I probably reached peak Istria when I went for breakfast at Karlić Tartufi, a truffle farm and restaurant in the center of this region in the far northwest of Croatia. One of the owners greeted me in front of the farmhouse, behind a table laden with baskets, fruit and jars of truffle products, then offered a taste of the local liqueur. (When in Rome.) Then I piled into a vintage green vehicle with her cousin and one of the farm’s excitable truffle dogs, and went routing around in the forest.
I came back to find a spread of local cheese, cured meats, bread and truffle paste, followed by perfectly creamy scrambled eggs buried under a mountain of fresh truffles. House wine was offered. It seems that Croatian hospitality doesn’t much worry about time of day—it’s always the right moment to welcome guests with everything wonderful they produce.
And it’s always truffle o’clock somewhere, especially if we’re talking about the Croatian kind. One of the country’s signature food products, Istrian truffles thrive in the clean nature, and the white ones (the same species as the famous ones in Italy’s Alba province) command higher and higher prices. The Karlić family has been in the business and 1966 and now exports white truffles and supplies black ones to some of Croatia’s top restaurants, as well as serving simple meals to spotlight the freshly harvested “black diamonds.”
Then again, maybe I reached peak Istria during my first restaurant dinner, at Batelina, a fishermen-family-owned restaurant in Banjole (which hosted Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey) that specializes in “blue fish,” meaning the ones that are deemed inferior, such as anchovies, sardines and other cantankerous fish that turn out to be high in Omega-3s. (It’s worth noting here that I’m pescatarian, so the lack of meat references here reflects only my pickiness, not the quality of the offer.)
The point at Batelina is to serve these unwanted fish—all parts of them, up to the monkfish tripe that was presented with polenta during a many-course alfresco dinner. It’s the fancy fish that sell overseas, but these owners want to elevate the “fish of the poor.” It’s exactly in line with something said by my host for that evening, a local tourism official: “What is authentic for us is exotic for someone else.”
Or my purest moment was during my second dinner, at Damir & Ornella, a fish restaurant in Novigrad that’s just 50 feet from the sea. My host that evening, Denis Ivosević, managing director of the Istrian tourism board, told me that it’s the only restaurant on the whole Adriatic that doesn’t have a terrace—they don’t want guests who just want to sip their spritzes in the sun; instead, they aim to attract about 20 food lovers per day who care about good-quality products as much as they do (and they get those, with tables booking up weeks in advance and Italians chartering boats just to have dinner). After a meal of sea bass crudo—prepared tableside, starting with a whole fish—polenta with cheese and truffles, and elegantly cooked zucchini, Ivosević said simply. “This is Istria.”
Or it might have been my day at the Stanzia Baracija, the passion project of Croatian-American couple Kresimir and Suzanne James Penavić. The estate, which they renovated after 50 years of abandonment, is now a dreamy vacation villa, with eight bedrooms spread between two houses, which are decorated with a mix of antiques and contemporary art. The estate’s private chef, Priska Thuring, worked in some of Croatia’s most prestigious kitchens and seems to be happiest when she’s out foraging or trying out new ideas in the fermentation lab in her new, related restaurant nearby.
Or it was my final dinner, at Marina in Novigrad, which Ivosević called a flagship for Istrian gastronomy. There, chef Marina Gaši plays with extreme flavors and makes up the dishes that she will serve on her six- and eight-course tasting menu only after she sees what her purveyors bring in each day.
Or maybe my very last meal in the region, a simple lunch at the family-owned tavern Čok—one of those places with the husband and wife serving guests in the dining room and their son in the kitchen preparing the catch of the day.
You get the idea.
Or maybe the essence of Istria isn’t food at all. Maybe I found peak Istria in the arena in Pula. (My guide explained that while it’s tempting to call it a colosseum, that’s incorrect because that word is the proper name of the famous arena in Rome. Anyway, it’s the same shape.) It’s a massive gladiators’ amphitheater from the 1st century, and it’s the best preserved of the world’s great Roman ruins, yet it’s not widely known. That’s typical of Istria: It’s understated‚ not crying out for attention on the world stage, but a place where people are living in the middle of incredible history. The marketing people call Pula “Little Rome.”
