sharp slurp to break down the oil and release the aromas. The Colombian arabica is complex, with fruity apricot notes and some acidity. The Ethiopian arabica is slightly astringent with a hint of peanut.
Sandalj has created 20 blends, named after composers. Vivaldi, 100% arabica with citrus, passion fruit and a spicy honey aftertaste, gives a cappuccino a hint of sweet ginger. The company also trains baristas and develops bespoke blends for bars and restaurants, including the most famous café in Trieste, Caffè San Marco.
Founded in 1914, this was a favourite haunt of novelist James Joyce. I pull up a stool at the bar and order a gocciato (an espresso with a dash of milk), drinking in the café’s old-world charm, the cool jazz playlist and, with a nod to its literary heritage, the in-house bookstore.
Before lunch I swing by a Trieste institution, Gran Malabar, for an aperitivo (Piazza San Giovanni 6; 00 39 040 636 226). Locals prop up the marble bar, glass of wine in hand, flicking through newspapers. Shelves are crammed with some of the 600 or so vintages from the cellar along with well-thumbed books on wine. The region is famous for its whites and the wines from the karst, the limestone plateau circling the city, reflect its distinctive terroir.
Friulano is one of the regional varietals but I’m drawn to winemaker Edi Kante’s vitovska. Kante, one of the pioneers of orange wine, was the first to believe that the grape was strong enough to withstand a whipping from the bora winds and the rocky ground. The wine is dry, mineral-laced with a hint of salt from the sea.
Another Trieste institution is the buffet, a handful of hole-in-the-wall joints serving nose-to-tail pork. The most famous is Buffet da Pepi, dating back to 1897, but I join the scrum, three deep at the counter, at Trattoria da Giovanni, with its cramped cluster of tables spilling outside and wooden casks of local wine, for a ham, shaved horseradish and hot mustard baguette.
I’m staying at the Savoia Excelsior Palace, a Belle Époque grand dame overlooking the Gulf of Trieste. From my balcony I can look down on the 21/2-mile promenade or Lungomare, which curves round the bay, packed with gelato-guzzling holidaymakers in summer. It’s just a short stroll to Piazza Unita d’Italia, the largest seafront square in Europe and perfect for an aperitivo.
The old fish market on the seafront, dating back to 1913, has been converted into an eye-catching exhibition space, but many of the trattorias in this seaside city still specialise in seafood. For dinner, I’ve been given a top tip: tiny Alla Sorgente, hidden down a small alley, its rustic tables decorated with flowers and a moreish signature dish, barbon fish fillets fried in rich pistachios on a crunchy bed of bitter red radicchio, a local speciality (Via della Sorgente 2; 00 39 347 939 6519).
Where to eat and drink along the Collio wine route
The next day sees me veering inland to explore the Collio wine route, stopping off first in UNESCO World Heritage Site Cividale del Friuli, on the river Natisone. Founded by Julius Caesar in 50BC it’s home to an exquisite eighth-century temple, a 15th-century bridge over a river gorge, and gubana, a sweet pastry-clad delicacy (and cousin to the presnitz) packed with honey and grappa-marinated pine nuts, raisins and bitter chocolate.
Trattoria al Giardinetto in the little town of Cormons, has been in the Zoppolatti family for more than a hundred years and is run by three brothers, one a TV chef (Via Matteotti 54; 00 39 048 160 257). George Zoppolatti shows me the rosa di gorizia, the radicchio grown here from November to March. It looks like a deep-red rose, its bitterness the perfect foil for the fatty richness of the venisonsalami antipasto I’m tucking into. After lunch George produces a digestivo made from the outer leaves, a bit like a syrupy Campari.
These gently rolling hills are peppered with artisan producers. The Zoff biodynamic farm on the edge of the hamlet of Borgnano near Cormons has been in the same family for three generations. They breed a small herd of Italian red pezzata cows and produce organic raw milk, yogurt, ricotta, latteria and caciotta cheese to sell from their small farm shop. The cows are grass-fed in the summer and eat herb-laced hay from their fields in winter. The wheels of caciotta cheese are coated with herbs and flowers (rosemary, thyme, nettle, rose petals, marigold and elderflower) and aged for a month. The dairy diversification doesn’t end there – they have five rustic b&b rooms – from byre to bed.
The Gravner family’s vineyards are another passion project, straddling the Slovenian border and cultivated biodynamically. Josko Gravner cares for the vines, the land, the wildlife, the cycles of the moon. He ferments the wines on the skins, creating the orange hue, and ages them in giant clay amphorae from Georgia, buried in the earth.
The wines are nurtured like children. “We believe at seven years old a wine is old enough to go out into the world,” Josko’s daughter Mateja laughs. The 2008 Bianco Breg is a blend of pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and riesling. It’s big and bold, bone dry and round in the mouth. “I like to think of it as a 16-year-old boy going to a club and showing off.” The ribolla is more elegant. “It has no need to show off.” Sometimes you are lucky enough to stumble on a place that blows you away. Gravner is one of those, Josko Gravner more alchemist than winemaker.
My bed for the night is on another family vineyard, home to Roberto and Alessia Picech. My breakfast the next morning, at a communal table with views of sun-soaked vines, is an artisan spread with montasio cheese, prosciutto di cormons, rich coffee, homemade grape juice – and a succulent slice of apple strudel. No one is arguing about that.
HOW TO GET TO TRIEST AND FRIULI-VENEZIA-GIULIA
Return flights from Gatwick to Venice start at £80 (ba.com).
WHERE TO STAY IN TRIESTE
Double rooms at Savoia Excelsior Palace start from €125, b&b; and at Picech from €100, b&b.