Some general remarks about coastal Croatian food:
Visitors will find that menus throughout coastal Croatia tend to be largely duplicative. By the third or fourth meal, you will be able to recite most of the entries in the various menu categories. Our guide in Hvar, explained that the locals like certain foods and aren't particularly interested in variety. We didn't have a problem with this since we adore fresh fish/shellfish and pasta dishes incorporating fish/shellfish, but we did tend to order new dishes the few times they made a surprise appearance on a menu.
We probably ate gilt head bream (Orata/Dorata) most often. This reflects the fact that we really like the taste and the fact that Dorata often is sized just right for two for dinner. (Note: some restaurants called Orata sea bream and others called it gilt head bream. The most detailed menu we encountered listed three or four types of bream alone.)
Unless you're truly squeamish about seeing a whole fish, part of the fun of ordering in Croatia is the moment when the waiter brings over the tray of available fish. If you learn to recognize the signs of freshness in a fish, you’ll enjoy this step of the meal. Seeing the amazingly fresh eyes and bright gills heightened my anticipation of the meal. I simply can’t buy fish that fresh at home.
Fish was typically sold whole and priced by the kilo, although menus typically offered at least one dish that involved a filet for solo travelers or pairs in which one person does not eat fish. The menus tended to group and price in two tiers. First class fish included sea bream and other types of bream and second class fish included sea bass.
With one exception, on the Peljesac peninsula, the waiters were very good about steering us to fish that were appropriately sized for the two of us. In general, we chose fish that produced about 140 grams per person. This was a nicely generous portion, especially since we often ordered an appetizer. At Bota Sare restaurant, in Ston, we ordered an over-sized sea bream for lunch, but we did so knowingly. The signs for freshness of that particular fish were the best I’ve ever seen and I wanted to taste the difference. (The waiter said that the fish had been alive when he set it on ice that morning. Even though we ate extremely fresh fish at other restaurants, this particular fish was definitely better than others.)
I earlier mentioned the largely duplicative menus, but we enjoyed tasting the variety in the way the same dish might be prepared from restaurant to restaurant. The cold marinated octopus salad showed the least variety from place to place, but we never tired of it. Still, we did enjoy the two original octopus dishes we ate. At the Old Mill (in Stari Grad) on Hvar -- yes I know Hvar is an island and not a part of the Istrian peninsula -- I ordered the pasta with octopus and zucchini. Sublime! Since that dish combines two commonly appearing ingredients, octopus and pasta, and it tasted so very, very delicious, I was frankly surprised more restaurants weren't offering it. In Rovinj, we ate at Puntalina and ordered a memorable spicy octopus dish being offered as a starter. We were particularly surprised that grilled octopus never showed up as we eat this often at a local Greek restaurant and a local Italian restaurant. In Split -- again not an Istrian destination -- our waiter seemed quite baffled by our request and insisted that the texture of octopus did not lend itself to grilling.
Although I can competently remove the head and rack of bones from a whole fish, most waiters and offered to do the job for us. I always said "yes" since they accomplished the job much faster
Now to the Istrian specifics:
Restaurant Kvarner: The red bouzara with scampi at this restaurant was the best version we ate throughout our trip. (We ate the red version with scampi at least once more and the red version with mussels another time.) In choosing this restaurant, we violated all the rules about finding delicious, non-touristy restaurants. It is located on the water and the menu is printed in at least three languages. If we had followed the "rules," we would have missed out some delicious eating. The red sauce was lick-your-plate good, with a vibrant tomato flavor blended with garlic, wine, and, of course, the scampi. I had delicious grilled calamari -- tender and flavorful. We got into a delightful conversation with the waiter about the quality of the food. At the end of the meal, we were offered a lemon sorbetto. What came to the table was, in fact, a drink that seemed to be a mixture of limoncello and cream. This item appeared on several other Croatian menus, and watching it being delivered to other tables, the preparation was always a drink. (I don’t know what words I might have used if I truly wanted to end my meal with my idea of lemon sorbetto.)
Najade: We began by sharing an order of red mussels bouzara. This tasted good, but the sauce was much browner and grainier, presumably from spices, and it didn't have the same bright taste of Kvarner's version. This is the place where we were introduced to a mysteriously-named-but- delicious "cavallo" fish. That’s the Italian name; I don’t recall the Croatian name. The word "cavallo" means horse, but no one in Italy or Croatia will know what you're talking about if you ask for "horse fish" in English. Say "cavallo" at a fish restaurant and you'll get something that similar to either a sea bass or sea bream -- I can't recall which.
