In the heart of Mošćenička Draga, above the old port that protects the fishing boats, the Pescaria tavern was opened a few years ago, which with its name inherits one of the most ancient occupations of the inhabitants of this place. Fishing, and especially shrimp farming, has brought up generations of this region, which is proud of both the Istrian and Kvarner identity, and as a pledge of this, the exhibition and regatta of traditional sailing boats "Mala barka" is being held for the fourteenth year, where the hosts and guests are proud of their boats like batana, pasara, guc, gajeta, leut, and other autochthonous vessels. Most sailors will come to the terrace of the Pescaria tavern, where the fresh offer depends on the catch of the day, and the completely local culinary team creates seafood delicacies throughout the year. That's why we set off for Pescaria!
We are sitting on the terrace with a unique view with the owner Antoan Hrelja. We taste great biska (mistletoe brandy) and borovička (blueberry liqueur) from Moretto, who supplies the tavern also with medica (honey brandy). The owner does not shy away from speaking in a local way, and as much as we are amazed by his catering success, given that he is not from a family of restaurateurs, we are so grateful for his honesty, which is hard to find in today's gastronomic scene. Antoan is not unknown in the service industry.
Thirteen years ago, this entrepreneur from Sveta Jelena opened the beach bar Black&White, one of the most famous such places in Kvarner. Then, for three and a half years, he managed the well-know Aruba in Pula, but at the end of 2016, he had the opportunity to open a tavern in the place of the legendary Benito. "When I started, I admit that I didn't know what sea bass was, what sea bream was, what was farmed, and what was from the sea," says Antoan, whose palate has been hooked on Adriatic shrimp since he was young. They were present at every celebration and made up the easily recognizable sweet taste of the northern Adriatic.
Since 2017, Mala barka has been organizing snacks in Pescaria, and we tasted this year's offer ourselves. It all started with marinated anchovies, shrimp, and cuttlefish salad with celery, cherry tomatoes, and peas, the work of chef Ivana Ćosić, which is truly a local story on a plate. Anchovies, which are called the poor man's jewel in the Mediterranean because this blue fish has fed generations of islanders and coastal people, are extremely fresh and with a few drops of lemon juice and olive oil from Momjan OPG Valenta create a rhapsody of flavours.
Shrimp, which have been found in the depths of the sea as an excellent gastronomic delicacy since the time of the ancient Greeks, give an unmistakable sweet taste, and beans with cuttlefish, also an old mysterious inhabitant of the seabed, remind us of the peas our grandmothers used to feed us. With all that, we drink the house wine - Istrian Malvazija Pescaria, whose bottles are filled by the Deklić winery from Vižinada. With its full body, floral aromas, and the scent of elderberry, this is a great summer wine that can be enjoyed incomparably with views of one of the most beautiful beaches of the northern Adriatic.
The risk Antoan took turned out to be extremely successful. For two years, he struggled with getting to know the hospitality business, choosing staff, and the main breakthrough was in 2019, after which the Covid pandemic came. Courage is a virtue; Pescaria has moved on, and 2022 is proving to be more successful than ever. "It didn't start this season, but since January of this year," emphasises Antoan, because Pescaria has recognized itself on the gastronomic map of the Kvarner hospitality scene, right alongside the best. "We cannot compare ourselves to legendary Johnson, nor to Zijavica, which is doing its own special story, but the guests see us as equals. I'm glad because we get a lot of visitors who become permanent guests", Antoan tells us, specifically mentioning the growing number of foreigners who buy real estate in this part of the Adriatic.
Our warm appetizer is pasta with fish, excellent pieces of saddle bream with capers and cherry tomatoes, all on a fish base. Saddle bream is neglected, but an extremely generous fish, and the culinary team's willingness to bring back the flavours of the past is to be commended! Contrary to popular belief, this fish has neither big nor small ears, but eyes (in Croatian ušata would mean fish with beig ears). From the old Greek stories, saddle breamentered Italian narratives as occhiada, which our fishermen began to call okijata-ukjata-ušata and the name stuck. The saddle bream has bulging eyes that help it see everything, it attacks everything that swims, and the meat is therefore tasty and rich.
We witnessed this with the main dish, fried saddle bream with swiss chard and potatoes, a simple and extremely satisfying recipe that consists entirely of local ingredients. Although Antoan can't think of the swisswiss chard that he has eaten every day for decades, the taste and smell of the Kvarner children's educator are phenomenal, and they stand out especially with Chardonnay Belaj 2020, a great aged wine from the other side of Učka that shows why each terroir of this variety is special and challenging for every wine lover.
The crispy crust of the bread, which is made in Pescaria several times a day, testifies to the culinary knowledge and expectations of the guests who will not miss dipping this wonderful bread in olive oil or any fish sauce. Tavern Pescaria works well with local fishermen, but the difficulty is the increasing scarcity of fish. There is no shortage of shrimp hunters, as well as shrimp, but the catch that used to feed entire families is gone. Therefore, you have to fight every day for the best and freshest fish, and the daily offer on the menu depends precisely on the night's catch.
This is not bad for us, quite the opposite. The best menu is the one recommended by the chef based on the ingredients in the kitchen. However, in order to maintain the required standard, Pescaria offers both farmed and wild fish. Antoan is very clear and direct: "There is no lying to people, we cannot survive without farmed fish and I am not ashamed to admit it, unlike many other restaurateurs". This key difference is made in the menu itself, which gives guests a choice of taste and price.
Pescaria's culinary team consists mostly of local people who understand the mentality of the local palate. Chef Ivana Ćosić comes from Dobreć, and chef Stefano Martinčić comes from Lignje, while the main waitress is Bruna Uhač from Sveta Jelena, and Klaudio Marinčić from Lovran further improves the flavors. The tavern is open all year, except for the period from mid-November to mid-December, and it is a very good decision that Thursdays are a day off.
In order to leave with a sweet taste in our mouths, they prepared vanilla ice cream with excellent apple strudel, paired with the late harvest of Graševina Krauthaker 2019, a dessert wine that will be talked about more and more. The combination is magical and conquers everyone who likes a not-too-sweet dessert and a wine sweet enough to create a great atmosphere.
We enjoyed the dessert beyond all expectations, and we still drank the coffee at Black&White, where we were served by the young hopefuls of the hospitality industry who arrived full of enthusiasm not only from Vojvodina but even from faraway Argentina!
Pescaria has become an indispensable gastronomic point of Mošćenička Draga, but also of the entire Liburnian coast. It is a destination that prides itself on its local expression, but also on adapting to its guests, with a firm decision to preserve honest relationships and fresh ingredients, respecting local traditions and tastes, and the youth of the team. We foresee a bright future for Pescaria, and until then we will be coming to this tavern for high-quality shrimp and fish!
Stari Grad 28, Mošćenička Draga
+385 51 620 206
Photos: Marko Ognjenović & Taste of Adriatic