Istria is a large, ornament shaped peninsula that drops into the Adriatic Sea. Admittedly I had never heard of Istria before stumbling across a feature on the different types of ethnic groups that call Queens home. It’s part of Croatia and shares a border with Slovenia but the people who live there and the culture they celebrate are almost entirely of Italian descent. Like many countries in Southern Europe, it has a long and complicated history of different nationalities, religions and ethnic groups who all lay claim to the area or have been claimed by the strongest nearby country.
On Sunday, I took the ladies of the Ethnic Food Adventure Club (that’s #EFAC) to Astoria to try one of two famous Istrian restaurants, the Istria Sport Club. Now, this isn’t really a restaurant. Technically it’s the headquarters of a football club but seems to be more of a social club or cultural center. Founded in 1959 as the Istria Sport Club, the name stuck even though the football (that’s soccer to you) team has fallen somewhat out of fashion and now hosts youth events. But the full-service restaurant, cultural center and banquet hall remains. On a particularly bright and sunny afternoon, we descended the stairs to the basement restaurant and were pleasantly surprised by a cavernous space with a huge glass patio and backyard. We were the only party in the restaurant for the entirety of our two and a half hour meal. The elderly gentleman and his wife who helped us treated us with kindness and great service. “Are you Istrian or Croation?” was the first question. “No.” I answered. “Italian?” “No.” “Did you hear about us from the computer?” “Yes.” I said. ‘Where are you from?” “Brooklyn.” He went on to tell us that tourists come all the way from Japan to sample Istrian food. He seemed particularly proud of the Japanese thing.
I always feel a bit awkward as a “food tourist.” I would be annoyed if six well-dressed young women showed up to my restaurant with iPhones and proceeded to instagram every course. Since I still need my instagrams, I try to snap stealthily and respectfully. Restaurants like the Istria Sport Club are not hot new things hoping to get rave yelp reviews, these are cultural centers where people have brought recipes from the country they were born in so that they might preserve their culture in their new home.
Immigrant populations usually exist because of hardship. You’ll find a map of a particular village where the owner is from in most ethnic restaurants. Of course they want to share their heritage and food with everyone but there’s a bit of sadness in this. So many immigrant populations came to this country in search of a better life. Their tiny enclaves are dotted all over Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens and in the Chinatowns of cities all over the world. Sometimes it’s famine, sometimes it’s war, sometimes it’s genocide that causes mass immigration. I’m no expert on Istrian history and I hope I haven’t botched this or offended anyone but after World War I, the peninsula was given to Italy. However, portions of the population that were Croatian and Slovenian were subject to brutal killings. Then after World War II, it was divided between Croatia and Slovenia and many Istrians who identified themselves as Italian fled to Italy or the United States. For more on the subject, try here, here or here. The Istria Sport Club appears to be one of two popular Istrian spots in Astoria, Queens, the other being Rudar. I’m sure there are others.
We ordered a bunch of dishes I had read about on blogs and on Yelp. If you’ve ever been out to dinner with me, you know that I politely and respectfully like to order for the whole table, assuming everyone is sharing. We had two vegetarians in our company and while I usually scoff at such people, these two particular ladies eat fish, so we managed just fine with the food.
The seafood was the star. The anchovy-fried calamari was salty perfection.
That green mash next to the squid is a potato and swiss chard mixture, a house specialty, that was fantastic.
My favorite bite of the whole meal was a piece of fresh bread with prosciutto and sir (cheese). The cheese was like a mild, softer Parmesan and just as salty and rich.
We also ordered the meat kebabs (cevapici), salmon and a simple cabbage and bean salad that was amazingly light and refreshing.
Every review I read online said to order the noodles and the gnocchi but I personally wasn’t blown away. The seafood was the star, so stick to the calamari, branzino, and salmon. There are many fish listed on the menu, but they only serve what is fresh that day
Skip my blathering, here’s what you need to know:
Place: Istria Sport Club – Astoria, Queens
Address: 28-09 Astoria Boulevard
How to get there: Walk 2 minutes from the Astoria Blvd. Stop on the N,R lines.
Open: Wednesday – Sunday for Lunch and Dinner
Cash only: YES
Dinner for two will costs you: $40.00
What to order: Prosciutto and Cheese appetizer plate, fresh fish of the day, fried calamari
Drinks: Cheap wine
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