I meet Robin and Jarret in Pula center on a particularly sunny Good Friday. Two Californians from Oakland lost in a town that most tourist, once they consume their doze of history by visiting Roman Amphitheater and other well preserved Roman ruins, will not find very charming. The fact is – Pula will not welcome you with open arms. If you don’t know any local who can show you around you’ll probably never return in this province town at the tip of Istria.
Stetson, Robin’s Cousin, sent me a message the day before. “Could you be their gourmet guide in Pula? They are touring Croatia and taking photos at wineries whose wine are imported by our Blue Danube Wine Company.”
“Of course! No worries, they will get the special treatment.”, I responded.
I remember how complete strangers helped us a lot in choosing right places to eat and hang out when we were visiting San Francisco, just across Oakland, so it was my turn to do the same. To improve my karma and help my poor hometown Pula to show its best.
Our first stop is café Cvajner, with a cosy artsy atmosphere and lots of vintage armchairs, strange tables, often hosting not-so-great expositions of local artist but with a great terrace on Forum, Pula’s historic square. A perfect place to soak some Sun, chitchat, meditate, watch the locals passing by dresses in their best clothes or just admire 2000-years-old Temple of Augustus and medieval Pula City Hall.
“I got addicted to Istrian olive oil. It has such an intense taste and smells like grass or flowers. I have to buy few bottles to bring back in California, so next time I invite my friends for dinner I’ll do what great chefs in fancy Californian restaurants do – before serving a dish I’ll sprinkle it with the olive oil.” says Robin enthusiastically.
It’s lunch time. We all agree we want to follow the tradition of Good Friday and go for fish based menu.
Although there are plenty of good restaurants and taverns in South Istria, like Konoba Batelina, Alla Beccaccia, Konoba Vodnjanka, Restaurant Milan and Restaurant Bodulka near Šišan, the sad fact is that the center of Pula, with its tourist trap and fast food eateries, is a gourmet’s nightmare. And that day I was without the car.
On our walk to Vodnjanka, we quickly visit a small shop near the fish market that sells Istrian pršut, pancetta, sausages and other Istrian cured meats. The owner kindly offered us to taste both his cured and baked pršut. Delicious! The best place to stop if you are in need of a good sandwich.
In Vodnjanka, the best time to arrive is between 11 am and 2 pm when the clientele is very mixed, so don’t be surprised to see businessmen in tie and suit and construction workers wearing blue coveralls occupying neighboring tables. It’s a charm of marenda, local name for a quick lunch/brunch, a respectable tradition that here still thrives despite the threats of globalization bringing uniformisation of flavors and disappearance of ancient food habits. Vodnjanka is open throughout the year, as the majority of restaurants in Istria I recommended here on Manjada blog.
Gina Civitico, the cook, explains us the winning formula of Vodnjanka: “We serve only traditional dishes, in a sense very modest and accessible to everyone but always prepared with great care.” For example, this steamed dandelion with boiled eggs, a typical spring dish in Istria.
Her tripes in tomato sauce are literally melting in the mouth, leaving a delicious, sweetish flavor in the mouth. Then, her gnocchi with žgvacet or mouth-watering game stew, fuži and inevitable polpette in the most delicious sauce made by Gina’s secret recipe… A must is also Gina’s sardines in savor that can be served as a cold starter or with warm palenta.
Few years ago Moris, Gina’s son and former roller skate champion, took the role of innkeeper and modernized the whole business. Thanks to him today Vodnjanka has a well curated choice of Istrian wine from Coronica, Pilato, Piquentum and Agroprodukt. For our Good Friday lunch we have chosen 2010 Piquentum Malvazija from my friend Dimitri Brečević, a wine that recently entered on the legendary Tate wine list of Tate Modern Gallery in London and one of favorite whites of Frank Dietrich from Blue Danube Wine Co. and Judith from Pacta Connect (she is partly responsible for the entry in Tate). £33.00 in Tate, 120 kn (13.75 £ or 16 euros) in Vodnjanka.
“You Croatians are lucky, you can have a great bottle of wine in restaurants without going broke! I can’t believe in some taverns wine is less expensive than beer. We asked why and they told us it is because in Istria there are vineyards everywhere, that everybody is producing wine. But California is also a major wine production country and still you would pay one glass of wine 8 – 15 $! This is too much.”, says Robin.
Moris adds his wish is to be able to offer fresh, one or two-years-old wines for as little as 100 kn, but first he waits that the Croatian government, as they promised, introduces special VAT for restaurants and tourism industry that should be lowered to 10% (currently it’s 25%!).
In the meantime our first course arrives. Homemade posutice, a traditional Istrian pasta, soaked in a sauce made of excellent olive oil, salted anchovies and caramelized onions were served with bakalar na bijelo, dried cod paté. The flavors are so delicate and simple, pasta freshly cooked, paté melts in the mouth as the finest fois gras… There was no doubt everything was made with a lot of love in Gina’s kitchen.
Then we have a creamy risotto (mantecato, as they prepare in the region around Milan) with an abundant doze of seafood inside, obviously made with a good fish stock.
Our next dish is again dried cod but this time it was the main ingredient in a kind of stew that contained potatoes, tomatoes, bay leafs, rosemary and a pinch of hot chilly – bakalar na crveno.
Finally, for dessert we take povitica or orehnjača, a traditional wallnut roll whose particularity was filling that contained not only walnuts, apples and raisins but also a good doze of grappa. I warn you, you could get drunk only by eating this delicious cake.
We salute Moris and catch for a moment Gina, just to express her our gratitude for her sincere cooking that can be felt in every single dish we have just eaten. “Moris is currently more involved in taking orders and serving the guest, very efficiently and always with a smile. But, fear not”, Gina tells us, “I’ll pass him all the secret recipes I inherited from my mother”. There’s no doubt, there is another generation who will passionately carry on tradition of family Civitico.
In few hours Robin and Jarret are leaving Pula. After few hours we spent together I am sure they realized that this, at first sight, industrial town has more to offer than an hour or two of Roman monument sightseeing.
Oh, my dear Pula I love you and hate you so much. When are you going to grow up and be able to present yourself to the World without any help of us, foolish enthusiasts and dreamers?
To read more compact version of this post, locate buffet Vodnjanka on Google map and find phone number visit Taste of Croatia, the only independent food and wine guide to Croatia.