By Molly Harris
The sun climbed higher as vendors of Zagreb’s market, Dolac, open their striped red umbrellas to protect fresh produce from wilting and spoiling. Igor Tomljenovic shuffles between wooden plank tables. As friends of mutual necessity, the concerted conversation continues as Tomljenovic thumbs a limp green bean in a search for ingredients of the best quality for the day’s menu at his restaurant, Lari & Penati. The entrance to Dolac is nestled into the south wall. Up the stone staircase, cafés line the east and west borders, and the Cathedral of Zagreb towers in the distance with steeples rising in a sharp ascent.
The quality of produce is vital to the quality of the dishes produced at Lari & Penati. “For ten kuna, you don’t mess with that,” Tomljenovic says under his breath. Yesterday’s green beans are marked down by twenty-five percent, but the taste, texture, and quality loss are not worth the money saved. With roughly seventy percent of the ingredients hand-picked at Dolac and the restaurant reputation at stake in part by the daily selection, Tomljenovic has carefully chosen the stalls from which he purchases after spending time taste-testing products belonging to the many sellers.
The modern market opened in 1930 with an al fresco setting for produce and an enclosed underground exchange beneath the square for meat as well as dairy products. Fish can be bought in a shop at the northwest corner of the open market with flowers for sale a few steps further. In 2006, a kumice, or traditional saleswoman, statue was placed at the southwest rim of the market which greets visitors at the top of the staircase. Such women were– and still are– an integral part of the scene and would have grown their own fruits and vegetables or brought homemade cheese to sell.
“Mondays are not good days for the market,” Tomljenovic explains in an email. When I meet him the following Tuesday, I ask why he avoids Mondays at the market. He explains that families take Sunday off to go to church, to have a break from work, and to give the ground a day of rest. Without time in the fields on the day of rest, there is little to bring and sell on Monday. Deeper than the roots, such tradition is still grounded in modern practice.
After years of farming, the region boasts proper conditions for growing grapes for wine, olives for oil, which received a recent award to the country for providing the best in all of Europe, and a variety of fruits, vegetables, and meats. Condiments and copious spices are not necessary; the pure essence of locally produced foods and products speak through the flavors of simple dishes.
After placing three plastic bags of produce on the edge of an empty plank table, Tomljenovic retraces his steps to the petite but strong woman standing behind mounds of fresh produce spread across three tables. She greets him like a son. “Dragica Kocijan has worked here at the market for 50 years,” he murmurs as she gathers his order. “50? Five-zero?” I ask in wondrous speculation. With a sidelong grin, he chuckles and nods to confirm. Kocijan weighs the produce in a tin scoop on an old-school balance offset by two weights at one kilogram and a half kilogram, respectively. She moves from table to table collecting the fruit of her field and Tomljenovic briskly makes his way back to the shop from which he had ordered chicken upon arriving that morning.
With brown eyes locked on something in the distance over my head, I watch his expression to read the severity of what must be unfolding behind me. After seeing a woman digging through bags at the corner of a table holding previous purchases, he continued to stand tall but looked down with a look of amusement followed by, “Maybe she won’t put any of my stuff in her bags.”
A millennial from the poultry shop with heavy bags in tow falls into a single-file line behind Tomljenovic to help collect and deliver final purchases to a van waiting outside the Dolac Square entrance. With precarious packages balanced for the ride home, the folded grocery list meets sunlight, and the second trip into the “Belly of Zagreb” begins.
“We need red pepper flakes, ground ginger and vanilla,” Tomljenovic listlessly states in an effort to remember what is left as he brushes a hand through his short dark hair. One stop later at a single store, the final spices are collected. I follow Tomljenovic step-for-step toward the exit until he unexpectedly halts.
With a twenty kuna note in hand, he receives a bag of something resembling meatballs solely made of bread. “Tapioca-balls, have you had them?” With sinking teeth, I taste the yeast as the steam released. “Gluten free.” In an effort to express my appreciation, I muster, “That’s so good,” as I take another bite. Bags and tapioca-balls in hand, we press on toward the parked van.
Blocked in, Tomljenovic saunters over to the vehicle at fault. A slouching delivery boy waiting in the passenger’s seat drops his phone mid-text in a startled panic when Tomljenovic requests with a wave of his hand that the car moved out of the way. “This is the fight,” he turns to me exasperated with his jaw set by the inconvenience of the impromptu formation of a new lot that surrounds those who were early enough to achieve an allotted space. “They sit here all day– eight hours. We have business to do.” The delivery boy takes his own ride for a trip around the block.
