Croatia’s national food is pasta. That was according to the proprietress of our hotel in Zadar. She explained it was a hangover from when the Venetians ruled the area from 1420 to 1797. It certainly dominates every menu no matter what the style of food. Pasta, pizza and risotto are staples. The rest of the menu consists of fish and meat, usually chicken, lamb and beef.
It is hard to judge what is authentic Croatian or Dalmatian food. We stayed in the Old Town of each place for the atmosphere (worth it) but that also meant it was more touristy. My sister and I tended to claim the fish or seafood dishes while Mom generally kept the meat side in business. Cuttlefish and octopus were common and seemed to be the most local, along with the fish.
In the early days we were thrown off by the pricing, moving on quickly when the menu listed steaks and fish for the equivalent of $80 Cdn. It wasn’t until a few days later that we realized they were priced by the pound, while other menu items, like pasta, were not. In general, we could eat a delicious dinner for $30-40 each, all in, with a little wine.
Croatia counts heavily on tourism so most people speak some English and wait staff generally speak it very well. Menus are translated and if some of the labels aren’t exactly accurate, well that’s not really unusual when you are traveling. Pan-fried and deep-fried are often used interchangeably. Our “pan-fried squids” came deep-fried and breaded. And enormous: wide, thick rings of calamari with those spider pieces but of giant size, and an off-putting arrowhead squid tail that must get thrown away in Canada.
We were also told by one server that in Croatia, omelette and scrambled eggs mean the same thing, although that was likely a language issue. He’d offered us a choice of omelette or eggs and we’d made the mistake of asking how they prepared the non-omelette eggs. We gave up and enjoyed the omelettes.
Our most unusual meal came from the highly rated and personally recommended Azur in Dubrovnik. Azur, like many restaurants, lines up candlelit tables in the narrow alleyways radiating out in three directions. Well-fed cats sauntered by hoping for some of our pan-fried swordfish in black curry sauce and crispy salmon pockets with wasabi sauce. Black sauces and black risotto, courtesy of cuttlefish ink, are popular. And delicious.
But our tastiest meal was at Konoba (coastal Croatian for restaurant) Matejuska in Split. A top favourite on Trip Advisor, it books up days in advance so we were lucky to discover it in time to score a table on our last night there. The server presented a cutting board of fresh fish his father had picked up at the market that morning: black sea bream, gilthead bream, sea bass, sarpa salpa (another species of sea bream) and golden mullet. All white meat, you order by the whole fish so need to balance mild vs. fuller fish flavour with the size of the fish and the number of starters and sides you are having.
We settled on the medium-sized sarpa salpa, grilled whole, with olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon. Tender octopus with whole chickpeas in a rich sauce started the meal. Fresh bread sopped up the sauce. A flavourful grilled mixed vegetable dish of red onion, mushrooms, red pepper, eggplant and zucchini, just on the right side of salty, complemented the simple preparation of the fish and boiled potatoes tossed with oil and vinegar cut some of the richness. A little research revealed that salpa can induce LSD-like hallucinations. It’s a thing called salpa-tripping and might explain why the restaurant is so popular.
To add to the atmosphere, we were on the edge of a storm front, not raining but cooler and windy. When we sat down outside the server said, “I’m sorry, we are all full inside so if it rains…I don’t know what to say… If it is light, you’ll be fine under these awnings. If not, you’re all in trouble.”
Apparently they have hurricane-speed winds (up to 225 km/hr) occasionally. I can believe it as the unpredictable gusts we had that night blew the clean side plates, cutlery and napkins completely out of the server’s hands the minute he walked out, forcing him to go back for others. Throughout the meal, a strong gust would come up and we’d all dive for whatever meant the most to us. My sister and I dove for the wine, Mom grabbed the food, and the vase with flowers went flying. Napkins were airborne all night.
We finally tried the pizza on our last and only night in Trogir. It was the sole real day of rain so after a late lunch and walking around the once-again beautiful UNESCO town, damp and tired, we ordered a large pizza and took it home to eat in our attic suite. The pizza, thin crust with salami, ham, bacon, onions and egg, made for a cozy dinner and perfect lunch the following.
One final surprise of eating in Croatia was the predominance of gelato. It is everywhere, every few feet in every town and all dressed up for the ball. Creamy and rich, there is a multitude of flavours in each case, from chocolate to stracciatella to hazelnut to strawberry to lemon. Rarely translated, each flavour is decorated so extravagantly with some of the fresh ingredients that it wasn’t difficult to figure it out. Just to decide.