Dalmatia has a culinary tradition dating back to Greek, Roman and Byzantine times of preparing fish and seafood. Its waters are famously clean, producing fresh fish and seafood. Oysters from Mali Ston were first farmed by the Romans after Augustus conquered the Illyrian tribes. These days Dalmatian tuna is highly prized by the Japanese.
Seafood is prepared in a few set, simple ways, the most common being buzara, gently poached in a tomato-based sauce. Fish is often just cooked on the grill, na žaru. Red mullet (trilja) is considered perfect for this. Brodet, fish stew, is also popular. Seafood risottos are another standard feature, especially crni rižot using dark squid ink. If there is any made od sipe, from cuttlefish, it has stronger, tastier ink.
Don’t be afraid to ask if the fish on offer is fresh, frozen or farmed. You will usually be shown the fresh fish on offer for you to choose from.
Škrpina, scorpion fish, has deliciously tender meat but it’s the devil’s own job to pick through the bones. John Dory (kovač), golden grey mullet (cipal) and the bream family (pagar, arbun andpic) are also common – just ask what’s fresh. Dentex is usually excellent.
You’ll find grilled squid (lignje na žaru) on almost every menu. Octopus (hobotnica) is often used as a salad, chopped portions mixed with onion and herbs. The most popular shellfish are scampi (škampi), served in their shells, and invariably buzara style. Warn children that it won’t be neatly packaged in breadcrumbs. Use your fingers and expect it be pretty messy. Lobster (jastog) is invariably the dearest item on the menu.
The classic accompaniment to fish is blitva, a local kale mixed with potatoes. A simple side salad also goes well.
The real deal is best ordered a day in advance: peka or od peke, the cast-iron dome used to cover the meat being succulently slow-roasted with hot coals.
Tourist hubs, Dubrovnik in particular, can disappoint the wallet-conscious diner. In its Old Town, buildings, and thus storage space, are small, so farmed and frozen fish are often the norm. Those willing to fork out, which is to say pay the kind of prices asked in the south of France, can dine very well indeed.
On the plus side, once unsung transport hub Split has recently been experiencing a culinary boom, with fresh, contemporary, urban eateries opening on a regular basis.
Of the islands, Vis provides the most reason for discerning gastronomes to get the boat over. This is partly because its long-term lack of industry produces higher-quality seafood (lobster is a local speciality), partly because vegetables here are that much fresher, and mainly because locals can spend more time cultivating, preparing and presenting food in ways that the overwhelming tourist numbers on Hvar restricts many restaurateurs. You can dine very well in Hvar Town itself – if you know where to go, and where to avoid.