Dubrovnik may be the pearl of the Croatian coastline, but for a seafood feast that will make you lick your lips, you'll have to leave the old city's fortress walls and follow the locals up the Adriatic.
That's what the gray-haired man, doing double-duty as a cash register attendant and IT support guru at Dubrovnik's trendy Netcafé Internet spot, told me as I finished up my caj (tea) and clicked out of e-mail.
"If you were taking your family out to dinner, and they were craving seafood, where would you go?" I asked, jumping between Croatian and English phrases. Really, I was begging.
I had spent a few days under the romantic spell of the medieval city. I had eaten in tourist-style restaurants with menus in German, Italian, and English – the languages of most visitors walking down the cobblestone streets.
Now I wanted to taste the authentic fare I knew must exist somewhere in the area.
Being Croatian-American and having a family tree filled with fishermen, I was craving fresh-from-the-sea morsels such as mussels, oysters, cuttlefish, and octopus, all drizzled with locally produced olive oil.
"Well," the man mumbled, hesitating, not completely sure he wanted to share his secret. "I would go to Ston or Mali Ston. They have the best seafood."
I shouldn't have been surprised by the answer.Driving down to Dubrovnik from the central coast, I remembered seeing black floats and old wooden poles – markers for mussel and oyster farms – bouncing among the gentle waves of the Kanal Mali Ston. That's the slip of water that separates the mainland and the short isthmus that leads to the Peljesac peninsula.
At roadside kiosks, burly men and middle-aged women stood next to signs advertising shellfish by the kilo. And a distant memory had buzzed in my head – an old friend telling me about Ston's history and culinary claim to fame.
But somehow, the telltale symbols of a potentially savory meal flew right by as I sped along the curving highway.
"Yes, go to Ston or Mali Ston," the man said, with a wink this time, certain that I would find what I was seeking and more.
About an hour's drive north of Dubrovnik, Ston and Mali Ston offer the classic view of Mediterranean life: Fishing boats bob in the harbor. Red clay tiles top whitewashed houses. Thick, twisted grapevines dot the landscape, and the green-silver leaves of centuries-old olive trees seem to twinkle in the warm sun.
The two villages, situated a few miles from each other, have played a prominent role in the region's history, with their importance dating back to the Middle Ages.
Their names, for instance, are derived from the colossal wall that snaked around the nearby hills and was used to protect the northernmost region of the Republic of Dubrovnik.
Constructed in 1333, the fortification, still intact in some places, stretched about 3-1/2 miles, making it the longest in Europe at the time and – according to locals who love to brag about it – the second longest in the world, after the Great Wall of China.
From the walls above Ston, views open out to the massive salt pans below. Officially recognized since the late 1200s, when a "salt office" was created to monitor the lucrative business, Ston remains one of Croatia's main salt-production hubs. Its current harvesting techniques reflect practices used eight centuries ago.
"Ston is one of the oldest producers of salt in Croatia," said Svetan Pejic, director of the Solana Ston salt mill, as he shuffled some papers around a table in the back of Villa Koruna restaurant.
"The sea here is the best, and the salt from here is the best," he explained, reiterating a belief that Ston salt is among the purest in the Mediterranean.
Although the salt fields are the backdrop of many photos of the area, it's the shellfish that makes the natives salivate. Nearly everyone living in the two towns, which the national tourist board pegs at about 3,000 inhabitants, seems to have some tie to the several-hundred-year-old mussel and oyster industry.
"There are more than 100 families here that grow mussels and oysters," Mr. Pejic says. "Ston and Mali Ston are known the world over for their seafood."
To prove his point, he waves toward a framed, yellowing certificate from the 1936 General Trades International Exhibit in London – a document awarding the grand prix and gold medal to a regional seller of oysters and other shellfish for the "Famed Croatian Oysters." Then he mentions more recent accolades.
I hopped in my little white Yugo and headed out to see if I could locate some of the shellfish farmers. They weren't hard to find. Every few yards, roadway signs directed me toward homemade kiosks draped with nets and lined with plastic crates. Women sitting in doorways shucked away, while their children, eager to practice their English, scooped out the craggy-shelled seafood.
Old folks spoke of mussel-farming days of years past, and waiters in restaurants were quick to tell visitors how to replicate recipes back home. People talked about the difficulties of working with mussels and oysters, especially in the winter when winds kick up and biting rain makes the job even tougher.
"Mussels are easier to grow [than oysters]," said Jerko Radic, a waiter at Mali Ston's Taverna Bota Sare who doubles as a tour guide on the restaurant's summer boat cruise, which trolls the nearby waters and offers a shellfish lunch on a convenient island.
Tied to long ropes dangling from barrels, floats, or poles, mussels need to grow about a year before they are edible.
Oysters, though, are another story. "Oysters," says Mr. Radic with a sigh. "They need more care."
The TLC oysters require comes in the form of being turned twice a day – morning and night – for two years while they mature, he adds. If you want really big oysters, it can take four years for them to reach the proper size.
Later that night, in the cavernous Bota Sare restaurant, where the crevices in the stone wall are tinged white from the salt that was stored there 700 years ago, Radic described the variety of menu options: fresh orada (sea bream), jumbo prawns, and a host of different kinds of mussels with exotic names such as Noah's Arc, truffle mussels, and date mussels.
Finally, I have found the seafood feast I was craving! Now, which to choose?
On Radic's recommendation, I go for the old-fashioned black-shelled mussels, done up Dalmatian-style with homemade olive oil, garlic, and parsley.
"It's a classic," Radic said, nearly kissing his fingers to his lips as he zipped by.
A classic, indeed. Simplicity, steeped with centuries of tradition, is found not only in the food of this region, but is also reflected in the character of two small towns on the Adriatic Sea.
Getting to Croatia: Croatia Airlines offers routes between most Croatian cities and international European hubs. Flights from the US usually pass through London, Frankfurt, or Rome before arriving in Croatia. Travelers may find themselves landing in the country's capital, Zagreb, and then taking connecting flights to the coast.
How to get to Ston and Mali Ston from Dubrovnik: Local buses connect Dubrovnik with the Peljesac peninsula, and Ston and Mali Ston are stops along the way. Or, several car rental companies are located in Dubrovnik and at the airport.