It’s not just Croatia’s proximity to Italy, across the Adriatic Sea, that means so many of the country’s Italian restaurants are of decent quality. Fresh ingredients are also vital. Unlike, say, Zadar or Istria, inland Zagreb was not occupied in recent times by Italy. So its chefs have had to learn the ways of perfectly balanced risottos and pasta sauces, rather than be taught by the older generation. The results can be surprisingly excellent.
Named after the football star who first opened it, a hero both in Zagreb and Milan, Boban has since changed hands. It has now transformed from a solid, affordable Italian restaurant to a cool, contemporary one featured by Michelin in its 2017 guide. Chef Branko Kusovac has fresh ingredients and homemade pasta to play with, creating top-notch dishes such as tagliatelle with veal, and gnocchi, also homemade, with truffles. The steaks alone make it worth the trek – though it’s only a short skip and a hop from the main square.
Carpaccio has a great pedigree, having been opened by the people from legendary old school restaurant Okrugljak up in the hills outside Zagreb. This superb venue is very much in town and close to the main square, where, indeed, carpaccios such as thinly sliced smoked swordfish and marinated salmon are served in a stylish interior decorated with Art Nouveau iconography. After the initial tasters come the appetisers, sliced veal or prosciutto San Daniele, before mains such as veal cutlets or fresh Adriatic fish. A well-chosen wine selection is divided 50-50 between Italy and Croatia.
Mediterranean rather than specifically Italian, the high-class Gallo still prepares its pasta in-house, and in the traditional Ligurian way. The truffles come from Istria, the fish from the Croatian Adriatic but the overall touch is of suitable dexterity to be labelled Italian. Certainly the risottos are as good as you’ll find anywhere in the Croatian capital. The kitchen has at its disposal a herb garden right outside – over and above the main market not ten minutes away – so that’s fresh basil in the pesto sauce.
Primarily known for its gigantic pizzas at knockdown prices, Nokturno is no longer pigeonholed by its pizza past and offers plenty of pastas, salads and steaks, too. It’s still comfortably informal, reliably affordable and easily accessible from the main square and the bar strip of Tkalčićeva. Its long terrace packs at lunchtime and on summer evenings it fills the narrow thoroughfare of Skalinska with satisfied chatter.
Situated right next to the Zagreb Arena as an ideal spot to enjoy a pre-show dinner, Paesano produces all your Italian favourites at reasonable prices while adding special touches such as the fresh pasta that accompanies the steak and truffles, or scampi and asparagus. The risottos aren’t too shabby either, most notably the version that marries pork liver with forest mushrooms. Paesano is also good for brunch, if you happen to be on this side of the river at that time.
Il Secondo brings top quality fare to the table. Risottos with scampi and truffles, or with duck breast and porcini mushrooms, homemade tagliatelle with salmon and shrimp, beefsteak with rucola and Grana Padano, there’s plenty here to justify more than one visit, perhaps combining lunch with a trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art not five minutes away. The breads, ciabatta and focaccia with rosemary and olive oil, tastefully presented in a little basket, are also made inside the premises.