Evening at the International Prosciutto Fair in Tinjan, Croatia is buzzing with energy and celebration. Wine glasses clink as thinly sliced parchments of meat are lovingly teased from immense and fatty legs of perfectly marbled pork. The fragrance of roasted chestnuts wafts through the air as they roast over an open flame. Even the ambiance feels delicious.
Anthony Bourdain has touted Croatia as the ultimate foodie destination back when he visited and filmed No Reservations in 2012. “If you like food, and you haven’t come here to eat, you’re missing the [sic] boat,” he said and the world is beginning to take notice. Tourism has increased by over 5 million visits per year since 2012.
Croatia is an emerging food destination that will soon be on your radar. The passion for food in the country is evidenced by the Prosciutto fair and countless other food festivals that pepper the year in the Northernmost Istria region of Croatia alone. Some of the festivals include a truffle festival, asparagus festival, sole fish festival, and countless others. If you are visiting Croatia for the food, the Istria region should be on the top of the list as it is famous for its truffles, wine, olive oil, prosciutto, fresh seafood and more.
During my trip to Istria, we visited the Gastronomija Ville Meneghetti located inside the Meneghetti Wine Hotel. The restaurant serves high brow interpretations of local Istrian ingredients and features a highly aromatic wine and olive oil tasting. The restaurant serves their own award-winning olive oil, pressed from olives harvested from trees grown on the estate. In Croatia, one of our hosts said: “we put olive oil on everything”. A highlight of the meal was the perfectly grilled, delicate turbot fillet dressed with a shot of piquant Mediterranean sauce and dressed with elegant olive oil pearls. The presentation was understated yet upscale and truly gave us a sense of Istrian cuisine.
For lunch the next day we were treated to a four-hour presentation at the famed Croatian slow food restaurant, Toklarija. Overseen by chef/owner Nevio Sirotić, Toklarija is a restaurant built into a converted olive mill. Sirotić possesses a meticulous attention to detail and he had turned down all other reservations for the day to focus on serving our meal. The meal started with a delicate and flaky bread sandwiching a locally raised ham and cheese paired with his own homemade pickles. It ended with a sublimely light and airy chocolate cake and the meal reminded us of the importance of taking the time to indulge in a delicious meal, something we often forget in the US.
The next day takes an hour south to the city of Opatija, in the Kvarner region, also known as the Monte Carlo of Croatia. Opatija is renowned for its Kvarner Scampi, distinguished as the star of all Adriatic seafood. Kvarner scampi is most often caught with longline fishing traps. This method of fishing prevents bruising and is much more highly selective than fishing with nets. Scampi starts off our first meal in Opatija, at the Villa Ariston. It’s a briny, buttery bite paired with a sun-dried tomato and pomegranate seeds. It’s a perfect bite of Opatija. The star of the lunch is the scallop course, perfectly grilled and served atop crispy, creamy spinach fritters. The accompanying sauce of celery and black truffle cream perfectly highlights the dish.
That night we settled in for the night at Design Hotel Navis. This brand new five-star hotel features stunning sea view and balconies in every room. The hotel features a generous buffet for all guests, featuring two entire self-serve prosciutto leg, one deeply crimson and one generously marbled with a thick layer of fat. Local foods were also featured with a trio of sardines harvested from the local island of Kali and a selection of pate and pickled peppers and vegetables.
Finally, we make it to the last stop on the trip, Sibenik, which has gained some recent notoriety as it was the filming location for three episodes of the Game of Thrones. Konoba Pelegrini in Sibenik was anticipated to be one of the highlights of the trip as it has won the title of the best restaurant in Croatia for three straight years and has been called: “A place and experience that foodie dreams are made of” by GQ Magazine. It’s located right next to the St James Cathedral, a UNESCO heritage site. This tavern/diner is the unofficial symbol of Sibenik and is devoted to the preservation of the Dalmatian style cuisine.
Head cook Rudolf Stefan prides himself on innovation while showcasing his passion for the Mediterranean region. We later wondered why Konoba Pelegrini hadn’t yet earned a Michelin star. The restaurant is celebrated for its 10-course tasting menu. The procession of locally sourced, yet elevated dishes included a light and airy bite of local fish ceviche – flavored by dashi, veal under the bell, a cuttlefish and black gnocchi. The “Veal under the Bell” course is inspired by the traditional Croatian dish of peca. It’s served under a heavy stone bell which is lifted with a dramatic flourish as smoky meat-scented air wafts into your face and blends deliciously into the room. The sourdough bread served is made from the restaurant’s own mother yeast. All dishes are served by a synchronized waiter train, which orchestrates the placement of each dish in front of each guest simultaneously. Especially memorable was the veal roll ćevapčić, served as a carpaccio and dotted with a bracing mustard sauce and nestled into a bed of crispy panko crumbs.
The KRKA National Park
The last stop of the trip was at the KRKA National Park, a 142 sq km UNESCO World Heritage site, so secluded that it is home to two monasteries. A three-hour hike through crackling leaves while enjoying the crystalline waterfalls leaves us ravenous quite hungry and treated to one of my favorite meals of the trip. It’s at the Stari Mlin i Kalikusa, and outdoor restaurant located inside the park and the meal itself is incredibly simple. We enjoyed a crispy, grilled local monk fish seasoned with only local herbs and olive oil, paired with homestyle potatoes and kale. The accompanying salad was dressed simply with just olive oil and vinegar. We savored the meal outdoors in the fresh air as we reminisced about the trip and were joined by a friendly orange tabby cat, who sat politely nearby until we donated our generous leftovers for his enjoyment.
In the end, the best meals are not only about the food but about the company and the environment in which they are enjoyed.