As a big fan of Istrian cuisine, I've been wanting to share my favorite places to eat in Istria for quite some time. Istrian cuisine is my favorite in Croatia- there's fish, there's meat, there's quality olive oil, there are truffles!, there's pasta and there's cheese, so what's not to love? All of the places I'll be recommending are tried and tested- some are our all-time favorites, some we’ve only been to once, but they left a good (great actually, I don't do with only good) impression. To me, a restaurant has to serve better food than the one I make at home, otherwise, it makes no sense going there. I have to be excited about a restaurant- that’s why we so often stick to our favorites, and our favorite Croatian ones are all in Istria. Here, almost every restaurant is called a konoba, which was traditionally a cellar of the house, with a long wooden table for gathering, and a place where people would store their wine and rakija (a distilled spirit usually made of grapes or herbs in this part of the world). The konobas are less fancy then restaurants (even though some of them are quite fancy), and I would compare them to Italian Trattoria or French Bistro.
Konoba Malo Selo- our absolute favorite, in entire Croatia I’d say. It is a family run konoba in Kaldanija, just outside Buje and very close to the Slovenian border. We fell in love with the food and the atmosphere the first time we went there- we felt genuinely welcome, and already the second time we visited the owners greeted us like old friends. This restaurant is known for quality local ingredients, typical Istrian continental dishes (no fish here), and, their majesty- the truffles! My favorite dishes are ravioli with truffles, steak with truffles and first mashed, then pan-fried potatoes on the side (their specialty!), gibanica for dessert- a succulent layered pita made of walnuts, apple, fresh cheese, and raisins, so delicious! Also, Malo Selo is one of the restaurants that have a permission to serve the meat of the autochtonous Istrian bull- boskarin, a breed that was once used as a working animal as well as for food but was forgotten and almost died out in the 90's. Efforts that were made in the last 20 years to save the boskarin were successful, the numbers increased, and a restaurant must have a special license to be able to serve the meat.
Trattoria Vodnjanka- our second favorite is also a family run restaurant, this time in Pula. It has been known for years as a place where the locals would have their lunch, as it served simple, local dishes, the way Istrian nonnas would make them. Since the son of the family took over, he also took the restaurant to another level- he made a cozy little terrace, refined the dishes, and started making delicious desserts by himself. The menu varies from day to day, depending on the availability of fresh produce, and the catch of the day when it comes to fish. I have a couple of favorite dishes there- when I’m in the mood for meat, I usually order lamb or beef “in padela” (cooked for hours in cast iron skillet, along with some vegetables) or liver alla veneziana (with a lot of sweet onions and wine. Also I know, this is not everyone's cup of tea). When I’m in the mood for fish, I order a brudet (delicious thick fish stew), fried Adriatic calamari (crunchy and chewy, not your regular thin calamari) or a grilled fish of the day with vegetable julienne. For dessert, we always order the owner’s cheesecake- he calls it a cheesecake, which doesn't sound as epic as this dessert is. It is made out of local ricotta and cream, toasted hazelnuts, and homemade jam. My secret tip: reserve the dessert immediately as it happens often that they run out of it by the end of lunch time.
*A la carte menu is served only for lunch- for dinner, you can opt for either fish or meat set menu.
Konoba Batelina- Batelina is a famous restaurant, a pricey one as well, so we’ve been there only once... and absolutely loved it. Since it was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, you have to make a reservation well in advance. For our wedding anniversary in June, I called a week in advance, and the person on the phone said: “Are you kidding me? We are all booked for the next two weeks.” That part aside, I think Batelina has the most interesting, innovative, delicious fish dishes you can try in Istria. Since it is run by a fishermen’s family that is used to make use of the entire fish, you'll be most likely to find some interesting dishes on the menu, such as fried fish bones we got (unimaginably good, tasting like very crunchy and spicy chips). Also, they give deserved attention to "modest" fish, the small ones, that usually don't make it to the menus of fancier restaurants. The appetizers are the most interesting part of the menu, and if you visit, I suggest you try a little bit of everything- the portions are mostly bite-sized, beautifully presented, and well thought of. I'm talking raw, pickled or salted fish, pates, and small sandwiches. The main dishes are delicious as well, though not as innovative as appetizers- but when you come to desserts, it’s back to refined cuisine again. We had chocolate truffles, each with a different flavor, and they were really, really good. They also have a good, local wine list.
Konoba Stari Podrum- I always describe Stari Podrum as a fancier version of Malo Selo. The menu is very similar, although the prices are somewhat higher. I'd say it's one of the most beautiful restaurants in Istria, with large glass framed doors giving onto a lovely garden. Even though the food in Malo Selo is still my favorite, this restaurant is worth visiting as well. We visited with friends (they were delighted!) and most of us ate pasta with freshly grated truffles- if the pasta is homemade and the truffles are fresh, (and by fresh I mean the real deal, not the ones you can buy in glass jars that lose all their flavor), which they were here, you cannot go much wrong. What I'm trying to say here is that the food was really good. Also, the restaurant is situated at the foot of the small hilltop town of Momjan, surrounded by vineyards, and if you're a wine enthusiast, you can combine this with a visit to a couple of surrounding wineries.
