The following article appeared in the food section of the October 2,
2002 New York Times.
In Astoria's Clubs, a Taste of Istria
By ED LEVINE
FROM outside, the Istria Sport Club looks like scores of other faceless,
bunkerlike buildings in Astoria, Queens. But as soon as you walk through
the door and downstairs to the dining room, you realize you've passed
through a doorway to Istria, a 1,500-square-mile arrowhead-shaped
peninsula south of Trieste, Italy, jutting into the northeastern end of
the Adriatic Sea.
Fought over for centuries by Celts, Romans, Austro-Hungarians, Germans,
Italians, Yugoslavs and Croats, Istria, most of which now belongs to
Croatia, has faced perpetual social and political transitions. Perhaps
because of the turmoil, Istrians have clung to their food, a fascinating
blend of Italian, Slavic and Hungarian influences. The cuisine also
reflects the region's geography of mountains, sea and forest.
No more than 15,000 Istrians live in New York City, club members
estimate, but you would not know it by looking at the owners of some of
the city's leading Italian restaurants.
Giuliano Ziuliani, who owns Primola on the Upper East Side, came from
Istria. So did Milan Licul of Scaletta on the Upper West Side and Ezio
Vlacich of Piccola Venezia and Joseph Honovic and Luigi Kucica of
Ponticello, both in Astoria.
Perhaps the most famous Istrian-born restaurateur is Lidia Bastianich of
Felidia in Midtown Manhattan.
But you will not find a complete menu of Istrian dishes at any of these
restaurants. Mr. Ziuliani said that while he would serve Istrian dishes
on request, "the only place to find real Istrian food in New York is at
the social clubs."
At the Istria S. C. (as its awning says), one of the two best-known
clubs in the city, groups of men sit smoking stubby De Nobili cigars and
playing briscola, an old northern Italian card game. A television set at
the bar is tuned to a soccer match. The simple whitewashed walls are
covered with photos, posters and maps of Istria.
A large dining room leads to a garden with a picnic area, boccie court
and barbecue pit where, on warm spring and summer nights, pigs are
roasted. A wall of a smaller dining room is dominated by a glass case
that is filled with trophies won by the youth and adult soccer teams
that the club sponsors.
The club is nominally private, though I found showing up hungry, curious
and cheerful to be sufficient criteria for entrance. It does not take
There were eight in our party, and we told the chef, Anka Frankovic, a
smiling woman who said she had gone to cooking school in Croatia for
three years, that we wanted her to cook typically Istrian food for us.
The feast that followed began with dishes that might seem more
Mediterranean: creamy bacalao, dried salt cod that had been whipped into
an ultrasmooth garlic purée; tender grilled and fried calamari; and
grilled whole fish deboned by our waiter, who told us he had been on the
Croatian junior soccer team many years ago.
But then came the signature Istrian highlights, like sauerkraut studded
with meaty pork sausage and suffused with the flavor of pancetta;
feathery gnocchi with braised veal chunks ladled over them; and fuzi,
delicate little envelopes of hand-formed pasta that hold on to a
tomato-based sauce studded with tender pieces of beef and pork.
As an accompaniment to the meal, the club offers fruity Istrian wines
made from malvasia grapes. For dessert, Ms. Frankovic sent out
palacinka, Hungarian crepes filled with Nutella or jam. The bill came to
less than $35 a person.
The roots of the social clubs are centuries deep. For almost 800 years,
Istria was part of the Venetian empire. In the 20th century alone, it
was ruled by Hapsburg Austria, Italy, Germany, Yugoslavia and Croatia.
As World War II drew to a close, Istria was liberated by the combined
efforts of the Allies and Yugoslav forces led by Tito. As Tito
consolidated his power, it became clear that the Istrians of Italian
descent would no longer hold equal political and social sway with the
Tito allowed hundreds of thousands of Istrians to return to Italy as
refugees. Some of those refugees became the first wave of Istrian
immigrants to arrive in New York.
The Istria Sport Club was founded in 1959 by people from that initial
group, and moved to its current location, 28-09 Astoria Boulevard (28th
Street), in 1975. (Information: 718-728-3181.)
"This place allows people from the old country to stay together," said
Rocky Vlasic, 57, who said he went to the club nearly every day to eat,
drink, play cards and socialize. "We are all friends here. We respect
Ms. Bastianich, who said she always tried to offer a few Istrian dishes
on her menu at Felidia, put it another way: "Istria's always been
occupied. As a result, Istrians are insecure, they're chameleons. So
having these clubs is a survival tactic. Istrians have always felt
chased. So the clubs fulfill a deep need."
The Istria Sport Club was initially formed as a sports club to bring
together the politically and ethnically diverse segments (Croats, Slavs
and Italians) of the Istrian population that had settled in New York. In
the mid-1970's, large numbers of people from Labin, an eastern city,
came to New York. Labin is an overwhelmingly Croatian city, so they
eventually formed the Croatian-dominated Rudar Club in 1977.
Rudar, officially the United Miners Soccer Club, is tucked into an old
paint store at 34-01 45th Street, just off Northern Boulevard, in
Astoria; (718) 786-5833. The only sign on the door is the club's coat of
arms, two crossed mining hammers above a soccer ball. (Coal mining was
the major industry in Labin.)
When we arrived one night, we walked through a private party and made
our way downstairs to the cozy cellar dining room. There we met Wanda
Radetti, who leads tours of Istria. Ms. Radetti, who said she was in the
same refugee camp as Mrs. Bastianich after World War II, lives around
the corner from the club and is a regular.
The clubs, she said, are "our reaction to adversity." She continued: "We
party, eat, drink and dance. When we come here, it's like coming home.
It's the family some people don't have here."
There is no printed menu, just a board of specials, all in Croatian.
First came beef tartare, assertively seasoned with, among other things,
parsley, garlic, mustard and anchovies. Then a hearty veal soup, along
with the requisite fuzi and gnocchi. At home, Ms. Bastianich had
explained, Istrians make fuzi or gnocchi for their Sunday meal. At the
clubs, diners get the luxury of both.
Highlights at Rudar included an incredibly tender roast octopus and
potato dish, a surprisingly delicate stuffed cabbage; raznjici, which
are skewers of grilled meat that we dipped in ajvar, a red pepper sauce;
and very fine palacinka. We washed it down with Jamnica sparkling water,
which according to the label, has been bottled since 1828.
Ms. Radetti asked one of the chefs, Jasna Pusec, whether she had made
any strudel that night. Alas, she had not, but we were more than content
with the palacinka.
"People come here to get the food their grandmothers made for them,"
said Walter Cekada, president of the Rudar Club, which has 150 members.
His grandmother held passports from four countries during her life
without ever leaving Istria, he said. Mr. Cekada's goal is to make sure
the club stays relevant for the next generation of Istrian-Americans.
"We built a bar and a little club on the third floor just for the young
people," he said. Sure enough, a handful of 20-somethings were seated at
a bar on the third floor, listening to David Bowie.
At the private party, Passage, a rock band Mr. Cekada had flown in from
Istria, was playing traditional Istrian tunes on electric guitars and
keyboards. On a break, one musician told me: "In Istria, we play
American rock because that's what the tourists want to hear. It's only
when we come over here that we get to play Istrian music."
Ms. Radetti was dancing up a storm. She looked as if she did not have a
care in the world.
"Here, somebody will always care how you are," she said.