Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Battle of the Istrian Sports Clubs

As I wrote earlier, I became familiar with Istrian food in the 'eighties at the San Francisco restaurant Albona, and visited the Istrian peninsula several years later. Istrian food has been on my mind lately, so I decided to check out several of the Istrian restaurants in Astoria, Queens.

Astoria has a large Croatian community, many of them from Istria. A number of New York's top Italian restaurants are run by Istrians. Lidia Bastianich (Felidia) was born in Istria, and her son Joe is Mario Batali's business partner. Piccola Venezia, an excellent northern Italian restaurant in Astoria, is also Istrian-run.

Aside from the Italian restaurants, there are also a few Istrian-run places in Astoria that serve the typical home cooking of the region. Interestingly, these restaurants were afterthoughts at community sports and social clubs, places where folks could get a social taste, and later a gustatory one, of the old country. I got my Queens restaurant posse together on two occasions to try the food at the Istria Sport Club and the Rudar Soccer Club. Both clubs sponsor teams and provide a bar/hangout for the Istrian community to socialize, play cards, and watch games on TV. From the outside, you wouldn't know there were public restaurants at these places. The clientele for the restaurants are almost completely local Croatians.

Istria Sport Club was the first we visited. The staff were charming and gracious but, unfortunately, the food was awful. My impression was that it was food worthy, at best, of a Croatian high school cafeteria. The most typical Istrian pasta dish is fuzi (noodles) or njoki (gnocchi) served with a stewed veal sauce. We were served a dish which featured both types of pasta, and both had the consistency of wallpaper paste. The veal sauce was pallid and tasted as if the flavor had been sucked out by a vampire. The grilled squid I had for a main course was overcooked, rubbery and fishy. It was smothered in an overabundance of garlic. A friend's mixed grill was mediocre at best.

The online menu of Rudar Soccer club looked much more varied and promising, but when we arrived on a midweek night we received a menu that was fairly similar to that at Istria Sport Club. We were told that many more specials are available on weekends, and that Friday was seafood night. This time we decided to order family-style.

Rudar S.C. creamed Istria S.C. The food at Rudar was wonderful, everything fresh and flavorful. We started with a plate of prsut & sir (prosciutto & sheep's milk cheese). The prosciutto was OK, but I don't believe it was prosciutto di Parma; the cheese was fairly mild. Things picked up from there. We had the njoki with veal sauce, and it was remarkably different from the version at Istria Sport Club. The sauce had a deep, rich flavor, the meat seemed to be of higher quality, and the gnocchi had the perfect bouncy consistency.

The grilled squid was another benchmark of the difference between the two places. Rudar's was perfectly prepared, fresh and with just the right amount of garlic. The mixed grill, which included a pork chop, sausages, raznici (pork kebab), and cevapcici (spiced ground meat kebab), was much better than the one at Istria Sport Club.

Also excellent was the grilled branzino (Mediterranean sea bass), veal Istriana (thin cutlets in a savory light brown sauce), and a side of Swiss chard and potatoes.

We don't intend to return to Istria Sport Club. We're already planning a Friday night visit to Rudar Soccer Club.

Njoki & Fuzi at Istria Sport Club

Njoki at Rudar Soccer Club

Squid at Istria Sport Club

Squid at Rudar Soccer Club


Istria Sport Club on Urbanspoon

12 Comments:

Anonymous ann said...

why would you expect prosciutto di Parma at a Croatian restaurant serving Prsut? Prsut while related to prosciutto is not the same thing, just as njoki are not gnocchi.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My parents are from Istria and had quite the successful restaurant for 20 years. Isn't "fuzi" spelled with 2 l's?

2:12 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

There are many kinds of gnocchi, differing by region,family, whatever, some with potato, some without, so I don't think it's incorrect to say njoki=gnocchi.

3:01 PM  
Anonymous Jean Oh said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

removed comment unrelated to post

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

prosciutto di Parma and prsut are not the same. Being from Istra, I am partial to prsut and prefer its taste over proscuitto. In Istra, Fuzi is spelled this way and not two l's. Our cheese is much milder, again, when eaten with prsut, it doesn't mask the flavor of it.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Tanya from Rijeka said...

Istrian Food is actually Croatian food and its the best food in southern europe (mediterranean) Lydia from "Filidia" Restaurant is also born in Istria, Croatia but insults us croatians by speaking Italian over Croatian in her cooking show that I prefer not to watch

8:09 PM  
Anonymous Bookmaking Software said...

I agree with Tania. I am croatian and she is right!

11:48 AM  
Anonymous Bookmaking Software said...

I agree with Tanya!

11:52 AM  
Anonymous victor said...

There are many "Lidias" out there who feel the need to 'Italianise" their names to "gain status" and to compensate for their lack od education and poor knowledge of history. As for Lidia grandparents, the firs prayer they've learned was OCE NAS not PADRE NOSTRO.In addition somebody needs to remind Lidia that her friend Benito is no longer among us.
Si Lidia Io sono un SLAVO SCHIAVO pero un SLAVO ORGOGLIOSO con rispetto di miei nonni e pranonni.

12:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Istria Fiume Torneremo!!!

12:59 AM  
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