Culinary Tour of Istria

A 4-day trip on Istria’s gourmet trail

When you think of gourmet cuisine and fine wine, Croatia probably isn't the first place that comes to mind —but that's about to change. Over the last few years, Croatia has been making a name for itself on the international culinary stage, thanks in large part to all the action taking place in Istria, a region on the country's west coast. Dubbed the "gourmet peninsula," Istria — which sits just across the Adriatic Sea from Venice and a short drive from Trieste — is home to a crop of creative, buzz-worthy chefs who are dedicated to highlighting the excellent local produce and products, which include cheese, olive oil, black and white truffles, and wine, plus lots of homegrown veggies, meats, and herbs. With centuries of shared history with its Italian neighbor, and a similar climate and topography, Istria feels a bit like Tuscany 2.0 — a place where you can indulge in decadent dinners, visit working vineyards, and stroll the cobblestoned streets of charming hilltop towns, all for much less than in Italy or France.

This four-day itinerary highlights some of the best eateries and producers on the peninsula. All you have to bring is your appetite — and a couple of extra notches on your belt.

Day One

Enjoy a relaxed poolside lunch at San Rocco, an award-winning boutique hotel in the quaint village of Brtonigla. The hotel's gourmet restaurant showcases local ingredients like fish, truffles, game, and mushrooms; choose one of the seasonal tasting menus, with wine pairings, for a nice overview. Work off lunch with a stroll through Grožnjan, a hilltop town known for its art galleries and 360-degree views, then head to noted vineyard Kabola for a wine tasting and cellar tour. In addition to making excellent wines from signature Istrian grapes like malvasia (white) and teran (red), Kabola is also one of the only producers with an amfora wine — an aromatic white wine made using ancient Greek techniques. Enjoy an unforgettable dinner at Toklarija (no web site; Tel: 052 663 031), where slow-food chef Nevio Sirotic serves elaborate menus in a converted historic olive mill. In warm weather, be sure to sit out in the garden.

Day Two

Lunch on fresh fish — filleted, prepared at your table, and most likely topped with grated truffles — at the intimate Damir and Ornella in Novigrad. Afterwards, explore the popular seaside town, with its marina and tons of charming cafés and bars. Istrians are passionate about olive oil. At most restaurants you will find several choices lining the tables, so in the afternoon, head to Ipša, one of the top producers, to learn how to properly taste olive oil and tell the difference between the various varietals. Save room for dinner at Zigante, arguably the peninsula's best-known place for gourmet truffle dinners.

Back in 1999, owner Giancarlo Zigante held the Guinness World Record for finding the world's biggest truffle (weighing in at about 2.9 pounds), and since then, his beautiful restaurant in hilltop Livade has become a truffle lover's mecca. The multi-course tasting menu features the freshest black or white truffles (depending on what's in season) sourced from the nearby Mirna River Valley; be prepared to find them sprinkled on everything from eggs and fish to pastas and ice creams.

 

Day Three

Enjoy an alfresco lunch overlooking the sea at the chic Hotel Monte Mulini's restaurant Mediterraneo in the bustling seaside town of Rovinj. The restaurant boasts one of Istria's top sommeliers and best wine cellars, so ask ahead to arrange a quick tour. In the afternoon, stroll the winding streets of the tiny town of Bale, then stop in for a coffee or drink at the quirky Kamene Priče, a much-loved bar/café/restaurant with a colorful back garden. (It also serves as the epicenter for the lively annual Open Jazz Fest.)

Call in advance to set-up a wine tasting and tour at Meneghetti, a high-end producer of award-winning wines and olive oils, nearby. The mineral-rich red soil vineyards around the Stancija Meneghetti are perfect for growing the brand's deep, bold red varietals (happily, several Meneghetti red and white wines are set to launch in the U.S. later this year.) For dinner, head to food-nerd favorite Batelina (No web site, open for dinner only; Tel: 052 573 767), a family-run restaurant in the fishing village of Banjole. There, chef David Skoko creates daily masterpieces based on what his famous fisherman father has caught that day — with his mother and rest of the family helping out in the kitchen and dining room. Dishes may include crab, monkfish, tuna, or scallops, accompanied by homemade pastas, polenta, or elegant sauces.

Day Four

Spend your last day indulging in a leisurely lunch at Valsabbion, one of the peninsula's top restaurants known for its molecular gastronomy techniques. Sit outside for views of the water, and choose the tasting menu for the ultimate experience. Post-meal, stop by the new tasting room at Trapan, where young, award-winning winemaker Bruno Trapan is making a splash with his fresh, fruity malvasias, berry-and spice-laced cabernet sauvignons, and sweet myrtle fruit dessert wine. Finish off your trip with dinner at Restaurant Monte back in Rovinj, where the creative presentation and excellent service serve to showcase their gourmet dishes.

Where to Stay: In the north of the peninsula, the modern Kempinski Hotel Adriatic (pictured) resort sits right on the water and boasts its own private (rocky) beach. In Rovinj, both the Hotel Monte Mulini and its sister, the new Hotel Lone — Croatia's first design hotel — mix prime locations and solid service with lots of hip design touches.

(All photos courtesy of Sandra Ramani)

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