Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Road to Istria, Part I

It started in San Francisco, sometime in the 'eighties. I was staying at my favorite European-style budget hotel, the San Remo, in North Beach. One day, as I was wandering around the neighborhood I came upon a restaurant. The sign said: Albona, Ristorante Istriano. In the window was a menu and a review from San Francisco Focus. The review explained that Albona served the cuisine of Istria, a place I had never heard of before. Istria (known in antiquity as Histria and by the Slavs as Istra) is a peninsula in the Adriatic, across the Gulf from Venice, that had at times been part of the various Roman Empires, the Venetian Republic, the Illyrian Provinces of Napoleon's Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, modern Italy, Yugoslavia, and now the independent Republics of Croatia and Slovenia. The cuisine, the article explained (and the menu attested to), represented the cultural cross-fertilization that characterized the area. The menu featured an intriguing mix of Northern Italian and Central European dishes. There were pastas, polenta, gnocchi, and risotto, as well as sauerkraut and loin of pork, with dessert choices that included gelato and strudel. Always on the lookout for new cuisines, I decided to go there with some Bay Area friends.

Albona was delightful, in ambiance as well as food. A cozy room with maybe ten tables, the restaurant is owned and attended to by Bruno Viscovi, who hails from a town in Croatian Istria now known as Labin, but whose Italian name was Albona. Bruno, who circulates and chats with the customers throughout the evening, provides a warm, homey atmosphere. First-timers at Albona, when presented the menu by Bruno, are fed the following admonition: "Before you think about food, catch up on two thousand years of history." On the back of the menu is a capsule history of Istria. After you have caught up on your history, Bruno will proceed to describe the evening's specials. "If you would like the free-range chicken, speak up now, so we can start plucking."

I must have dined at Albona at least ten times over the years. The food has always been excellent, the total experience a pleasure. There's one dish that has become a requisite of every meal, shared as an appetizer, as its richness makes solo consumption hard to imagine. The item, called Craffi Albonesi, is a half-moon-shaped ravioli with three cheeses, raisins and pine nuts served with a sirloin tip sauce flavored with cumin. My only disappointments at Albona have been on the occasions when Bruno, a kibitzer par excellence, was absent. The food, the breathtaking pictures of Istria adorning the walls, and Bruno's enthusiasm, made me want to visit Istria.

In 1990, I did it. I had learned that courier flights from New York to Milan were plentiful, at $200 for a one-week stay. Looking at a map I discovered that Istria would be a relatively easy trip from Milan. So in April of 1990 I flew to Milan and from there I took the five-hour train ride to Trieste, the gateway to Istria. I had planned to stay overnight in Trieste, so I went to the hotel-booking desk at the railway station to book a room. Now, Trieste is a sleepy place, though once a principal European seaport. Few tourists go there now, and some simply want to follow in the footsteps of James Joyce, who lived there for a time. I hadn't figured I'd have trouble finding a hotel room, but the woman at the booking desk told me that she couldn't reserve me a room because there was a big convention in town. Just my luck–I show up in Trieste the one time in fifty years it's crowded. Luckily I succeeded in getting a room at a not unacceptable two-star hotel near the station which the woman had recommended I try.

I had dinner at a restaurant called Antico Buffet Benedetto, a place that, according to my guidebook, had the right combination of excellent food and moderate prices. The food was indeed good. I had a spectacular Tagliatelle Bolognese and a hearty veal stew.

The next day I did my obligatory sightseeing in Trieste, before my late-afternoon bus to the town of Piran, in Istria. Trieste is a pleasant enough, though hardly spectacular, small city. It has become a favorite retirement city for Italians, and it also has a university, so there is an odd mix of young and old people with very few in-between, as there has been little industry since the decline of shipping. By the time I got up to the principal landmark of Trieste, the medieval fortress Castello San Giusto, a torrential thunderstorm had broken out. I ducked into the coffee concession to get out of the rain. I ordered an espresso and lit up a small cigar, a Panter, made in Holland of Sumatra tobacco. Standing next to me was a fat, wet man in a gray suit. He too was lighting up a small cigar, a Dannemann, made in Germany of Sumatra tobacco. I decided to strike up a conversation with a fellow Sumatra cigar smoker. "Do you speak English," I asked.

"Yes," he replied.

"Do you buy Dannemanns in Italy?" I asked.

"I think you can," he said, "but I buy mine in Germany. I am from Germany. I am here for the convention. Are you here for the convention?"

"No," I said, "I don't even know what kind of convention it is, though I had the hardest time finding a hotel room because of it."

"Yes, it is a very big convention," he said. "The International Vacuum Tube Congress. We have people from all over the world. What is your business?"

"I'm a computer programmer," I told him.

"Ah, computer programmer. So you understand the importance of vacuum tubes!"

"I suppose,” I said. “I'm only in Trieste for a day and the weather is so awful. I don't think I'll get to see too much of the city."

"You know," he replied, "it used to be Italy always had the best weather. But now Germany has the best weather!"

[To be continued]

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Blogger Barbara Nevens said...

Truly fascinating. Please post Part 2 soon!

11:39 AM  

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