Updated: Feb 19, 2019
In the realm of Momjan Moscato there is a perfect hiding spot for gastronomy connoisseurs within the labyrinth of small alleys in Momjan. It is the tavern – konoba – Rino, proud ownership of Prelac family, which is known for its spectacular Momjan Moscato and other wines. We went to this konoba after wine tasting in the Prelac wine cellar and we were accompanied by Mr Ibrahim Espinosa, a jolly Mexican chap who is now working as a chef in Montreal, the gastronomy capital of Northern America.
Konoba Rino is a beautiful place, with an interior in a traditional and yet very classy style. It has a breath of hunting tradition in nearby woodlands where small game is often found. Very relaxed and welcoming staff works here since 1988 (longer than the winery next door), headed by Mrs Timka Prelac who is also the chef, and offers the best quality ingredients – especially dry meat products from the family estate near Grožnjan, another charming hilltop town in Istria. To attest this, we had an excellent meat-and-cheese plate consisting of homemade prosciutto (which is sliced by hand in colder months of the year, as the custom tells), excellent dried sausage and pancetta, together with three kinds of cheese: with truffles, with peppers and beautiful and mild sheep cheese.
Not to be left without refreshing foods in this humid summer weather we also had zucchini carpaccio, an imaginative mix of zucchini, rucola, grated cheese, slightly baked pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil. Are we somewhere in continental Croatia or Austria, we thought?! Pumpkin seed oil is unusual to find on tables and even more rarely used in a pan, but Konoba Rino took a gamble with it and succeeded in blending the flavours marvellously. Originally it was an appeal to Austrian and German guests, who use pumpkin seed oil often in their cuisine, but it turned out to be a very good twist when one would expect olive oil. Not to say that Prelac’s olive oil is bad. In fact, it is perfect, with green colour and fresh grass in the smell.
We were first guests in the day to sit on a big roofed terrace with a view of beautiful Momjan nature and church of Saint Peter – or Pietro as they call him in this bilingual Croatian-Italian place. But it didn’t take much for konoba’s terrace to be filled with people, mostly tourists residing both in Momjan and in the neighbouring summer resorts. But even in winter times is Konoba Rino a meeting point for many locals and often Italian hunters. They may gather next to the beautiful old-style fireplace above which traditional bukaletas evoke memories of happy moments, or may sit in the warm interior of konoba, overlooking the hills and forests, with a sip of owner’s wine. They also may eat maneštra od bobići, a classic Istrian minestrone which we tried as well, enjoying the taste of bean-and-corn thick soup that is available all year round.
Inside the tavern, one may also notice that Konoba Rino is a place where the meat of Istrian Ox, popularly known as boškarin, and Istrian donkey is served. A lot is being said about ox, but Istrian donkey is quite rare specie. Known in the Istrian dialect as pulac or pulić, the Istrian donkey represents an important element in the cultural and historical identity of Istria. In the past, together with the Istrian cattle, the Istrian donkeys were used as working animals for the transport of goods and less heavy materials. Due to the abandonment of traditional agriculture and the modernization of transport, the number of this native breed notable decreased. A few years ago, the population of the Istrian donkey has touched a historic low level, there were found around fifty animals. Nowadays, the number has risen to over 250 pure animals thanks to the initiative set up by several breeders. The goal was to revival donkeys by focusing on its gastronomic purposes, which Konoba Rino embraces totally. We tried the donkey with Istrian pasta, served together along the fuži with truffles, Both are as Istrian as they can get and indeed somewhat exotic dish for many foreign visitors.
On a table next to us sat an elderly gentleman with a tempting cigar in his mouth. We invited him over and the cigar was suddenly in our journalist Edvard’s mouth! Mr Arturo Orlando is born and bred in Momjan, where he works in vineyards. A proud representative of the Italian minority, Mr Arturo is also devoted to his Croatian homeland and especially its food and wine. After all, how can one live in Istria without such bliss around every corner?! We wanted to share with him some sausages and pork streak, which came as a greeting from the kitchen’s grill, but he was satisfied with a glass of Prelac’s Merlot. Otherwise, meat delicacies like Fiorentina, steak, sausage and ombolo are prepared on a barbecue on wood. At Rino's tavern you can taste unique Istrian and home specialities such as homemade pasta, noodles, homemade fužis and truffles, asparagus, spinach, a stew made of Istrian ox, Istrian donkey or game, or chicken žgvacet (a special kind of stew).
It is a very sweet experience to visit Konoba Rino, and sweetness is also all around our expert for desserts Edvard who was left speechless for paste crème, pannacotta with forest berries, and apple strudel. Our guest from Mexico was equally fascinated with the diversity of Croatian table, although the sombrero he borrowed from the inn was Spanish, and not Mexican. But, this place fits presidents. No wonder ex-Croatian president Stjepan Mesić was a guest here! Great food, excellent company, and homely feeling – everything makes a splendid gastronomy day out!