The Battle of the Istrian Sports Clubs
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.