Why you should care
Because you are what you’ve been eating.
She’s peering over a glass counter, bespectacled, bemused and dressed all in black. Etched in the glass is the name Trattoria da Mara, and she is Mara and declining to give a last name as she smiles and asks, “Cosa vuoi mangiare?” (What do you want to eat?)
Everything. Starting with pasta.
Then the micro-drama that lets you know that while you might be in Trieste — northeastern Italy, near the Adriatic Sea, Slovenia and Croatia, to be precise — you are without a doubt in Mara’s place. And, as she explains, her kitchen is a typical friulana kitchen. Which is to say: Keep that pasta, Jack. The specialties here are frico and polenta. Shredded hard cheeses like Montasio or Asiago, and potatoes, fried or baked, make frico a pretty perfect amalgam of other Alpine dishes. And polenta, a cornmeal specialty, promised to deliver on a promise of it being “the best ever.”
There is no waitstaff, because Mara is the waitstaff.
“Trieste is special,” says Trieste-born and -raised Frank Valente, drummer for Italian supergroup Buñuel (total disclosure: I’m the group’s vocalist). He waves us through the narrow entry, Mara following close behind with menus in hand. Valente, who speaks Italian but also knows Friulian, a regional dialect, translates what Mara is telling him about her trattoria. She’s had it for 10 years and her specialty, casalinga, or a kind of home cooking, is to her tastes.
Which means she’s serving what she feels like. Tonight? Not much for pescatarians, but that’s not usual, but nothing about Mara’s place is usual. There is no waitstaff, because Mara is the waitstaff. So she serves the tables, cooks in the kitchen, takes orders, and looks over her glasses at you when you say you want the lesser versus what she’s actually got on the menu. So yes, for the frico, the house wine, the bread, the olive oil and the constant patter of chatter.
“I’m not saying this is the best place in Trieste,” Valente says. “But it is my favorite place” and here he rubs his fingers together and smiles. Which means it’s either sensibly priced, he’s a part owner, or he’s just itchy. Of course, for every happy holler, there are detractors — people who complain about the down-market mise-en-scène, the plastic tablecloths, the crooked coatracks — but if these were going to bother you, you’d miss what happens when forkful of frico meets mouth. While Mara stands over you, a testament to her unspoken See?
And if seeing is about tasting, you’re doing both. “I won’t even ask if he likes it,” Mara says with a smile, before heading back to the kitchen. On the darkened street winding up and away from Mara’s — the hills and waterways are to die for: think San Francisco without the smell of urine — a light drizzle in play and the frico fueling the way back, the answer finally comes: Yes, I do.