A Sea-Side Lunch at La Puntulina in Rovinj

I guess at some point in the early 2000’s, the world found out about Dubrovnik. And then, it became GOT’s King’s Landing, which certainly did not help keep mass tourism at bay. Eventually what was a rather affordable, relatively “untouched” gem of a port city became the setting for grand yacht parties. The charm it once held is, at least for me, totally lost. And this is unfortunately true of most of the Southern Croatia, which is why I prefer the equally pristine beaches of the Istrian Coast and the beautiful Slovenian town of Piran nearby. On a week-long road trip that balanced wedding planning around the Balaton with a tour of the Mediterranean and back again, we stopped in Rovinj for a night. We booked a private floor at a lovely little Airbnb with a very welcoming hostess, and a kiwi tree providing a welcome canopy over a lush green garden in the back. In the morning, we strolled through the residential neighborhood out to the historic center on the Rovinj peninsula, where we admired the scenery: polished and smooth stone-lined streets, clear blue skies, crisp and cool waves crashing loudly against rock.

If you’re looking for sandy beaches, Rovinj is not your kind of place. Here, “beaches” refers to the maze of rocky cliffs surrounding the Rovinj peninsula, into which stairs and smooth grooves have been dug to make them slightly more comfortable. And “taking a dip” does not mean moseying up to the shoreline to touch your toes gingerly in, only to turn back because of temperature or tide. Here, you leap from the jagged rocky cliff straight in, and there may or may not be a swarm of jellyfish waiting for you once you do. There are only one or two rickety metal stairs descending into the water but local etiquette dictates to use these only to climb out. Don’t be that guy who clings onto them on the way in… This is and always has been my absolute favorite kind of beach, one that is truly alive and extreme, with no sand blowing into your face. There, splayed out like some kind of lizard across warm stone, the Mediterranean sun just seems to find me more easily, its rays pulled to my skin by the sea salt from my latest dive, baking me fully to a deep golden brown. I guess it’s bad for me, but I just can’t seem to find a way to care. A few hours of such direct contact with the sun and a few splashed of cool water across my toasted brain and I’m happy, truly happy, giddy beyond comparison. And La Puntulina is like an extension of that happiness.

La Puntulina is much more than a restaurant with a view. Its terrace seems literally carved into the natural stone cliffs of the Rovinj peninsula, with tables set up on steps with different altitudes, some shockingly close to the edge. The upper parts of this cliff are dedicated to outdoor dining, while the lower half is a kind of wine and cocktail bar, absolutely ideal for a romantic sunset apero. Our hair still wet and salty from the beach, we were seated in the covered terrace area following what was actually not too long of wait. Got lucky, I guess. The crisp white awning fluttered pleasantly in the sea-breeze, providing our toasted with skin with some much needed relief from the afternoon sun. The tableware was clean, the service friendly, the amuse-bouche (tartine with a creamy fish spread) perfectly pleasant.

The menu here is – obviously – heavy on seafood. There are appetizers and mains with fresh gilthead, tuna, salmon, seabass and anchovies. There is squid cooked “Rovinj-style” and signature recipes for octopus, scallops and lobster. There are also shrimps and prawns prepared in several different ways, as well as a local fish soup. But, this being the Adriatic, there are also several pasta dishes on the menu: spaghetti, ravioli, something called paccher and two local specialties called pljukanci and fusi. As Istria is particularly famous for its truffles, there are quite a few dishes highlighting this ingredient. And for those who really just want to make no effort to experience the essence of this place, there’s turkey and beefsteak. But again, don’t be that guy.

What was perhaps even more exciting than this menu was the La Puntulina wine list, which was quite vast, with over 100 different references from all over Croatia. We got a chilled bottle of Kozlovic Malvazija, which ended up going perfectly with our food. (This was actually one of two perfect but very different wine experiences in Croatia. The other was the unexpectedly intensive crash course we got at our epic tasting at Basement Wine Bar in Zagreb. If ever in Zagreb, go there…)

Our first course was Pljukanci, a local spelcialty recommended by our waiter. This is a hand-rolled Istrian pasta with a slightly chewy, springy texture. It was served in a simple tomato sauce with a few blistered cherry tomatoes, some tender shrimps and nibbly bits of scampi. A fresh and simple first course.

Second course was a grilled sea bream fillet, which came bathed in a black truffle cream sauce, fresh black truffles shaved generously over the top. While the Pljukanci were quite mildly seasoned, this dish was positively bursting with flavor. The charred crunch of the golden brown dorade contrasted beautifully with the creaminess of the sauce, in which little lumps of black truffle exploded with earthy, umami flavor. The shaved truffle over the top was also simple divine, with a bit of a bite but thin enough to melt easily over the warmer spots of the fish.

No trip to Rovinj is totally complete without a meal, or at least a cocktail, on the terrace of La Puntulina. There, on the sun-kissed stone steps, licked by a fresh and salty sea breeze, one really feels like part of it all. It’s a place to sit around with a bottle of white, admiring the unparalleled view of the sea, and trying your very best to store the sensations of paradise deeply into your memory, to pull up when you need it the most, on a depressing, cold March morning, as I’m doing now.

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