Istria is Croatia’s gastronomic temple, with a cuisine of such high standard in such out-of-the-way places that Italians drive over at weekends. One particular hub is around Brtonigla, in the north-east of the region, another around the truffle forests of Motovun. Fresh, seasonal produce is always the key, particularly local ingredients including meat from indigenous boškarin cattle, and outstanding olive oil.
If you’re coming to the town of artists, as Grožnjan has been christened since its revival by galleries and studios, then there’s really only one place to eat: Bastia. The truffle-seasoned dishes are always popular, or steak or pasta, and Bastia is one inland eatery that doesn’t neglect fish. Location alone, beneath the clock tower overlooking a traditional village landscape brings in most first-time visitors.
Istria’s most well known restaurant, Zigante gained its fame when its owner of the same name found the world’s largest white truffle in 1999. From this single event, a whole industry developed; a boutique, a guesthouse and this rather formal and pricey restaurant. Truffles feature throughout, of course, in the gazpacho accompanying the Kvarner scampi, on the lamb and in the ice-cream. It’s very good – Italians wouldn’t come back if it wasn’t.
Surrounded by the forest where they’re found, Motovun is all about truffles. Without a stand-out restaurant in this attractive hilltop village – just a handful of decent ones, Fakin wins for its outstanding view. Pasta with truffles can be enjoyed with the rolling hills of Istria spread out before you, but they also do a decent pizza if you fancy a change from the standard offering around the Istrian interior.
Many an Italian family has driven down the narrow track that leads to Konoba Morgan, granted a special recommendation by Michelin in 2017. Morgan’s isolation helped with its early praise in the UK, food writers amazed that a place of such quality could be so tucked away. The menu here varies according to what’s in season but game usually features inevitably truffles and asparagus in spring. The view, of course, remains constant – if you’re coming during the weekend, book a terrace table overlooking the mile upon mile of green landscape.
The Konoba Astarea in Istria’s culinary hub of Brtonigla is a rare inland Istrian restaurant that focuses on fish. Even rarer for these parts is its use of the ispod peke way of preparation, usually seen in Dalmatia. A peka is a dome-shaped lid around which the kitchen places hot coals in order to slow cook whatever’s inside, in this case fish with potato and onions. The result is a succulent delight, and has helped the business thrive since the current management took over in 1995.
More than a decade ago, the Fernetich clan converted this traditional family estate into a top-quality heritage hotel with spa, pool, pretty grounds and a gourmet restaurant. Non-guests may visit the award-winning restaurant, and visit they do in numbers, for the Istrians specialise in game, truffles and fish prepared with olive oil from the estate and accompanied by wines of equal quality. The San Rocco is also well versed in hosting weddings and other special events, should occasion demand.
Outside Momjan close to the border with Slovenia, the Restoran konoba Stari Podrum wouldn’t survive in this remote location were it not for local trade – plenty of local trade. Regulars come for the seasonal menu, the meat stews, the home-made pastas and the Istrian wines, enjoyed in verdant surroundings against which this old red-brick building stands out.
As its name suggests, Ročka Konoba is a tavern in the village of Roč, friendly and family-run. La famille Stefanović is at pains to provide the classic Istrian experience, within a wood-and-brick interior or outside on log tables, where game, pork and vegetables in season are happily devoured after a serious morning’s hiking in the surrounding hills.
In the hilltop community of the same name, population 124, the Restoran Vrh has been bringing in visitors by the carload for the best part of four decades. The house specialty of aromatic, home-made bread, which may accompany the soups or domestic cheeses encourages repeat custom, a bowl of the classic Istrian maneštra a warming treat in winter. This may also be the place to try boškarin, the meat from Istrian long-horned cattle.
Diners and guests at the rustic accommodation here are treated to outstanding views of the Kvarner Bay, hence the name. From its elevated location, the Restaurant Kvarner offers a varied menu of locally produced delights from land and nearby sea, including prosciutto, truffles and krafi, a local pasta variation with cheeses and raisins.