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“Did someone send you?” you might be asked, somewhat jarringly, if you find your way down the basement stairs and past the life-sized goat statue that marks the entrance to the Istria Sport Club. The restaurant, on a nondescript stretch of Astoria Boulevard, doesn’t advertise its presence. Its brick storefront looks more like an office or a private social club, which, at least nominally, it is.

But any fears that we had stumbled into the wrong place were soon assuaged. “First time here? I’ll take care of you,” said Zlatko Ranic, who manages the restaurant attached to the 64-year-old soccer club. We soon felt right at home. Zlatko and his staff at the sport club are convivial and brimming with pride for their native peninsula.

Istria, a rocky peninsula on the Adriatic Sea, is winged by two storied port cities: Trieste, Italy; and Rijeka, Croatia. Now mostly in Croatia, the shield-shaped region is a crossroads between Italian and Slavic culture, language and food. For centuries, it was under the sway of the mercantile republic of Venice; later, it was the southwestern extreme of the vast Austrian Empire until it was annexed by the Kingdom of Italy after World War I. After the peninsula was ceded to Yugoslavia from fascist Italy at the end of World War II, it experienced a mass exodus of Italian Istrians, who once made up at least half of the population. Fleeing wartime massacres, persecution and intimidation by Yugoslav communists, more than a quarter million Italians left the embattled region in the 1940s and ‘50s. Many made their way to Astoria, among them the family of celebrity Italian chef Lidia Bastianich (who was born in the Istrian city of Pula). Bastianich arrived in Queens in 1959, the same year the sport club opened on Astoria Boulevard.

Though relatively few ethnic Italians remain in Istria, Italian cooking and culture never left the region – it is embedded in the identity of Istrian Slavs, who eat pršut instead of prosciutto, njoki instead of gnocchi, and spaghetti along with their čevapčići (a type of Balkan sausage) and stuffed cabbage.

The Balkan Wars spurred a wave of migration to Astoria in the 1990s, and the neighborhood’s purveyors of pizza and spanakopita faced competition from burek and pljeskavica sellers. Zlatko left Croatia in 1994, and like many of his fellow Istrian Slavs, found a home in the sport club established by their Italian countrymen decades earlier, its awning emblazoned with the endangered Istrian goat on a coat of arms. On Sundays, after club soccer games, he often plays the Istrian accordion, called the triestinka, for a raucous crowd of regulars.

Like many Istrians in the restaurant business, Zlatko has also managed Northern Italian eateries catering to a broader Manhattan audience. But the sport club, he says enthusiastically, is the only place to try real Istrian food. (Last year, a more upscale restaurant, Selo, opened nearby, offering a few Istrian specialties alongside Croatian and Serbian dishes.)

Put your trust in Zlatko and you’ll get a worthy introduction to the cuisine. Almost immediately, a basket of fresh, if unremarkable, Italian bread will appear beside a bottle of olive oil, familiar from every other taverna and trattoria in the neighborhood. Then things get more exciting. Sharing a plate with deftly fried calamari is a schmear of rich baccalà mantecato. We love salt cod, but even if you don’t, give this a try. A whisper of brininess is cushioned by the warm, earthy flavors of olive oil and garlic. A squeeze of lemon turns it into one of the best salt cod preparations in the city.

“Nobody makes it like this,” Zlatko says. “We usually make it one time a year, only on Christmas, but here it’s different. If people like it, we make it!”

The next plate, a saffron-yellow cuttlefish risotto, convinced us of the prowess of the sport club’s kitchen. The chunks of mollusk are tender and sweet, and the broth that enriches the rice was fragrant and meaty. A fine Venetian restaurant couldn’t make the dish any better.

Finally, one of the sport club’s specialties: beef goulash served over slippery handmade noodles called fuži. The Istrian noodles are diamonds of pasta folded neatly like wontons, their corners tucked inward to form rustic packets that resemble half-opened envelopes. The fuži hold onto the beefy tomato sauce like penne, but are as filling as pierogies.

The sport club’s menu (available if you insist) ventures deeper into the gastronomic territory where Italy meets the Balkans. Grilled octopus could go toe to toe with any of the renditions at Astoria’s Greek seafood places, and čevapčići with sweet ajvar and fries are as delectable as they are at any of the local Balkan grills. Risotto can also be dyed black with squid ink. A plate of goulash can be made even heartier when served over njoki, pillowy potato dumplings. Zlatko says most Istrians don’t bother cooking these dishes at home. With such a close-knit community and such a welcoming neighborhood restaurant, they don’t have to.

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Ike AllenIke Allen

Published on January 18, 2023

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