Just a few steps hidden away from the Rijeka’s main pedestrian zone Korzo there is the oldest still working restaurant in the centre of this biggest Croatian sea port. Many generations of citizens of Rijeka and their guests loyally were coming for decades to this place to enjoy the classic Kvarner cuisine.
Hospitable and jolly staff of this restaurant will offer you rustic dishes with a modern twist, and we experienced it during the days of sardines. The meals somehow resemble the restaurant’s interior itself – undoubtedly emerged into the tradition of the area, there is a significant modern atmosphere included, while the old legend still survives.
The rich tradition of this place goes back to the first half of the 19thcentury, when brothers Ostrogović kept an inn which name got lost, but it was present on the same spot. For a short time, it was a hotel named “K zlatnoj zvijezdi” or “Albergo alla stella d’oro” (At Golden Star). In 1885 the legend was born when Leopold Zwetti opened the restaurant and only one year later it was included on the prestige list of the best restaurants in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During its past, it changed many owners but the “golden” name stayed.
Robert Whitehead, the owner of the first torpedo factory in the world based in Rijeka, owned also the houses around the inn, but the restaurateurs complained because of the noise and transportation of building material. Thus, they positioned three stones in the small alley where the restaurant still is, so that the workers don’t disturb the guests. Whitehead did win the court suit, but the stones remained until today.
The restaurant got its present name in the beginning of 20th century, with the new owner Edoardo Budicin from Pula. It served local cuisine and brunches, while enriching the offer with the prestigious Italian wines from the regions of Piedmont and Emilia Romagna. Even today, you can find the traces of this tradition in the corners of the restaurant, especially in the emblem of the place, resembling the fatty, greasy, and utmost hedonistic region of Italia (mind the Bologna Grassa – The Fat Bologna!).
But, back to the sardines. This small, yet compact fish nourished generations of islanders and coast dwellers, and there are numerous ways how to prepare it. The chef of the Conca d’Oro presented us with three rustic-styled sardine dishes with very common ingredients.
We’ve started with marinated sardines, nested with ricola and cherry tomatoes in a classic glass jar, with topped bruschetta aside. Refreshing start gives a boost to explore more opportunities of this fish.
And it succeeded greatly with sardine dumplings, made of mixed sardines and sesame, with addition of pine nuts and served on brodetto sauce with Kalamata olives. Full flavour of sardines blends perfectly with quickly fried ricola and with polenta aromatised with olives and Mediterranean herbs. One just wonders how much is possible with a simple sardine!
The classic sardine meal in the Adriatic is, without doubt, fried sardines with Swiss chard and potatoes. One cannot go more traditional than this, and the fish served in the Conca d’Oro evokes the memories of grandfathers in the way they are prepared.
But no grandparent can serve the sardines in such posh way as they do it in this restaurant, making almost a construction of sardines and a richness of old flavours. In every way, staff wants us to feel the rustic history blended with modern lifestyle. Possibly, that is why they surprised us with a delicious cherry pie, a true testimony to the spring and the Kvarner cherry.
Conca d’Oro is rich with top quality wines and whiskeys, but we tended to try the very basic Istrian Malvasia. And we were indeed surprised by the Terzolo Malvasia, originating from Nova Vas near Poreč. The red soil terroir gave the champion status for the young Malvasia at Vinistra competition 2013, done by the family Tercolo known also for a very good olive oil that we’ve enjoyed immensely.
Every gastronomad should know by its instinct that the best places can be found off the beaten track. Conca d’Oro is exactly few steps away these beaten tracks of Rijeka and indeed well worth of a visit.
Conca d’Oro Kružna ulica 12, Rijeka phone: 00 385 51 213 782 text and photos by: Vedran Obućina & Bruno Vignjević