This restaurant is also located on the water, but that is not obvious from the entrance. As a result, I wonder if this place at lunch would have had as many tourists as did Restaurant Kvarner. At dinner, the clientele is almost exclusively locals. In late May, the nights were too cool for us to comfortably eat outside, since no restaurant had the propane heaters I typically see in California outdoor restaurants. Despite the chill, we were the only patrons eating indoors. We later found out the explanation: smoking is banned indoors so those brave souls, shivering or eating in coats, were smokers.
Rovinj — My husband and I visited this lovely town along with Pula and its phenomenal amphitheater in the same day.
Puntalina Restaurant: This restaurant is along the water, literally the last restaurant after what seems to be many blocks of restaurants next to one another. From the back porch, the view over the water is glorious. Happily, this restaurant doesn’t sacrifice good food for a good view. My husband and I shared an order of the previously mentioned spicy octopus and an order of calamari over polenta. For the first dish, we were given a choice between spicy and non-spicy. Chileheads will be very unimpressed by the level of heat, but we found the seasoning to be just right. Spicy enough to have some authority but not so spicy that the taste of the octopus was overwhelmed. The rings of calamari were very tender and the polenta absorbed the lovely broth of tomato and shellfish stock.
Motovun – This is a great medieval town with an intact 13th/14th century wall for walking. You’ll have to pay to gain access to the town and visitors are not allowed to drive into the town requiring you to walk a reasonably steep road from the parking lot. Definitely worth the effort!
Agritourism Toni: You’ll need a car to get to this restaurant since it is located 2 kilometers from Motovun. I suggest you phone first, if only to reassure yourselves about finding the place. The last part of the trip is on unmarked dirt roads. (We were touring with a guide who knew the way.)
This is the type of restaurant travelers dream about. The daughter, a college professor, continues to work in the family business as the chef at least in the summer and the father is the maitre d’. There is no set menu. The restaurant can only sell what is harvested, foraged, or caught on the land and made in the kitchen. The food, therefore, changes with the season.
We began our meal with a platter of home-made Istrian prosciutto and pancetta. We certainly didn’t need to order this course since portions were huge. However, we’d passed up trying Croatian “ham” (as it appears in English on all menus) and we wanted the opportunity to try some. If you’ve eaten prosciutto in Parma, you’ll find this is a more rustic version – drier and a bit chewier – but super appealing.
My husband ordered fuzi with wild boar ragu. (Fuzi pasta is fresh egg pasta formed by folding the opposite corners of a small square of pasta to make a loose tube.) My husband was really happy with his dish. I preferred mine which was fuzi with wild asparagus and tiny dice of prosciutto in a yellow cream sauce. I’m guessing that there were lots of eggs in the sauce to account for the color. I’ve never eaten wild asparagus and these were a treat. If you don’t like the bitterness of broccoli rabe do not order wild asparagus. The stalks are much, much narrower than cultivated asparagus and, as I said, the taste is very bitter. The asparagus were a wonderful contrast to the creamy sauce and the smoky-salty taste of the prosciutto.
Although we had no need for dessert, our guide couldn’t stop complimenting the home-made apple pie she had eaten on an earlier visit. Her enthusiasm was justified. The apples filling retained lots of fresh taste without the addition of too much sugar. We all stumbled over one mystery ingredient in the recipe: the filling had a creaminess that was very elegant contrast to the apples. The daughter/chef used a Croatian word to name the homemade product she had used. That word meant nothing to our guide, although she guaranteed that it was not sour cream. With further questions of the chef, we learned that the chef slowly simmers milk. I guessed the ingredient was home-made condensed milk, but the word itself must be a local word or a chef’s word since an online translator yield the words “kondenzirano mlijeko” for condensed milk, a close-enough cognate that would have eliminated any mystery. Good eating regardless of the unfamiliar word.
We ate outdoors on very rustic picnic tables. There is also indoor seating for a cooler-weather visit.
Incidentally, if you’re concerned about going to this place without a Croat speaker, I can only report that a carful of German tourists arrived during our lunch. Between Toni describing his wild boar ragu as a goulash and a few other details I no longer remember, this group quickly and happily were able to place an order.
There are some items on the menu, like sausages simmered in sauce that require three hours notice. Our guide phoned no more than 30 minutes before our arrival.
Here’s the contact information about Toni's I found online. I deted the provided URL after discovering it was no longer valid so I have similar concerns about the remaining information.
Tel/fax: 385 52 681 651
Gsm: 385 98 1888869
Owner: Nadia & Lino Milanovi