Updated: Feb 19, 2019
A wine maker is looking at us from the wall. And the lady from the window, as well as the carpenter, cooper, olive oil producer, peasant, the lady in waiting, carrier and so many other characters taken out from the historical oblivion of Vodnjan. It is a permanent exhibition wall of the restaurant Vodnjanka, a testimony of the town-village divide in an area characterised by both Croatian and Italian influences. The remnants of these stories are carried further in the authentic Istrian meals by which this restaurant is famous for. No wonder, then, that Vodnjanka is always on the list of the Gastronaut's 100 Leading Croatian Restaurants.
At the same time, Vodnjanka cannot be avoided from the town of Vodnjan itself. We can call it Dignano as well, as the town is predominantly inhabited by the Italian-speaking community. Luckily, while trying to find the restaurant (and it is incredibly easy to find it), we managed to get lost. We say luckily because we had to drive through the Vodnjan city centre, narrow roads reminding us on Sicily, small piazzas so much characteristic for the Adriatic towns, and churches with high bell towers, among which the parish church of St. Blaise is a particular sight. Two or three circles on the local roundabout were enough to encourage old ladies to point us the way to the nearby and impossible to miss restaurant run by Mrs Svjetlana Celija.
Her enormous energy and yet laid-back attitude gave us the feeling of familiar atmosphere. Although our team was ready to continue tasting of the local wine sorts, after the visit to the Medea wine company, we were more than satisfied with the homemade rakija/grappa. It gives us focus for the homemade and authentic products of Vodnjan, as the restaurant is the cult point for the autochthonic Istrian cuisine, testified in the numerous awards, recognitions, and articles such as our own. The commentaries of the restaurant were more than enough for us to visit the place!
We looked in the kitchen, went to the dining hall, wondered the beautiful interior, and checked the splendid view from the upper terrace, overlooking the old roofs of Vodnjan all the way to the parish church. And we were followed by the Babos red wine, which is local wine producer with a particular story. Namely, there is a legend about the stingy people of Vodnjan who would make wine to sell from the leftovers in the vineyard. That may be in the past, but Babos wine served us well throughout our gastronomy journey in Vodnjanka.
And it is indeed a special journey, combining history and the gastronomical know-how! What is so specific about Vodnjanka is the fact there are no frozen ingredients in the restaurant: everything here is fresh and stems from the local homesteads. Such are the Vodnjan bites (Vodnjanski zalogajčići), an introductory plate of local pleasures including the polenta with local herbs, sheep cheese, prosciutto, curd, Istrian sausage, cheese with truffles, rucola and season fruit such as fresh fig. Can you imagine more Adriatic plate than these? Hardly. A special notion is given to the “mišanca”, the mixed wild spring plants, which blend well with polenta. There is a history here as well. Ladies of Vodnjan use to make polenta and not pasta (such as fuži) which was done by women in the nearby villages.
Local nutritionists, namely the local grandmas, gave knowledge for keeping the local and fresh foods. Vodnjan ladies were rich, and they didn’t care for the growing food, but they did respect the local market offer. Vodnjanka is a bit of fusion of both, of classy dining reminiscent of local nobility and of grandma’s kitchen, which inspired many dishes of the Celija family. These recipes are kept diligently for generations, emphasising sauces as a major companion to the everlasting tastes and flavours kept from the childhood. It is the sauce that makes the difference between various polenta and pasta, says Mrs Svjetlana. Her reminiscence includes both the Vodnjan family and the grandma coming from the more demanding area of Mount Učka, the symbol of Istria.
One of the activities was also picking the mushrooms. The noble Istrian land favours many kinds of mushrooms, including the chanterelles, grilled on oil and served with handmade pljukanci, a particular kind of peasant pasta. The pasta is done by the family, keeping the tradition of hand-rolled pasta, known for its chewy flavour and perfect for enjoying with any kind of the yummy Istrian sauce. After we tried the Vodnjanka's pljukanci with chanterelles sauce, we knew everything said before is completely true. And if you add a bit of cheese (not too much), you can play with flavours as you wish!
Our main meal was based on nowadays unavoidable boškarin or Istrian ox. Complex, as usual, it gives tremendously good and beefy background to the restaurant dedicated to everything Istrian. We tried it with tagliatelle and immediately sensed the manually made pasta. It all sounds really, well, presidential. Wait, did we say presidential? Oh, yes… Vodnjanka is not only regular Istrian inn but a place where wonderful cuisine is recognised by the highest office of Croatia. Mrs Svjetlana served two Croatian presidents on their summer retreat on the Brijuni archipelago, offering the beautiful Istrian cuisine also to the foreign ambassadors!
The presidential menu is still on offer. It includes polenta with asparagus sauce, vineyard snails in sauce with polenta, royal pljukanci in the cheese basket, dried ombolo with curd and Vodnjan mišanca, cod in lavender tempura filled with olives, pan d’uva cake, lavender cake, and Vodnjan fritule. It is hard to be an ambassador, indeed! Every single bite is taken from Vodnjan and its vicinity, including the olive oil for which this town is famous. Vodnjanka uses its own olive oil and the Brist olive oil, another splendid business combining agriculture and tourism, whose tasting place and shop can be found in the heart of historic Vodnjan, and where you can book the grove tours.
Our own sweet finish in Vodnjanka was beautiful almond tart Bumbara, a simple delight taken also from the Vodnjan surroundings – you just need almonds, sugar and eggs. No flour, no additives, no excessive sweeteners. Anyone looking for truly good and local food, with the background of heritage and knowledge passed through generations, should go straight to Vodnjanka and taste the love and care of Vodnjan’s grandmas, mamas, aunts, and ladies, stemming from their households, gardens, fields and meadows.
Istarska 22b, 52215 Vodnjan
00385 (0) 52 511 435, firstname.lastname@example.org