Two Perfect Days in Istria for Foodies
Wake up in your cozy room at the charming boutique hotel San Rocco, located in an old stone farmhouse in the town of Brtoniglia. A full breakfast awaits you in the dining room—enjoy the selection of homemade jams and order any kind of eggs you please. There’s even a juicer for you to squeeze your own orange juice.
Post-breakfast, head to the nearby town of Buje for a little morning exploration—there are plenty of hidden alleyways and stunning lookout points onto the surrounding vineyards and countryside. Grab a coffee and maybe even stop in the famous Zigante truffle store. Zigante has made a huge name for himself in the truffle world, and many claim that as a result of his success, his products are not as authentic as other local brands. Still, it’s fun to browse and sample items like sausage with truffles or white truffle butter.
Lunch is at Agroturizam Toncic, in the hilltop city of Zrenj. Take your time to enjoy the fresh, forested surroundings as you wind up the mountain along local roads. Luckily, the view from Zrenj is fabulous, as is the food and the company at Toncic. In essence, Toncic is really an Italian-style Agriturismo, a family-run farm that serves homemade food and wine at very reasonable prices.
The region of Istria was a part of Italy for so long that it doesn’t feel either fully Croatian or fully Italian, but a mix of the two (children learn both languages in school). Toncic is located in a big stone house with a full fireplace warming up the cozy, rustic dining room. There is no menu—instead your hosts with tell you about the fresh specialties they are offering that day.
You can’t go wrong with the abundant starter of Istrian prsut (tender prosciutto with a pepper crust), pancetta (a bacon type meat that melts in your mouth) and the fresh matured sheep cheese. If it’s the season, you can follow with a “first” of homemade fuzi, topped with fresh white truffles. And as with all typical Italian meals, it is also customary to order a “secondi” which is usually meat accompanied by a light salad. Wash it all down with a pitcher of the homemade red wine. Desert, a selection of bite-sized pastries fresh from the oven, is brought out on a communal plate for the table, along with a few samples of local rakija (a strong, flavored after-dinner liquer). Try the visnija (cherry) or kadulja (sage).
After lunch, take a walk around the town of Zrenj as you digest your meal. There is a charming church in the tiny center square as well as one or two places where you can sip a coffee and enjoy the peaceful countryside atmosphere and the spectacular views.
Your next stop is the town of Motovun, one of the most formidable medieval hilltop cities of the region. Take your time exploring by walking around the outside of the city’s castled walls. You can also spend hours just browsing the various shops selling truffle products. After a few hours spent wandering, sit down for an aperitivo at one of the cute outside cafes on the castle wall, with unbeatable sunset views.
Dinner is at Konoba Mondo, a small, unassuming restaurant on the main street leading from the parking area to the town square. Don’t be fooled by its simple décor and humble, efficient service. Anthony Bourdain chose to eat here on his visit to Istria, and the konoba has also been written up by the New York Times. Luckily it hasn’t lost any of its charm or its excellent cuisine. In season, it’s all about the truffles—after you sit down, a basket of warm, homemade bread will arrive at your table, accompanied by a delectable olive/truffle spread. No need to even look at the menu—the daily recommendations are written up on a blackboard. You can’t go wrong with any of the homemade pasta dishes with fresh white truffles. The ravioli come as two large, simple pieces, one filled with a celery stuffing, the other with potato, all topped with a light truffle cream sauce and shaved white truffles. If you prefer meat, the simple steak topped with fresh shaven truffles is mouthwatering. And again, you can’t go wrong with a bottle of the homemade red wine.
After another delicious breakfast at San Rocco, head to the town of Groznjan, known as the “city of artists”. If you’re visiting in the summer, the city will be alive with music academies, dance and drama workshops, yoga classes and art exhibitions. But even in the fall or winter, you will still stumble upon charming art galleries and quirky shops selling local goods, including truffle products. Stop by the Kaya and Energy Bar and Design for a mid-morning coffee or elixir. The space is both a bar and an art store, and the menu has a very interesting selection of fresh juices, teas and even a superb cheese plate (with truffle cheese!) to pair with a glass of local wine. If the weather is nice, grab a seat outside under a grove of trees and with a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside.
Lunch is in the town of Momjam, not a far drive from Groznjan. Before you eat, hike to the castle in upper Momjam, a structure built on a cliff and dating back to the 12thcentury. During different points in history it served as a home to the Rota family from Bergamo and as a main point of defense against numerous invaders.
You can also explore the historical town center, with several interesting churches. Having worked up a big appetite, head to Rino, another family owned Konoba with a huge open fireplace for grilling in the main dining room. Begin with the truffle toast (pieces of homemade toast are grilled on the open fire and then topped with fresh shaved truffle).
Then indulge in the homemade truffle gnocchi as a first (“little pillows of heaven”). Take a break as you sip the homemade wine, and try to muster up the space to order the grilled sausages as a second. You will see them roasting on the open grill before they are served with a scoop of steaming sauerkraut. Dessert is a piece of the freshly baked cream tart with a super-light flaky crust. Yum.
After lunch it’s time for a wine tasting adventure—two of the best wineries in the region are in the Momjam vicinity. Start out at Koslovic, a beautiful modern building that somehow fits right in with the scenic countryside. They specialize in Malvasia, a lighter and often fruity white wine (usually—there are many varieties).
Their “star” wine is the Santa Lucia, which has a little more flavor and depth than their other offerings. Tastings are free. Next, head to the nearby Kabola Winery, housed in a beautiful stone farm-style home on 20 hectares of rolling vineyards. Although you can also sample good Malvasias here, try the interesting reds—the 2008 Merlot is a standout. Tastings are also free.
If you are still in the wine mood, there is another great tasting room to stop by on the way back-- Veralda, literally two minutes away from the San Rocco Hotel in Brtoniglia. If you hang around long enough, the owner might just offer you a private tour of the wine cellar, where you can sample new batches straight out of the barrels.
Dinner tonight is at the hotel, but before you indulge, take advantage of the beautiful Spa at the San Rocco. You can splurge on an olive oil or truffle massage, or simply just do a quick sauna/steam room and then rest poolside in your plush robe.
Feeling refreshed, change and head down to the cozy dining room. The menu focuses on innovative preparations with local ingredients such as shellfish, truffles, pork and game. Past standouts have included fresh prawns with an olive oil foam, a celery soup with fresh white truffles, and a polenta with scallops and porcinis. For dessert, the semifreddo with white truffles is absolutely sublime. Splurge and pair your meal with a bottle of red from the excellent wine list with an extensive selection of local labels.
Post-dinner, move a few feet over to the cozy bar/living room area. Sit in one of the plush chairs and order an after dinner drink and maybe even a cigar. Feel free to hang out and relax as long as you wish—your room is only a few feet away upstairs.