Restaurant La Parenzana- we ended up in this restaurant the first time we wanted to visit Malo Selo (see, everything evolves around Malo Selo), but it was a Wednesday, and on Wednesdays, they were, as it always happens to us- closed. Luckily, just up the main road we caught a glance of a sign pointing to another restaurant and we decided to check it out. As we drove down a little side road, that leads to La Parenzana, we immediately liked the look of the estate. An old stone house, turned into a small hotel, with dining tables in the garden, surrounded by lavender flowers. The food was delicious as well- we had a cheese platter with olives as a starter, homemade ravioli stuffed with sea bass, and then if I remember correctly some kind of a semifreddo. I think we have to revisit this restaurant.
Konoba Kotlic- is a very simple, rustic place, a Konoba in a true sense of the word. There are no tablecloths, and you sit on wooden benches, all very mountain-hut style (only, this konoba is not in the mountains). But, it has a terrace in the most magical setting- above the cascades formed by the river Rečina in the village of Kotli (more about this, and some other secret Istrian places over here). Anyhow, the food is simple, rustic and traditional Istrian (also tasty!)- maneštra (thick bean and corn soup), omelette with mushrooms, ombolo and kobasice (Istrian cured meats) with sauerkraut, dumplings filled with plum jam. All that with a glass of chilled beer and a sound of the waterfalls. Note- if you visit in summer, the river bed will be almost dried out.
Konoba Puli Pineta- We just discovered this restaurant a couple of months ago, driving from Zagreb to Pula, tired and hungry. Luka found it on Tripadvisor while we were still on the highway, and I reluctantly agreed to try it out (I'm always skeptical of new places), but it turned out good, very good actually. It is a small traditional restaurant close to Žminj, but it looks like it was newly refurbished with a lovely terrace under the shade of vines, white tablecloths, and pastel green chairs. When I read the menu I knew that I needed to try the homemade pasta with fried milk skin (yes indeed), and we also ordered a plate of ombolo and fried potatoes. Fried potatoes had the exact taste as if grandma made them, and I fell in love with the pasta dish- it was almost more sweet than salty, the pasta chewy and the sauce succulent, even thinking of it makes me salivate.
Konoba Pizzeria Peron 2- We decided to give this place a chance after a friend of mine praised it as the best pizza in Istria (at first, I took it with a grain of salt, as this friend is not as food obsessed as we are), but we also found mostly good reviews on Tripadvisor. It is very conveniently located in Cerovlje, otherwise an inconspicuous town in central Istria, but just off the highway on the road to Pula (we often travel from Zagreb to Pula and at the point of passing the Učka tunnel and entering Istria we start to get hungry). As soon as you enter the town, there stands a restaurant almost too pretty for a roadside restaurant, with a covered terrace and a wisteria overgrown house right next to it. The first time we visited, I ordered homemade ravioli filled with cheese, in butter, sage and grated parmesan sauce- I didn't expect it to be so delicious, and I keep ordering the same dish almost every time now. I did, however, make the exception once by ordering a pizza which was one of the best pizzas you can find in Istria (and spoiled by Italian pizza just over the border I am a discerning customer). Luka had a steak with mashed potatoes and truffles once (naturally, I had to have a bite, just to be able to share my experience here;)), and we both liked it.
Konoba Restaurant Barba Danilo- just outside Rovinj, hidden inside a campsite, lies this unexpectedly classy restaurant (with a pool in front of it and all). They serve well thought of meat and fish dishes, and we tried a little bit of everything (it is that sort of place where everything on the menu sounds interesting and comes in small portions). It is pricey, but it is an elegant restaurant with refined cuisine and a nice dining experience all in all. We were there with our friends, and inevitably started comparing it to Batelina- in Luka's and my opinion, Batelina won fair and square, but our friends preferred Barba Danilo, and so if you're willing to spend your kunas on fine dining, you can judge by yourself. (Again, we've been to this place only once, for a special occasion, but I think the quality stays more or less the same in this kind of places).
Gelateria Italia- even though this is not a restaurant, a proper Italian gelato deserves to be mentioned, and as I regard it the best gelato in Istria, it would be a shame not to share it with you. Situated in the most beautiful coastal town of Rovinj, it is run by an Italian family, and this is the only ice cream shop in Istria I could recommend. My favorite flavor anywhere (hence, there as well) is pistachio, but their peach, mango and dark chocolate (called Don Pepe) are all equally delicious. Be prepared to know some basic Italian words though! :) Here is a little post about Rovinj to spark your wanderlust.
What have I missed? Please let me know in the comments below! Also, you can pin this post for later!