Some of the best pasta I have ever eaten was not prepared in Italy, (though I’ve had my share of life-altering meals there); but instead, in Budapest. I had thought that Budapest fare was all goulash and paprika and sweet Tokay wine. But, I was to find that my pre-conceived notions of Hungary were dead wrong.
When my husband and I booked our flights, I was uncertain about what to expect. It was definitely an impulse trip; not that we didn’t book it months in advance, because we did – but the destination was a whim. Budapest … it has a kind of east-meets-west, semi-exotic charm about it. Especially since it’s been only a little over 20 years since the fall of communism in Hungary, Budapest is the road less traveled, especially for Americans. They call it “The Paris of the East,” and it’s clear why. The architecture is astoundingly beautiful, and the views impressive. The spa culture is posh and relaxing, and the food is phenomenal. Which, again, I hadn’t expected.
Budapest is home to quite a few Michelin-starred restaurants, but is also dotted with small eateries and bistros, ruin pubs and cafés, all built into Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, Neo-Baroque and Turkish styled buildings. The blend of architecture gives an accurate picture of the past people who conquered and lived in the city, and who shape the culture now.
One night, we found ourselves traipsing through an alley strewn with twinkling lights. We sat down at a little place called Spaghi, which is owned by a first-generation Italian immigrant. His little shop offered fresh, handmade pasta and a variety of sauces. It was a strange atmosphere: the alley is narrow, and most of the seating was outside, so although all the patrons were eating at different tables, the chairs were so close that we were watching the same televisions and listening to each other’s conversations, and sometimes borrowing salt from one another’s tables. The Hungarian language was everywhere, sounding musical and exotic to my ignorant American ears, which happen to think every language sounds exotic, since English is the only one I speak passably. But I could also hear Australian accents, and Irish and German and French. Budapest is a very inexpensive city to visit, after all, and it has fewer American tourists than other major European cities, which makes it doubly attractive to traveling Europeans.
Our food was served, and although there was nothing traditionally Hungarian about it, we found it authentic all the same. The proprietor told us that he loves Hungary, and that even though he will always be Italian, he is now Hungarian, too. He talked about the friendliness of the people and the inclusion he feels there, (this despite the fact that Hungary is not taking in refugees, though we did not mention this to the man who had just made us very excellent pasta), and how he loves the beauty of his new city.
And what he says is true. There is something international about Budapest. It has been conquered so many times, and sits on the crossroads of the east and the west, borrowing from both cultures. And so I sat, twirling my spaghetti and tossing back the awful-tasting national drink of Hungary – Palinka – and realized that this is Budapest. A blend of different cultures, a mixture of people and ideas … and I am just one more link in a chain begun long ago. And, I am not the first nor was I the last person to mix Italian pasta and Palinka.