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Tasty Istria: The most exciting gourmet destination in Europe?

The heart-shaped peninsula in the Adriatic has emerged as one of the most appetizing destinations in Europe – with seasonal treats on offer all year round. From scampi to truffles, from rustic agriturism to elegant fine dining, Istrian cuisine showcases the excellent local ingredients and the region’s multicultural heritage.

August 28, 2023


Locally caught scallops on the grill at the fabulous restaurant Konoba Astarea in Brtonigla. © Günter Standl

Ask Sandra Toncic whether she makes the wine herself, and she responds with a modest grin: “We make everything ourselves here,” says the farmer and hostess, “with one small exception – the water!” Together with her husband Sandro and sister-in-law Orieta, Toncic runs an agriturism operation in Zrenj, a small Croatian town close to the Slovenian border. The view is magnificent, the cooking is both rustic and cleverly delicious. There’s country-style roast lamb from the farm’s own herd, lettuces and vegetables from the garden, truffles personally foraged by the owners and an air-dried prsut (prosciutto) that gourmets across Istria dream of getting their hands on.


In many towns and villages – like here, in Labin up in the mountains – crooked lanes and colorful houses exude rustic charm. © Alexandra Smielova

“Toncic’s prsut is simply the best, but it’s incredibly difficult to get,” says Mladen Rozanic, as he cuts a few slices of the prized ham with a long, sharp knife. A couple of years ago, the winemaker bought a listed former cooperative winery at the foot of the picturesque mountain town of Motovun, restored and converted it, and opened an exclusive boutique hotel with a restaurant and adjacent vineyard – the first proper wine resort in Istria, as Rozanic emphasizes. The hotel offers jaw-dropping views, individually designed rooms, an infinity pool and a kitchen equipped with all mod cons, such as a dry aging cabinet for meat and a rotisserie. Underneath the hotel is a state-of-the-art winery which extends several levels underground.



Boats in Opatija harbor, the former seaside resort of the Habsburgs. © Alexandra Smielova

Only a short drive away is the "San Canzian Hotel", a former farmstead that has been converted into a supremely comfortable country hotel. Guests dine in a salon with an appealing modern décor or on the airy terrace of the "Luciano" restaurant with views across rolling hills and olive trees all the way to the Adriatic coast. The young head chef Pavo Klaric uses predominantly local produce to create light, unpretentious dishes that taste of Italy and the Mediterranean, but which also have a very personal touch. “I want at least one third of my cooking to exude familiarity rather than creativity,” says the native of Zagreb and serves up a delectable embodiment of this vision in the form of homemade pasta with scampi from the nearby Kvarner Gulf and a generous scattering of dried tomatoes and capers.



After you’ve sampled the abundant seafood on the Adriatic peninsula with fresh Malvasia wine, round things off with a grappa. © Mauritius Images

Another deliciously down-to-earth option is the elegant "Stara Skola" ("old school"), which opened last year and is not far from the "Luciano." Chef Priska Thuring cooks Mediterranean dishes using ingredients that are foraged wild, harvested in the restaurant’s own organic garden or caught in the Adriatic Sea. Everything is served family style, which means in large bowls that all arrive from the kitchen at the same time and from which you help yourself, making for a very homey, sociable atmosphere.


The Luciano restaurant in the San Canzian Village & Hotel serves simple, seasonal Mediterranean cuisine. © Günter Standl

The Adriatic peninsula is renowned for its fish, shellfish, and crustaceans, which pop up on menus across the region, not just in the restaurants along the coast that cater to the tourist trade in the summer months. "Konoba Astarea" (konoba means inn) a few kilometers inland specializes in seafood and uses a traditional peka to prepare them. This large metal bell is placed over the ingredients, covered with embers and live coals and then left until the contents are cooked. Few are as skilled at this technique as the members of the Kernjus family, who cook the freshest seabream, stone butte or scallops – all caught locally – to delicious perfection.


At Stara Skola, the food is served family style – all dishes are placed on the table together. © Günter Standl

The undoubted highlight of any trip to Istria is to dine with a sea view, and one of the best places to indulge in this pleasure is the elegant "Cap Aureo" in the luxury hotel "Grand Park" in Rovinj. As you tuck into gorgeous food, you can also feast your eyes on the bobbing fishing boats and the charming old town with its distinctive church spire. Chef Jeffrey Vella, who is from Malta, has been cooking in Istria for many years and is widely acclaimed as an expert on local ingredients, which he elevates to mouth-watering, exquisite dishes like his legendary calamari, which Vella cooks in the same style as pasta al cacio e pepe, i.e. with plenty of freshly ground pepper and cheese.



Mediterranean ambiance with a view – the terrace at the Stara Skola restaurant near Buje, which opened last year. © Günter Standl

If that’s not close enough to the sea for you, then why not try the "Puntulina"? This eatery in the old city center of Rovinj has tables on the rocks directly in the water. As you listen to the waves lapping below, you can order straightforward but oh-so good classics, such as octopus salad, squid with polenta or a selection of raw seafood, which, depending on the season and the day’s catch, can include scampi, tuna tartare and carpaccio of seabream. You simply can’t get closer to the sea – including in culinary terms – if you tried. In Istria, it’s not just the sea that is blessed with delectable ingredients – the rural and densely forested interior of the peninsula is the home of one of the world’s most sought-after fungi: the truffle. Four varieties grow here, so you can enjoy truffles practically all year round. However, the white truffle, which has the most complex and intensive aroma, is most commonly found between mid-October and the beginning of January.


From Switzerland to the Mediterranean via Canada: star chef Priska Thuring of the Stara Skola restaurant © Günter Standl

The ideal spot for pasta and scrambled egg with truffle is the rustic "Konoba Malo Selo"("small village"), situated high up on a hill with a stunning panoramic view of the Istrian countryside. In the summer, you can sit on the terrace under a pergola, and in the winter, tables are set in the cozy parlor with an open fireplace that is also used to grill meat. This is only one of many places in Istria where you realize what incredible culinary wealth this comparatively small region boasts – whatever the season. 

Restaurant tips

Agroturizam Toncic

Cabarnica 42, Zrenj, 52428 Oprtalj, Croatia
Tel: +30 22890 22440

Roxanich Winery and Design Hotel 

Kanal 30, 52424 Motovun, Croatia
Tel.: +385 52 205 700

San Canzian Village & Hotel

Muzolini donji 7, 52460 Buje, Croatia
Tel.: +385 52 853 897

Konoba Malo Selo

Fratrija 1, Kaldanija, 52460 Buje, Croatia
Tel.: +385 52 777 332

Cap Aureo Signature Restaurant

Smareglijeva ulica 1A, 52210 Rovinj, Croatia
Tel.: +385 52 642 035


Ul. Sv. Kriza 38, 52210 Rovinj, Croatia
Tel.: +385 52 813 186

Restaurant Stara Skola

Krasica 35, Krasica, 52460 Buje, Croatia
Tel.: +385 52 770 870

This article appeared in the Falstaff TRAVEL issue Summer 2023.

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