Considering how much I’ve read about Lidia Bastianich’s roots in Istria, I was sad that our experiences eating out and drinking in Istria were generally so-so. Our best food market experience was, in terms of consistent freshness and variety of produce, at the enormous Mercator hypermarket in Pula (think Wal-Mart size), and our best restaurant meal (La Puntulina in Rovinj) had charming décor but uneven food. The wines we tried (and we tried bottles from at least a dozen vineyards before I gave up) were very sour. Sour-tasting wine must be the local preference, because I find it hard to believe that all the winemakers in the area are making mistakes with their wines in the exact same way.
Below are my food and wine notes from our week:
We were in Istria during wild asparagus season. Being followers of all food trends, even ones heavily marketed by the local chamber of commerce, Jon and I were inspired by all the Croatians we saw collecting wild asparagus from woodsy roadside patches. The problem is that we weren’t exactly sure what wild asparagus looked like, so we ended up “harvesting” a lot of what turned out to be weeds. Eventually, we found wild asparagus at the Rovinj outdoor produce market for 25 Kuna ($5) a bunch, and it turns out wild asparagus looks like cultivated asparagus, except it’s extra long and thin. One night, we made a wild asparagus risotto, and I wasn’t a fan. The wild asparagus is very bitter, though I give it high texture points for delicacy and thinness.
Croatian Wines and Grappa:
Until we found Bacchus wine shop in Rovinj, we were buying 1L bottles (when it only comes in 1L bottles, watch out) from small supermarkets we came across in the hill towns. Bacchus is near Rovinj Harbor and sells a wide variety of Istrian wines, all at relatively high prices. For example, we restricted ourselves to the under-200 Kuna ($40) half of the store, and even then, buying five of the least expensive bottles cost $120. I wouldn’t complain so much about the price if the wines had been tasty, but they weren’t. The Istrian reds (mostly teran grapes) we tried were watery and sour, even those from locally-prominent vineyards like Arman or Kozlovic. The whites, mostly made from the malvaziya or chardonnay grape, were better than the reds, with an Ortonero Art malvaziya delivering the least watery of tastes. A dessert wine from Arman Winery was tasty enough that our travelling companions bought some to bring home to the US as gifts.
After a few days of trying significant numbers of Istrian wines, we resigned ourselves to making sangria from local reds, and we cheered when Mike showed up via the Paris duty-free with a few French wines in tow.
Despite the acres of grapevines in the region, I think Istria has a long way to go before it’s wine country. We were better off drinking the large, glass container of mistletoe grappa in the villa, and if you’re going to drink the wines, seriously consider the beauties of sangria.
Places to Eat (by town)
Restaurant Graciano (Obala path boraca, 4) sits near the designated parking lot for visitors to Rovinj, which means it’s not the most idyllic setting in the world. That said, there’s a large roofdeck with a view of the scenic bits of Rovinj, and we greatly enjoyed lounging around there and watching the sun go down. The prosecco we ordered was tasty, and the pizza we shared (wolfed down) with our aperitif made for a relaxing pre-dinner hangout.
Giannino came highly recommended by both our Time Out and Rough Guide to Croatia, and while the seafood was good, the pastas were disappointing. Our table, oddly Chinese-restaurant round with lazy susan, was in a dank little corner of the otherwise warm, casual restaurant. In addition to seafood, we ordered three or four pastas, all of which were drowning in a gloppy cheese sauce (a recurring theme with Istrian pastas, we were to find out over time), which was too bad given our expectations that Rovinj would be the land of excellent pastas, a la Itay. As for the seafood at Giannino, the scampi gets special mention for being sweet and juicy, and the sea bass tasted particularly fresh. With two bottles of Croatian wine, our tab came to 155 Kuna ($30) each.
Marina Gostionica Osteria is the least-touristy-looking of the many restaurants that line Rovinj harbour. We were drawn by the outdoor seating, and we figured as long as we stuck with pizzas, we would be fine. Too bad the waitress neglected to tell us straight up that none of the dozen or so pizzas listed on the menu were available that day, so we made a lot of last-minute choices, with mixed results.
I ordered a pasta frutti di mare, figuring seafood in Rovinj had been pretty strong, and I was hoping that it would be sans gloppy cheese sauce. It turned out my pasta was tasty despite the orange-colored seafoody bits, which appeared to be to seafood what hotdogs are to meat. Jon’s and Colleen’s “risottos” were just regular long-grain rice with some cheese thrown in for creaminess, so I was glad I’d steered clear of those. Food schadenfreude. Colleen did, however, order an attractive and delicious grilled calamari as a starter, so I guess balance in all things. Overall, a mixed quality of food, but nice location. Not sure I’d go back, though I remain convinced it’s the least of all evils if you want to eat harborside.
