I’m not going to mince words here: I wouldn’t be in a tearing hurry to jump on Ryanair for Rovinj’s restaurants. But bear with me: even for someone as restaurant-obsessed as I am, there are many compensations.
I’d go back tomorrow for the beauty of the town, a tangle of medieval alleyways jutting out into glittering water. Historically, Istria was a province of Venice and it shows. The dramatic view of sea and forests from our balcony in the Hotel Monte Mulini is stained in an extraordinary palette of colours as the sun sets. And the local produce – oh, my: seafood of pristine perfection, including renowned oysters from the Lim Fjord; a wealth of cheeses, especially sheep’s cheese from Pag where the animals graze on aromatic herbs. And three things for which I’d cross continents: the local wine, especially luscious malvasijas and ripe muscats; olive oils of verdant lusciousness; and white truffles.
On our first evening, we avoid the waterfront restaurants with their pizza menus translated into a dozen different languages – although we do come to love Rio Bar (Obala Alda Rismondo 13, 00385 52 813564), with its original 50s signage, ranting local characters and glasses of floral malvasija. We think we’re clever when we find an exquisitely pretty and, more importantly, busy Al Gastaldo (Iza Kasarne 14, 00385 52 814109) in an atmospheric cobbled backstreet. But it’s a fake truffle oil, bad salad, dire seafood mash-up of horror.
Fortunately, our new favourite place in the world is seconds away, wine bar Piassa Grande (Veli Trg 1, 00385 98 824 322) with its knowledgeable owners, sisters Dragana and Helena, and seemingly endless cellars of goodies: Roxanich SuperIstrian (think SuperTuscan), names-to-watch such as Clai and oletti; sultry Istrian prošek (not prosecco, be warned, but a thick dessert wine). There arenative grappas of honey or mistletoe. All of which happily takes away Al Gastaldo’s bad taste.
A trip to the little market in the centre of town is enlightening: when was the last time that a stall-holder chased you, pressing wild mushrooms and dried beans into your hand because you asked if you could take a photograph? And then waved away any payment? We’re speechless. But we manage to stock up on blueberry wine, malvasija honey vinegar, toasted pumpkin-seed oil and garlands of chillies and garlic for a few kuna. There’s also the joy of another excellent wine bar: tiny, barrel-lined Grota (Trg Valdibora, 00385 98 506968) for a little pre-lunch sharpener and pungent Istrian pršut (prosciutto).
We’re learning that sticking to simple things is best. Lunch at an outdoor table at Puntulina (Sv. Križ 38, 00358 52 813186) offers another scene of breath-catching gorgeousness. But almost as beautiful are raw scampi, dressed just in local oil and lemon, fondant-textured essence of the sea, or anchovies in agrodolce, a sweet and sour nod to a Venetian heritage. Or ravioli, dressed in a rich, ripe sauce of local white truffles.
Ah yes, truffles. Steep, winding Motovun up high in the mountains is the heartland of truffle country. We peer over stone walls to the fungi-infested forests vertiginously far below. Locals tether their money-can’t-buy truffle hounds in compounds almost as big as their houses and every second shop and restaurant offers myriad variations on the precious white tuber: in cheese, under oil, in honey, pastes and spreads and sauces.
We’re on our way to Zigante, the area’s most famous formal truffle restaurant (Giancarlo Zigante found the world’s largest ever white truffle: a whopping, priceless 1.31kg), where visiting presidents and movie stars have elaborate, multi-course menus of ambitious, smoke-filled-dome fancy-pantsness. We have a simpler menu, and are glad of it: particularly exquisite is the homemade pasta dressed in butter, a snowstorm of white truffle on top. Some things don’t need embellishment.
I buy a little jar of white truffle paste from their shop; our new chum Bobo says it’s the best way: whole truffles don’t travel particularly well, and bottled ones simply leach all their flavour into the oil. It costs an absolute fortune but lasts for several meals of heady pungency. Once, I spread it on thickly buttered sourdough toast and think, ‘That’s it, I’ll die happy now.’ Autumn is the time to gorge on this headiest of pleasures – book now, folks.
By far the swankiest dinner we have is in our hotel, at its Wine Vault restaurant. The food from celebrated chef Tomislav Greti´c is complex and ambitious, but I’m bemused by the fact that beef comes from Argentina and seafood from Scotland. The wines, however, are eye-openers from the area: they stock over 550 Croatian labels, and there’s not a dud amongst the ones we try: from methode Champenoise Misal Prestige to complex and fruity Krauthaker Chardonnay Rosenberg to Lacrime grappa (meaning tears, which is what it’ll bring to your eyes).
So no, Rovinj isn’t going to blow you away with its molecular innovation, groundbreaking gastronomy or hipster buzz-foods. But it’s insanely pretty, its people are delightful, and its produce is remarkable. As Anthony Bourdain enthused when he visited: ‘This is world-class food, world-class wine, world-class cheese’. And really, you can’t say fairer than that.
Words MARINA O’LOUGHLIN Photographs AUDREY GILLAN
Marina O’Loughlin is The Guardian’s restaurant critic. She stayed at the Hotel Monte Mulini.