In Croatia, food is the star of almost any social situation, even at the humblest konoba where home cooking reigns.
It helps that regional Croat cuisine showcases local produce and traditional cooking methods. When you dig into a plate of shellfish sautéed in olive oil, herbs, and white wine (buzzara-boo-zahr-ah) in Dubrovnik, a 4-inch tall cream-filled napoleon (kremsnite -- crem-shnit-eh) in Samobor, or a mound of thick pasta with venison (frkanci -- frih-kahn-see) in Motovun, you’re getting a helping of history and cultural tradition as a side dish.
Signature Dishes of Dalmatia, the Coast, and the Islands
Italy, the sea, and a mild Mediterranean climate all inform the signature dishes that define Croatia’s coastal cuisine.
- Watch the bustle and “wall walkers” at Dubrovnik’s Old Harbor from a dockside table while chefs at Lokanda Peskarija prepare rich, squid ink risotto (crni rižot -- sir-nee rih-zhoat) served in little black pots.
- Take a day trip to tiny Ston/Mali Ston, less than an hour northwest of Dubrovnik. Taste the sea in mussels and oysters pulled from nearby Malostonski Bay mere hours before they land on your plate.
- Stop at one of the produce stands on the road leading back to Dubrovnik and bite into luscious watermelons, berries, or figs.
- Watch the sunset on Zadar with a glass of Maraschino, a local liqueur made from a unique variety of cherries grown in the region.
- Gaze out on a secluded bay while chowing down on charcoal-grilled fish at Konoba Stončica on Vis Island. The BBQ restaurant is accessible only by boat or a short trek down a steep path.
- Pick up morning coffee and fresh-made rolls filled with cheese or jam (buhtle-boot-lee) in Pag Island’s Bazilike Square in Novalja.
- Browse Novalja’s town market and munch on Pag Island cheese (Paški sir -- pashkey sear) made with sheep’s milk. It is redolent with the taste of salty air and scrub herbs ingested by the animals.
- Indulge in a languid lunch of lamb on the flower-bedecked terrace at Boškinac, a Pag hotel-restaurant-winery hailed by Anthony Bourdain.
- Get the “slow food” experience at Lucullus on Hvar Island with a bowl of lobster stew full of tomatoes and onions (gregada -- greg-ah-tah).
Expert tip: Instead of the ubiquitous grilled fish and seafood on Korcula menus, go for the Žonrnovski macaroni handmade by a local woman especially for Konoba Gajeta.
Continental Croatian Cuisine
Cold winters, an urban-rural landscape, and foreign occupation are strong influences on the food traditions of inland Croatia. Preferences there reflect the meat-and-potatoes tastes of the common people, spicy accents preferred by Turks invaders, and the refined palates of Austro-Hungarian nobility. The result is a meat-heavy regional cuisine of homey, often fiery stews, soups, and smoked sausages, plus cream-filled Austrian pastries.
- Head to Baltazar in Zagreb for national dishes like schnitzel. Order Zagorje’s cheese-filled blintzes (štrukli -- strook-lee) or Dalmatian flan (rožata -- rozh-ah-tah) for dessert.
- Stop at any konoba for a plate of spiced, minced beef or pork chunks (cevapčići – sev-op-chih-chee), as common a food to continental Croats as the hamburger is to Americans. The irony is that cevapčići isn’t originally Croatian but an import from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
- The cuisine of Gorski Kotar and Lika is noted for its simplicity—boiled potatoes, pickled cabbage, homemade fresh cheese, and meat--fresh or smoked.
- The Austro-Hungarian influence on food is strongest in Slavonia. Go to Kod Ruze in Osijek for pickled cabbage stuffed with meat and rice (sarma -- sar-muh) or carp stewed in pepper sauce (fiš paprika -- fish pop-ree-kahs). The restaurant occupies a restored 18th-century building stuffed with historical tchotchkes.
- Dessert is where the Austro part of Austro-Hungarian dominates. Wash down a delicate cake or honey-walnut filled crepe (palačinke -- pah-lah-chink-eh) with an espresso at the elegant Kavana Waldinger, Osijek’s premiere pastry cafe.
Expert tip: For a meal-ender like no other, head to Iločki Podrumi (Ilok Cellars) on the banks of the Danube at Croatia’s eastern border. Sip a sweet traminac that was hidden behind a false wall for seven years to keep it away from invading Serb forces during the Homeland War. Today the winery is back in business offering tours, meal service, and a history lesson. www.ilocki-podrumi.hr
Food of Istria
A revolving door of foreign domination over three centuries has left Istria with a refined cuisine that laces coastal and inland dishes with touches of foreign intrigue and Istrian sensibilities.
- Try any dish with truffles but especially Istrian pasta with truffles (Istarski fuži sa tartufima -- Ish-tar-skee fu-zhee sah tar-two-fee-mah) at the Restoran Kastel in Motovun. Fuži is a pasta shape specific to Istria.
- In Pula, personal attention, crab-stuffed ravioli, and lavender semi freddo with fig sauce mark Gina’s interpretation of Istrian cuisine.
- Sip artisan biska (beece-kah) in Hum, the smallest town in the world. Biska is a local grape brandy infused with white mistletoe and other herbs. It stands up to Humska Konoba’s house-smoked meat and sauerkraut.
- The menu at Parenzo 1910, a restaurant in Poreć’s restored Grand Hotel Palazzo, was inspired by the Italian clientele that frequented the hotel when it was new, more than a century ago. Venison with fuži, salmon with chard, and wild boar are menu items.
- Dine on the roof of a 15th century tower at Peterokutna Kula in Poreć. The views are gorgeous, seafood is the focus and the area seagulls are over-eager to share the leftovers.
Expert tip: Drive to the northwest edge of Istria to windswept Sauvudrija where Jolanta Pavlovic runs Oma Jola, an organic olive oil business supplied by her 2,000 olive trees. She welcomes visitors and will show you around her garage operation, serve samples of her oils and olive leaf tea, and tell her story of moving to Istria from Germany.