In northern part of Viškovo centre, on a crossroad marked by a wooden statue of Halubje bell ringer, for already fifty years stands the Restaurant Mladenka. It was opened by Bezjak family in 1968. and has a near-legendary status ever since. We have visited the place in time of famous carnival, which features in Viškovo the Halubje bell ringers (Halubajski zvončari).
We were greeted by Mr Bezjak and his staff and taken to the table next to the big animal head, used by bell ringers in their traditional walks. The welcome was extended with homemade excellent herb brandy (travarica), an excellent aperitif by all Croatian standards. Restaurant’s interior is very pleasing, combining natural and local features of wood and stone. In a corner stands beautiful fireplace with real fire, adorned with specific wine jars – bukaleta. There is a whole local history written on the sides of porcelan jar, such as the traditional festivals, good wishes to the owners, and specifically of Halubje bell ringers.
Mladenka gave us a special treat – a fascinating introduction to the winter Carnival food! It is a mix of staple and comfort food in winter months, when heavy northeast bura wind make you feel bitter cold, although the temperatures never drop very low. This food is a traditional way to preserve strength, warmth, and health in these months.
One such dish is jota, probably most memorable winter dish for many older people in North Adriatic region, including Istria, littoral Slovenia and Italian province of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Italians call it iota, iotta, or minestra di crauti, and has several varieties. For example, in Trieste you will not find meat, while Gorizia version adds barley inside. After Second World War, following easier approach to meat, jota is being replenished with meat and potatoes.
Such was jota we tried in Mladenka. Jota is a thick stew, based on beans, sauerkraut, and potatoes. Essential parts of jota are dried meat cooked in the stew itself, bits of bacon, and zapešt (mix of bacon, parsley, and garlic). Put inside carrots and onions, bay leaf and olive oil, and jota will give you excellent combination of aroma and taste.
Sauerkraut is also unavoidable side dish for other gastronomic pleasures in Mladenka. These are famous sausages and pork steaks done in old fashion. One such thing is zarebrnik, dried pork chops, fried on both sides on fat, and then cooked in white wine (traditionally it should be local belica, but most restaurants serve it cooked in Istrian malvasia). No carnival can pass without sausages, which are often smoked and give excellent tone to the meal. Beside sauerkraut, Mladenka serves also cooked potatoes with fried onions, tomato, and bacon paste, also with bits of sausage inside. Everything mixes well in almost a main dish itself!
Mladenka is favourite place for lunches (marenda), when the restaurant is packed full with guests enjoying excellent local dishes for minimal prices. Depending on day and season, one may find here cod stew, minestrone, bean stew with sausages, various meat stews with pasta and gnocchi (a special treat would be the horse stew), local fish delicacies, and grill.
Specialties of the house include zarebrnik and sausages in wine, which we tried, but there are lots of other gastronomy delights in Mladenka. One such meal is horse steak in wine with parmesan cheese, a great combination for anyone enjoying the horse meat. Pork and veal shank is another treat, while those caring for fruits of the sea should really consider trying octopus baked under the baking lid. You can’t get more traditional than that.
As Viškovo is surrounded by forests and mountains, no wonder Mladenka offers game dishes as well. The restaurant will offer you venison sausages, mushroom dishes, bear, venison, boar meat, made both as a stew and as a steak, with various pasta on side. Steaks and grill come along, as well as many pasta dishes and some fish offers. Mladenka is not fish restaurant, and should be regarded as prime destination for meat dishes.
Pancakes and cakes make sweet finish, but if you want to try traditional stuff, you should go for presnac. This famed cake of Northern Adriatic is made in numerous different ways, based on the specific heritage in a particular place. In Mladenka presnac is done by owner’s grandma, and partly resembles local presnac recipes (halubajski, z Kuta). We tried it, and it is sheer mouth-watering experience, as it contains raisins and dried fruit. Carnival cannot go without fritule, made often with a drop of rum or brandy.
Mladenka has a solid wine list, and we enjoyed particularly good Merlot made by homestead Maurović in Istria. Full of fruity-berry bouquet and with a beautiful ruby colour, Merlot is very easy to drink but sadly comes in very small quantities. That choice of home wine is great decision of Mladenka staff.