Croatia’s gastronomic landscape is largely shaped by the nation’s bordering countries, and the cuisine, therefore, is best understood as a patchwork of regional foods and dishes from the fruitful Adriatic Sea, which laps Croatia’s western shore.
Along the Dalmatian Coast, menus are full of Mediterranean-inspired plates, while the Hungary-hugging Slavonia region shares its neighbor’s love for paprika-seasoned fare. In Croatia’s interior, Slavic culinary tradition is alive and well, with meat dishes, potatoes, root veggies and cabbage composing most of the local diet, while the Istrian region introduces hand-rolled pastas reminiscent of its Italian neighbor across the sea.
Croatia is truly an adventure for your palate—one that’ll take you on a journey through history and across borders in one bite.
The Dining Experience in Croatia
After a few days in Croatia, you’ll realize lunch is the main culinary event for locals, while breakfast and dinner are lighter meals or snacks.
As the meal worth saving your appetite for, lunch in Croatia is a multicourse affair. It starts with a bowl of soup, which is followed by a main course, usually a roasted meat served with vegetables or salad and potatoes or noodles. The star meal concludes with one of Croatia’s many delicious desserts.
By dinnertime (from 8:00 p.m. on), locals often gather at restorani (restaurants) and konoba (taverns) for thin-crust pizzas and shared platters of spicy grilled sausage (ćevapi), smoked ham (pršut) and grilled sardines.
Backroads Pro Tip
For a tasty, cheap Croatian meal, look for restaurants that serve marenda, gablec or uzina. (The name varies depending on where you are in Croatia.) These fixed-price menu meals, usually served starting at 10:00 a.m., are meant to be midmorning snacks before lunch but could easily be standalone meals. They typically include a rotating menu of three to four daily dishes for you to choose from.
Typical Croatian Dishes
Don’t miss out on sampling these delectable Croatian dishes during your trip:
· Crni Rižot
Crni rižot, or squid ink–colored risotto, is a popular seafood dish in Croatia and can be found on menus throughout the country. Besides squid, the dish includes mussels, clams and other shellfish.
· Punjene Paprike
A popular summer food, punjene paprike is a dish comprised of bell peppers stuffed with minced meat, rice and spices, all of which are cooked in a tomato sauce. Though this dish is consumed all over Croatia, the meat filling varies by region.
Sarma, or stuffed sauerkraut, is a popular winter dish throughout Croatia. As with punjene paprike, minced meat, rice and spices serve as the filling to this Croatian comfort food.
Fritule is one of Croatia’s most common desserts. These deep-fried dough balls are made with flour, raisins, local schnapps and lemon zest.
Regional Foods and Specialties
Dining in Croatia is like a national sport, and the shifting menus as you move about the country make it even more exciting. Here are the can’t-miss regional dishes to seek out while traveling through Croatia:
This seafood stew can be found along the Dalmatian Coast. The seafood is stewed for hours with onions, tomato sauce and spices and is, ultimately, dished up with a side of polenta.
In the Istrian region, you must try manestra, a bean soup that’s slow-cooked for hours over a low flame. Many variations to this dish exist, but they all contain pešt, a paste of ground pancetta, garlic and parsley, as well as cured meats, such as prosciutto.
This Croatian sweet comes from the Dalmatian Coast and is essentially a Swiss chard–filled pie. It’s so ingrained in life here that the Croatian Ministry of Culture actually declared it an intangible aspect of Croatian cultural heritage.
Beloved by the locals of southern Croatia, arancini are candied orange peels. You can also find versions made with lemon or grapefruit.
In the Kvarner region, dishes are often prepared using a domed metal lid called a peka. Škampi is one such dish. It’s prepared by slow-cooking shrimp under the peka and some hot ash.
In eastern Croatia (Slavonia and Baranja), the local cuisine leans heavily on paprika. Čobanac, a meat goulash made with hot paprika, garlic and bay leaves, is no exception.
Croatian Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
· Main dish: Glavno jelo
· Side dish: Prilog
· Seafood specialities: Specijalitetima od morski plodova
· Fish: Riba
· Meat: Meso
· Bread: Kruh
· Salad: Salata
· Soup: Juha
· Water: Voda
· Beer: Pivo
· White wine: Bijelo vino
· Red wine: Crno vino
Words to Know When Dining Out
The Croatian language is difficult to master, and the locals know that. Though you’ll be able to converse in English nearly everywhere you go, these Slavic words and phrases might just earn you a few brownie points with the locals:
· Can I have the menu, please?: Molim vas jelovnik?
· Table for two (three, four).: Stol za dvoje (troje, četvero).
· The check, please.: Račun, molim.
· What do you recommend?: Što biste preporučili?
· I will take…: Uzet ću…
· Thank you: Hvala
· Bon appetit!: Uživajte!
At restaurants in Croatia, a 10 percent gratuity is expected on top of the fee already included in your bill. For exceptional service, go ahead and leave 15 percent. At cafés and small restaurants, tipping is less expected. If you do wish to leave a tip, though, it’s typical to round up to the nearest whole kuna.
To Western observers, dining in Croatia might appear like a formal affair full of rules. Your napkin goes in your lap. Your knife stays in your right hand, while your fork remains in your left. There’s even a protocol for leaving food on your plate to signal when you’re finished eating. Surface-level rules aside, though, dining out in Croatia is actually quite informal—a moment to relax over good food in good company.
If you’re lucky enough to be invited inside a Croatian’s home, keep a few customs in mind, including presenting your host with a small gift of chocolates, wine or flowers and never using the host’s first name unless you’re invited to do so.
The dress code for dining out is typically casual but fashionable.