virtuoso global May 2019 Croatia: A Culinary Road Map

Croatia: A Culinary Road Map

Begin your culinary trek in Dubrovnik.
Begin your culinary trek in Dubrovnik.
Photo by Getty Images
Take a tour of regional flavors, progressive chefs, and rich cultural heritage. 

Eating your way through Croatia is like time-traveling through the last millennium of southeastern European history. “On the edge of empires for thousands of years, Croatia has long been a crossroads of cultures,” says Dolores Jakolis, a Virtuoso advisor who lives in the seaside town of Split. “Their indelible marks are visible not only in majestic monuments and architecture, but also in the country’s gastronomy.”
 
Much of the 3,626 miles of glittering Dalmatian coastline stretching south to Dubrovnik (nicknamed the “Pearl of the Adriatic”) was once dominated by the Venetian Republic. Inland, just over the Dinaric Alps, which run like a spine down the Balkan Peninsula, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires played a huge role in the development of cuisine. (Expect to find Turkish staples like goulash and sarma, meat-stuffed cabbage rolls.) And in Istria, Croatia’s northwest truffle-gem near the Slovenian border, traditional dishes boast plentiful Italian influences – after all, Istria was part of Italy for a while.
 
Today, the country’s intriguing history is a boon to hungry visitors. “Traveling in different regions of Croatia is a feast for the taste buds,” says Jakolis. “There’s a tapestry of flavors that’s far more than the sum of its parts.” From humble, regional fare served in konobas (family-operated restaurants) to elegant haute cuisine, here’s a sample menu of Croatia’s diverse culinary culture.

Dalmatia 

Coastal Bounty: Fresh Seafood and Historic Wines
Unsurprisingly, the sea is a pivotal influence in most kitchens along the Dalmatian Coast. Dishes such as squid-ink risotto, whole grilled fresh fish, and fried calamari tempt diners on nearly every menu from Dubrovnik to Zadar. But it’s not all seafood all the time: Paski sir, a sheep cheese from the island of Pag, and salt-air-cured prsut (prosciutto) are also ubiquitous in Dalmatian dining rooms, both at home and in restaurants.

Prsut ham has been salted, smoked, and dried in gusty sea air for centuries.
Prsut ham has been salted, smoked, and dried in gusty sea air for centuries.
At Restaurant Pjerin in the Villa Dubrovnik hotel, chef Giuseppe Somma prepares sporki makaruli, a traditional Dubrovnik pasta dish in a beef ragù, and ravioli stuffed with Kotarac cheese, another local product. Wine pairings include reds made with plavac mali grapes grown on the nearby Peljesac Peninsula. For Michelin-starred fine dining, head to much-lauded Restaurant 360, built into Dubrovnik’s famous medieval walls, where the view is just as delicious as the fare. One standout: red prawns with pumpkin cream and hazelnut oil. To taste more Peljesac wines (don’t miss the Dingac region’s silky reds), travel an hour north and you’ll hit Ston, a town that’s also home to a legion of oyster farms: The bivalves are so good, Roman emperors and Austrian archdukes placed delivery orders for them.
Grapevines on the Peljesac Peninsula benefit from generous sunlight (and prime views of the Adriatic Sea).
Grapevines on the Peljesac Peninsula benefit from generous sunlight (and prime views of the Adriatic Sea).
Photo by Damir Fabijanić
Continuing up the coast, wine lovers shouldn’t miss the Split area, notes Virtuoso advisor Amy Rasmussen, who recently visited Croatia. “I had a wonderful experience tasting wine in the hills above Split at Putalj Winery,” she says. “That’s the area where they discovered the ancestor of the zinfandel grape known as crlenjak kastelanski in Croatian. It’s a stunning location with a lot of wonderful wines.”

Farther north, in the medieval town of Sibenik, Pelegrini is a refined restaurant opposite the UNESCO-recognized cathedral of Saint James. Self-taught chef/owner Rudi Stefan practices sustainable gastronomy, working with small, local producers to create sophisticated fare, such as smoked tempura oxtail and truffle- and prosciutto-laced pappardelle.

Zagreb and Slavonia 

Gastronomy in the Heartland: From Humble to Haute
Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city, is finally coming into its own as a center of good eating. RougeMarin, once a lightbulb factory outside the center of town, has a casual atmosphere, but takes on Croatian fare with worldly flair in dishes such as marinated pork loin on an amaranth rice cracker, and panko-encrusted monkfish. Go traditional at Kod Pere, a neighborhood spot within walking distance of Zagreb’s main square that serves up hearty central Croatian fare in large portions – think blood sausage and schnitzel. For something more stylish, one-Michelin-starred Noel’s softly lit, modern space sets the stage for chef Goran Kocis’ elevated regional fare: grapefruit-accented sea urchin risotto, say, or foie gras with Dalmatian raisins. Pair your meal with local wines, an artisan cocktail, or a recommendation from sake sommelier Ivan Jug; the restaurant also offers tea tasting menus that match teas to each course.

Ban Jelacic Square in downtown Zagreb is a ten-minute walk from Kod Pere and Noel restaurants. 
Ban Jelacic Square in downtown Zagreb is a ten-minute walk from Kod Pere and Noel restaurants. 
Photo by Getty Images
Northeast of Zagreb is the region of Slavonia, an oft-overlooked, but fascinating part of the country, especially for food and wine. The culinary tradition here emphasizes hearty stews and fish paprikash, a paprika-laden stew made with freshwater fish slow-cooked over an open flame for hours. Osijek, the capital, is a fun, off-the-radar city to explore for a few days, but be sure to head to the wine-country town of Zmajevac, not far from where Croatia, Hungary, and Serbia meet. Josic Wine Cellar is an ideal place to sample local pours: Grasevina – a fruity, flowery, crisp white – is the most popular.

Istria

New Wave of the Northwest: Truffles, Pasta, and Olive Oil

The medieval town of Motovun in central Istria makes a great home base, located in the heart of truffle country.
The medieval town of Motovun in central Istria makes a great home base, located in the heart of truffle country.
In Istria, food takes on a decidedly Italian accent, and not just because of geographical proximity: The peninsula was part of Italy from 1919 to 1947. In this melting-pot region, the road signs are in Croatian and Italian, and much of the population is bilingual.

Virtuoso advisor Georgia Ritchie loves Istrian food and wine. “This famous wine region’s culinary highlight is the truffle,” she says, “though no matter what you order, you won’t go wrong while staying in one of beautiful villages.” Travelers come from around the world to dine on local white and black truffles, wines (try the light, aromatic malvazija whites and herbal, peppery teran reds); grassy olive oils; and traditional digestifs like biska mistletoe grappa.
In Istria, eat your fill of savory pasta dishes with black truffle shavings.
In Istria, eat your fill of savory pasta dishes with black truffle shavings.
Photo by Getty Images
It’s no surprise that some of the most celebrated restaurants in the country are here. Start with Restaurant Zigante in Livade, which serves most of its pasta dishes with a liberal shaving of local truffles. Then, day-trip to the artists’ town of Groznjan, where you can nibble on locally produced chocolates as you wander down cobblestoned streets where classical music drifts from the local music laboratory. In the small port city of Rovinj, award-winning Monte offers three six-course tasting menus: traditional Croatian, vegetable-driven, or contemporary – all served with plenty of truffles. If you drift north near the Slovenia border to Novigrad, just an hour’s drive from Trieste, Italy, the restaurant Damir & Ornella offers fresh-caught fish and shellfish cut tableside and served crudo-style for one of the great Istrian dining experiences. Wash it all down with a glass of malvazija, and consider ordering another.

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