La Puntulina (+385 52 813 186) is a pretty restaurant and bar. It’s perched on the sea near the St. Euphemia Cathedral. There’s a casual outdoor area by the sea connected to the bar, so we greatly enjoyed our cocktails one afternoon – bellinis with real peach nectar were tasty, though served in a water glass. Prices were 30-40 Kuna ($6-8) a drink, which was a bargain only if you live in the UK, I suppose. Despite a weird incident with the server (she brought Sarah a virgin pina colada instead of the cuba libre Sarah had ordered, and then she single-handedly replaced Jon’s order of a red with an order of white when it turned out the bar had run out of the red he’d ordered), we had a good time and went back the next night for dinner.
The restaurant has an outdoor dining terrace that almost juts over the sea below. The place settings are elegant, so we looked forward to a nice meal with a sunset view. Of the appetizers we ordered, only the grilled calamari with polenta cakes stood out as especially good. Otherwise, starters like the stuffed squid seemed a little limp or not particularly fresh.
I enjoyed the salt-baked branzino that Mike and I shared (the fish was enormous), but I think the price we paid mostly reflected the drama of seeing a giant fish covered in tons of salt and then served tableside. The salt kept the branzino moist, so it was steaming hot and fresh. Simple and good, but would I pay 350 Kuna ($70) for it again? Probably not.
Pizzeria Orhideja is where we ate lunch when we set out for Zminj in search of an “agricultural fair.” The pizza wasn’t memorable, but it was hot and fresh and cost only 42 Kuna ($8) per person, so no big complaints. Our disappointed feelings in Zminj probably stemmed more from the “agricultural fair” turning out to be a bust, rather than from anything wrong at the pizzeria.
Scaletta (Flavijevska 26, +385 52 541 599) is the restaurant of a small hotel by the same name near the Pula Arena. Again, the food varied. Jon’s farfalle in quattro formaggio was the best of the bunch, which confirms the idea that simple is best. Otherwise, either the sauces on all our pastas were too thick or the braised seafood/meats weren’t braised long enough to get rid of their toughness.
The amuse bouche of anchovies on toast with olive oil and arugula was simple and delicious, and then the pasta I ordered was a disaster. Tons of gloppy cheese, some tiny shrimp, and that was it. There were only four ravioli, and a few shavings of white truffle, which is what I think drove the price of it up to 95 Kn ($19). I’d skip Scaletta when you’re in Pula, and instead, eat more of the 3-cm-diameter donuts that vendors sell on the street. With a little powdered sugar, they’re the ultimate dessert.
Zigante specializes in truffles – white and black. If you hear any restaurant mentioned in Croatia, chance are high it’s Zigante. I had my suspicions about the place when I read it was known for having had the world’s largest truffle (certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, they’ll have you know). The experience of eating lunch there was fine, but not “wow” level. First, we had to push pretty hard to get a table that wasn’t shrouded in darkness (i.e., to move to another empty dining room that had natural light). Second, the food ranged only from bad to pretty good. The cream of potato soup with truffles seemed more for show than for any aroma from the black truffles. Shaved truffles formed a pretty topping on the soup, but (maybe because they were a topping) there wasn’t much truffle flavour when the time came to stop looking at the soup and actually eat it.
My homemade tagliatelle with white truffles had a great aroma, but the pasta was past al dente and the slightly-cheesy sauce had filmed over, which signalled to me that it’d been sitting under a warming lamp. Not what I expected from an allegedly high-end experience.
The only genius moment came during the amuse-bouche, which was the black-truffle studded cheese (see photo at top of post), served with arugula and a wrinkly olive. The cheese was so aromatic and zingy that I thought we were in for a big treat of a meal. Alas, it was kind of downhill from the cheese, and it turns out Zigante has several retail stores (in Motovun and Groznjan, for example), so you can buy the cheese there and call it a day.
Lunch with a bottle of surprisingly good sparkling wine (Misal Persuric Brut) totalled $50 a person, so I can’t complain about the price. At current UK-dollar exchange rates, that’s what I’d pay for a night at the neighbourhood gastropub, but honestly, I’d take a pork belly at the Albion any day over the sloppy tagliatelle I had at Zigante.
16 May 2007 Update: Apparently, I would have had a better food experience if I’d traveled with Mark Bittman and Lidia Bastianich. Click here for the 16 May 07 NYT article about eating in Istria.
If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also enjoy reading my other two posts about Istra: