The early morning sun streams into my room, bouncing off the sloping orange rooftops. I hear church bells ring and rush to open the large windows of my hotel room. At last…I am on vacation.
Below, I see carts bearing homemade orange marmalade, artichokes dewy from the morning’s harvest, wild thyme, and giant yellow lemons the size of my hand.
Smartly dressed housewives enthusiastically haggle with vendors who fill their baskets with beets, beans, and figs — they’re obviously shopping for dinner. A group of Japanese tourists follow a bright red umbrella while deftly working their Nikons and Canons. Young boys chase a football through stands and mounds of produce, toppling a few vegetables along the way. Shouts, giggles, laughter, chatter.
The toasty aroma of palacinka – folded pancake filled with orange jam, melted chocolate, and roasted walnuts — wafts up to my window and makes me rush down to the cobblestone market square to join the denizens of Dubrovnik, the magnificent “Jewel of the Adriatic.”
Croatia won its independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991. Throughout its rich history, the country has been inhabited by Istrians, Liburnians, Dalmatians, Romans, Celts, Ottoman and Venetians — all of whom left a lasting impact on its customs and cuisine. These days, however, the fortress walls of Dubrovnik, Fort Lovrijenac, and other nearby locations can be seen as King’s Landing and the Red Keep in HBO’s critically acclaimed Game of Thrones.
Bordering the Adriatic Sea, between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia, Croatia has over a thousand islands, making it a natural fishing haven. Croatian food celebrates the ocean’s bounty — tuna, bukva, mackerel, salpa, sardines, cipal, red mullets, swordfish, and scorpion fish are abundantly flavored with local olive oil, onions, and garlic, borrowing liberally from Austro-Hungarian, Italian and Turkish cuisines.
If you are a cook, this is your temple. And if you love to eat…well, then this is paradise.
Fig and citrus trees, paths lined with wild rosemary, and sheep that bleat sweetly as they feed on green pastures are all part of the daily ambience. Vibrant dishes like peka — grass-fed lamb under the bell, a delicacy from the island of Brac — should be downed with local wines like Plavac Mali, a full-bodied, ruby red with hints of earth, cloves, lavender and chocolate.
But alas, all vacations must come to end and I found myself back on the streets of New York City craving the scrumptious Dalmatian specialties I experienced while I was there. I scoured the city for a shrimp busara, a gently flavored stew with onions, tomatoes, and garlic, or perhaps a sarma, a dish of stuffed cabbage leaves filled with minced meat, spices and herbs with a Turkish origin. I desperately missed the mussels from the Limski Kanal and the Mali Ston oysters, natural aphrodisiacs so freely available all over the Adriatic coast.
Fortunately, it is estimated that about 26,000 Croats live in the Big Apple and have managed to maintain the vibrancy, culture, and traditions of their heritage. Their children attend language school at the church where the sacraments and liturgies are held in Croatian. A notable parish member is David Diehl of the New York Giants (who has “neuništiv,” the Croatian word for indestructible tattooed on his left arm.)
My visit to the 100-year old Croatian church of St. Cyril and Methodius on 41st Street and 10th Avenue in Manhattan confirmed that a pious and well-established parish has successfully made New York City home.
I asked a nice lady attending a mass where I could find a slow-cooked beef stew called pasticada, which is served with gnocchi. She directed me to Astoria, Queens.
The Rudar Social Club, also known as the United Miners Soccer Club, and the Istria Sports Club are quite unlike any sports clubs you’ve probably ever encountered. They’re both hard to find and undetectable from the outside. Frequented mostly by Croatian families living in NYC, these clubs provide their members an opportunity to bond and socialize over soccer, bocce, or a game of cards.
The real secret is in their basements; there you will find authentic Croatian restaurants.
At the Rudar Social Club I follow my nose. A stairway led me to the dining room below ground. The restaurant was partially filled, its patrons evidently familiar and happy with their grilled octopus and crêpes. The menu changes daily, offering plenty of variety and food from the home country which satisfies their cravings.
I’m in food heaven, and here’s the inside tip: the restaurant is open to non-members, but bring cash, because no credit cards are accepted.
And I say, let’s keep it a secret!