Two years ago my husband and I drove down to Croatia for our honeymoon and fell in love with the country. We visited Dubrovnik and many of the other towns along the Dalmatian Coast, we hiked around the turquoise lakes of Plitvice, we ventured over the borders to Bosnia and Montenegro, and we ate & drank our way through Istria. And it was to Istria, that small triangular peninsula in the far northwest corner of the country, where we returned last week for a little R&R and a lot of F&W (food and wine).
If I had to sum up Istria for someone who has never been there before, I guess I would say it is like a sleepy, slightly more laid back version of Tuscany or maybe even Provence. The coast is littered with fishing ports, many cute ones, some a bit more industrial. The interior’s rolling vineyards are dotted with little hilltop towns, which are overrun with tourists in the summer and seemingly abandoned in the winter. But, just because you may have never heard of it does not mean that Istria is undiscovered, the european tourists know all about it.
Our home base for the week was Rovinj (pronounced roveen) on the peninsula’s west coast, where we rented a holiday apartment in the middle of old town. The “street” where we stayed was actually stairs leading up to the town’s eye-catching church. From there we made several trips to visit surrounding towns, and made a trip into the interior for a truffle hunting expedition.
But the real reason we were there was for the food and wine. To date, one of the best meals I have ever had in my life was on our honeymoon at a restaurant named Le Mandrac in Volosko, Croatia. This trip we followed that meal up with many memorable dining experiences (though I think Le Mandrac still reigns supreme). For anyone looking for restaurant & wine recommendations, below is a summary of the places we liked (I’m not listing the ones we didn’t like). In addition to online research, we also found the gourmet guide published by the Istrian Tourism Board to be surprisingly good.
Istrian Cuisine – Similar in some respects to what we would consider “mediterranean food”, some typical istrian dishes include: whole roasted fish or seafood drizzled with a garlicky herb sauce, pasta with truffle sauce, prosciutto, manestra soup (similar to a minestrone), and a delicious side dish of boiled potatoes, chard, garlic, and olive oil.
Do be warned, however, that many restaurants (at least on the coast) close in the off-season as early as mid-September. There were still quite a few good options when we visited in late October, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind if you visit out of high season.
Note that all of the below restaurants are in Rovinj.
- Veli Joze – One of our favorites of the trip. It’s not winning any awards for decor and you would be forgiven for thinking that a flea market had exploded around you as you are eating your meal. But the service was great and the food was even better. We loved their manestra soup and the grilled fish was divine. My husband loved their tiramisu. Fab wine, what more can you ask!
- Al gastaldo – This one would win an award for decor. The restaurant is so comfy and cozy, with a seat next to the fireplace you feel like you are sitting in your grandma’s living room. But again, food is always more important and this one really impressed us as well. I had an absolutely delicious pasta with a creamy truffle sauce which is making my mouth water just remembering it. We were also provided with a fantastic wine recommendation and my husband had the best grilled calamari of the trip. They do not accept credit cards.
- Dream – This was our first meal of the trip and we were not disappointed. Delicious fish, great wine options, an overall good meal.
- Taverna da Baston – I don’t even know how we picked this restaurant because it was definitely not listed in any gourmet articles which I researched before we left. And, while this tiny place next to the fish market is decidedly not gourmet, it is good. Only open for lunch, tiny menu, limited wine options, but fresh fish, which is grilled with only a little salt and olive oil right before your eyes in the corner fireplace, is delicious. All that and cheap!
- Da Sergio – Great pizza! Nuf said.
- Grota – Every day of our vacation we started our day with a cappuccino & roll while sitting outside at this tiny tiny cafe located next to the open air produce market. Their food offerings are extremely limited, only a few wine barrels to sit at outside and no seating inside, but the coffee is delicious and those little rolls filled with either mortadella or prosciutto were darn tasty. We had some pretty awful coffee in a few of the town’s other cafes, so we always ended up back here.
Istrian Wine – Wine has apparently been grown in Croatia since pre-Roman times, and has recently started to gain the wine world’s attention as the country shifts back to small, independent producers since their independence from Yugoslavia. The predominant grape is Malvazia, a fresh white which pairs well with seafood dishes. The predominant red grape is Teran, though the reds we enjoyed seemed to be primarily blends of several grapes.
The only complaint I have about Istrian wine is that it is very difficult to find information online about which wineries have open tasting rooms and which ones require appointments. Though all of them have internet pages, I was unable to find this information for most of them. A simple address and opening times or guidance for obtaining an appointment would have been welcome. But enough complaining, here is a quick list of the wines we enjoyed (I am no wine expert so I’ll save myself the embarrassment of tasting notes, suffice it to say that I was very happy drinking these wines), and I have linked to their web pages just in case anyone is interested.
- Agrolaguna – festigia merlot 2009
- Frank Arman – malvazia 2010
- Benvenuti – malvazia 2010
- Degrassi – cuvee blanc 2010
- Kabola – malvazia 2010 (Kabola does have an open tasting room where visitors are free to stop by.)
- Kozlovic – malvazia & muscat (I am not listing years because we have happily drank this wine on multiple occasions, both in the past and on this most recent trip. Kozlovic is probably one of the better known producers in all of Croatia and is justifiably famous for his Muscat. You do need an appointment to visit his tasting room.)
- Matosevic – grimalda (merlot teran blend) 2009