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.
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.
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.