Nearby, the costal town of Rovinj has strong Venetian influences and romantic, narrow streets whose colorful buildings have been restored in a way that feels thoughtful, not Disneyfied. My guide pointed out that the huge Venetian Baroque church on top of the hill is dedicated to St. Euphemia, whose name refers to “speaking well” in Greek and is where we get the English word euphemism. This is not the only fun fact in Istria.
The point is that Istria is many things—and in the center of many things while remaining largely unknown to non-European tourists. As Suzanne James Penavić of Baracija described it, borrowing the slogan of her American alma mater, it’s “centrally isolated,” with an international airport in Pula and three others within a few hours’ drive. Importantly, it has not been taken over by the crowds that have descended upon Dubrovnik.
It’s also a place with a richly layered, complex history—not only the Roman and Venetian eras but also much more recent. Pula was once the most important port of the Austro Hungarian Empire. After that, Istria was part of Italy until the second world war, then part of Yugoslavia until that country came apart in the 1990s. There are strong Italian influences, but also many others. Nearly everything is in four languages.
Archaeology enthusiasts will appreciate the Lapidarium in Novigrad, with its collection of architectural remnants dating as far back as the 4th century. Surprisingly, I found myself more captivated by the town’s maritime museum, called Gallerion, the private gallery of an eccentric history buff who has spent three decades collecting photographs and naval items, and fit them all into a small building in Novigrad.
Istria is also nature. That’s clearest in Brijuni National Park, on an island that’s a short boat ride from Pula and is still known locally as Tito’s island, referring to the when the Yugoslavian leader held court here. There’s a lot going on here: a boathouse that was state of the art at its time and would still fit well in a James Bond film; ruined and restored hotels from Austro Hungarian, Italian and Yugoslavian times; an olive tree from the 4th century and a pine allée from the early 20th; a natural golf course (the “greens” are actually golden); 1st-century Roman ruins; and Tito’s 1950s green Cadillac Eldorado convertible. You can rent it for 30 minutes for about $665.
The quirky island also has a dinosaur footprints and a safari park, carried forward from the days when visiting heads of state would present Tito with exotic animals. Queen Elizabeth gave him a Shetland pony. The elephant, from Indira Gandhi, is still alive in the park, as are a couple of foulmouthed parrots.
Back in the 1970s, Tito and his wife also received visitors at the Grand Hotel Brioni (the Italian spelling of Brijuni) in Pula, a hotel that was also famous for its glamorous casino. It recently underwent a major renovation of its 217 rooms and public spaces that produced a Mediterranean style and what the hotel’s managing director called, correctly, “controlled luxury”—it’s gorgeous but not over the top. The same goes for the intimate new Palazzo Rainis in Novigrad and the sprawling Grand Park Hotel Rovinj. On the terrace there, overlooking the medieval city, I enjoyed a lunch of polenta and eight-hour simmered Adriatic octopus.
Funny how things in Istria keep coming back to food and drink. There’s so much produced here and such a spirit of sharing it—one of my hosts told me a common saying is that if a Croatian host has only one apple, he will give you two.
I also was told that Pliny the Elder said Istrian olive oil was the second best in the world (second to Rome, of course), and that the fruit here is picked when it’s still green, meaning there’s less quantity but higher quality. Tedi Chiavalon, the third-generation property of the olive oil farm of the same name said the same thing, and explained that it’s normal to cough when tasting olive oil, “followed by tears of joy.” Another place ecologically producing olive oil with great care is Ipša, which has in recent years begin producing wines, particularly the malvazija (malvasia) that the region is best known for.
There’s also outstanding malvasia at Clai, the winery from the same owners as Stanzia Baracija, which is increasingly becoming known for its experiments with orange, gravity-fed, low-intervention and other interesting wines. And for the stronger stuff, there’s the family-owned Aura distillery, the self-proclaimed home of Istrian brandy in a gorgeous old stone facility.
Maybe Chiavalon summed it up best: “If you go to Istria and don’t have a glass of malvazija,” he said, “it doesn’t count.”