Tomljenovic’s van rumbles to life and Motown rolls from the speakers. The air is dry, but hot, which motivates him to roll a window down. “Summer is here,” he declares, and the conversation shifts to the impending food trends perceived by tourists who will soon devour the Croatian coast.
People often compare Dalmatian products to those of Istria, coastal regions. The important factor in this case is that there is no comparison. “Each are different products.” Tomljenovic further explains with an example: “There are different grapes [in each region] used for the wines.” Each region is unique in offering Croatians the ability to eat well and savor the quality of the ingredients of their food.
As we arrive at the café, the van inches into a tight space. The trunk opens, and with the help of a waitress, we unload the day’s groceries.
Lari & Penati opened to the public in 2011 after four months of atmospheric preparation and entrée experimentation. While the bistro is sleek and slim, the thematic scheme at this restaurant is key to its identity as a whole: the ingredients. From mint and basil in rectangular flowerpots around the terrace to leaves and berries on the black and white place-settings, fresh foods are integral to the entire establishment. Duality ties the restaurant together: dueling spirits, a stark black and white color palette, and urban kicks hang from the ceiling in the storefront window with mounted pots lining the walls.
The namesake ‘Lari & Penati’ comes from the tale of two apparitions. Lari, the ghost and protector of the house, was traditionally placed at the table during family meals in Roman times. Penati is the ghost and protector of the cupboard. The two are said to have been locked in perpetual petulance.
“This is today’s menu,” Tomljenovic explains from the opposite side of his laptop. Each day the soup and two or three entrées change. Once known for a distinct wine selection, Tomljenovic understands the metastasis of the restaurant industry. With the help of customer opinion and wineries seeking Tomljenovic, he is able to facilitate the change and experience for which people are looking. The wines available in Tomljenovic’s shop will not be found on the shelf of a supermarket.
An overpowering aroma of Arabica wafts from the coffee grinder as pairs of people stop for an espresso, a chat, and a smoke before continuing on with their morning. Lari & Penati is wildly popular among Purgers, Zagreb locals, which has enabled the bistro to plan for new development in the coming months.
The restaurant currently holds around twenty-two seats with the shop and terrace combined, but will grow to one-hundred seats after the expansion, which is expected to be completed in autumn 2016. After the increase of indoor square footage as well as the completion of the extended terrace, the menu is next on the board to experience change. Habits may be difficult to break; however, Tomljenovic muses, “Croatians are not used to eating breakfast out. They stop in a bakery; have a pastry on the way to work. But, I think [breakfast] could be good for business [meetings].” With an understanding that the food industry is an ever-changing business focused on experiences as much as quality of food, Tomljenovic is already planning two steps ahead. While the restaurant is open for coffee at 9 a.m., small bites and eventually a full breakfast menu may soon accompany the morning routine.
From the top of the stairs in the washroom, I watch three of the Lari & Penati staff prepping the ingredients purchased at Dolac just an hour before. To the left is a gas stove where fresh goat cheese is grilled before resting in olive oil. To the right, James, a Texas native, works to ready Tomljenovic’s famous chicken wings for those lucky enough to order before the birds fly the coup. Straight ahead in a small third room a woman separates and washes lettuce leaves for salads along with other produce that will become intricately woven into the main course selections.
Back out into the dining room, beyond the cash register with a stereo, cassettes, and vinyl stacked overhead on a shelf, and past the glass case stocked with wine and an apple tart, I notice more than half of the terrace tables are already marked with slips of paper clasped by clothes pins poised in red galvanized pails for lunch reservations. The last coffee customers drain the last sip from the cup and in a final puff of smoke vanish to continue on with the day.
In Zagreb, ingredients and whole foods become an equalizer. Everyone eats. Food is the bridge crossing all divisions and feeding people economically, physically, and spiritually. Dolac provides an income to farmers and restauranteurs alike, nourishment to all, and continues the spirit of Croatian history. Seed to soil; farmer’s hands to friend’s homes; and stove to stomach, food taken by multiple Croats is more than a tastebud sensation. Meals are for appreciating time spent in the company of others. In true Croatian fashion, dobar tek. Eat well.