Before my road trip across Croatia, I’d never given much thought to the country’s cuisine; now that I’m home, I can’t stop! The salty essence of just-caught seafood, the vibrant punch of saffron, the clean taste of high-quality olive oil, and the granular sweetness of figs all linger on my palate. Croatian food is a wonderful amalgam of local ingredients and foreign influences: pasta and pizza from Italy, lamb kebabs and baklava from Bosnia, hearty stews with Hungarian roots. As I drove north, it was interesting to see how the cuisine changed along with the climate.
Starting with Dubrovnik and ending with Rovinj, here are the best meals we enjoyed in Croatia. You can find the restaurant details at the end of this post. Know of a great spot I missed? Tell me about it in the comments!
Our first meal in Dubrovnik turned out to be one of the best of the whole trip, thanks to a recommendation from the owner of the apartment we rented. We’d just landed in Dubrovnik the night before and wanted a leisurely lunch by the sea. Lokanda Peskarija delivered big time! Lunch consisted of huge chunks of tender squid that were lightly battered and flash fried, seafood risotto swimming in saffron broth, and a fresh salad of cucumbers, red onions, cabbage, and some of the best tomatoes imaginable. All this was washed down with icy cold beer and made for a perfect introduction to Croatian cuisine.
The most memorable dish from my few days in Dubrovnik was the stuffed squid at Ribar restaurant. Succulent squid were stuffed with Croatian ham and cheese and grilled until the cheese oozed onto the plate. A simple but tasty side of boiled potatoes and green beans and a mug of beer completed this excellent meal.
With Bosnia and Herzegovina just over the mountains from Dubrovnik, I definitely wanted to try Bosnian food while in the neighborhood. Online reviews led me to the curiously named Taj Mahal, said to be one of the best Bosnian restaurants in town. We started with pepper slices covered with spicy kaymak cheese and glasses of Bosnian wine as suggested by our waiter. Next came my veal and veggie shish, although honestly the highlight was the baked potato stuffed with more of that spectacular cheese. As for the meat, I preferred the zesty sausages of my date’s pita. But my entree jealousy was quickly forgotten because, baklava.
We rolled up at 6pm on a weekday in September and snagged the last free table. I recommend making reservations in advance to avoid disappointment.
After a long, hot day of sightseeing, sometimes a girl just needs to devour an entire pizza. Oliva Pizzeria came to the rescue with a ham and mushroom pie, hot out of the oven. I don’t think you could go wrong with any of the pizzas here.
Villa Spiza is a tiny hole-in-the-wall tucked down a narrow alley in Split’s Old City. The day’s menu is posted outside and dishes are crossed off as they run out. I was lucky enough to get the last available order of meat stew with Gorgonzola polenta – and this was at 6pm. Arrive early so you don’t miss out! I was told that the mussels in white wine were also excellent, though I wasn’t a fan of the Croatian custom of not cleaning the shellfish before cooking.
The best pizza of the trip (including the week in Italy that followed these two weeks in Croatia) I found at an unassuming waterside joint in Trogir: Pizzeria Mirkec. A wood-fired crust, tangy sauce, oozy cheese, and fresh-sliced mushrooms – what’s not to love?
Hotel restaurants can be hit or miss, but that didn’t deter me from trying Kastel, the restaurant of Hotel Bastion in Zadar. Good thing, too, because their rendition of stuffed squid knocked my sandals off! Kastel’s squid was filled with a potato-bacon mash so delicious that it took every ounce of my self control not to lick the plate clean. The fig parfait dessert was equally delectable and had us regretting not ordering individual servings. Given the remarkable food and service, I was surprised there were so few other diners. We made a reservation but it was totally unnecessary.
In stark contrast to Kastel, reservations are absolutely necessary at popular Pet Bunara (which I nicknamed Pat Benatar. It’s the little things). Pet Bunara’s menu featured so many tempting Dalmatian specialties that we dined here twice. Standout dishes included cheese ravioli with shrimp in a fig jam sauce, a warm octopus salad with chick peas and sauteed onions, and veal stuffed with cheese curds atop a broad bean mash.
Every meal I ate in Zadar was a winner, including the fisherman’s risotto with fried squid at Kornat. The dish was loaded with fresh seafood and herbs, and the portion size was generous for the price. Kornat is located outside Zadar’s old city walls along a quiet stretch of harbor. It was fun to watch the boats come and go as we enjoyed some wine.
As is usually the case, the best meal of the trip was also the last. Based on the rave reviews, I knew I wanted to dine at Kantinon and, since it was a weekend, went to make a reservation as soon as we arrived in Rovinj. It’s a good thing we were in town for a few days because the restaurant was already booked solid Friday and Saturday nights!
Kantinon’s menu is printed in a fun newspaper format and the specials reflect the day’s catch. I started with a satisfying bowl of inky cuttlefish tagliatele with clams, sausage, and broad beans, and finished with a scrumptious dish of monkfish. I had hesitated before ordering the monkfish – whose flavor and meaty texture resembles lobster – because the dish included more sausage. I now know that there’s no such thing as too much Istrian sausage.
“Come for the view, stay for the food” should be Maestral’s motto. For a restaurant so well situated, the food is surprisingly affordable – not to mention delicious! The salted-fish pie and octopus stew with cheesy polenta were crowd favorites, though everything we tried was excellent.
For a meal that’s as charming as it is tasty, head to Male Madlene in Old Rovinj. Take a chair in the front parlor turned dining room and watch as the owner prepares Istrian tapas in the house’s tiny kitchen. Memorable bites included fresh figs with goat cheese, oysters with tomato salsa, and a strawberry cream tart. One tasting set was enough for two people to share for lunch.
Which of these delicious Croatian dishes would you most like to try?
Know of any restaurants I should hit up next time?
Lokanda Peskarija Address: Na ponti bb, Old City, Dubrovnik, Croatia Pricing: €€ Konoba Ribar Address: Kneza Damjana Jude bb, Old City, Dubrovnik, Croatia Pricing: €€ Taj Mahal Address: Ul. Nikole Gučetića 2, Old City, Dubrovnik, Croatia Pricing: €€ Oliva Pizzeria Address: Ul. Cvijete Zuzorić 2, Old City, Croatia Pricing: € Villa Spiza Address: Ul. Petra Kružića 3, Diocletian's Palace, Split, Croatia Pricing: € Pizzeria Mirkec Address: Budislaviceva 15, Trogir, Croatia Pricing: € Restaurant Kastel Address: Ul. Bedemi zadarskih pobuna 13, Zadar, Croatia Pricing: €€ Pet Bunara Address: Stratico 1, Zadar, Croatia Pricing: €€ Restoran Kornat Address: Liburnska obala 6, Zadar, Croatia Pricing: €€ Kantinon Address: Obala Alzo Rismondo 18, Rovinj, Croatia Pricing: €€ Maestral Address: Obala Vladimira Nazora, Rovinj, Croatia Pricing: € Male Madlene Address: Svetog Kriza 28, Rovinj, Croatia Pricing: €