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Food & dining

Croatian restaurant maintains longevity

Zeljko Basic (left) and his father, Davor, have sustained the family restaurant through many vicissitudes including war.

MOLLY KRAVITZ FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Zeljko Basic (left) and his father, Davor, have sustained the family restaurant through many vicissitudes including war.

SPLIT, Croatia — If you’re walking after dark along the poorly lit, cobblestone streets here, you might forgo searching for the restaurant Konoba Kod Joze. But stay with your plan: It’s there, opposite a little stone house. You’ll see a covered, split-level terrace that seats dozens of diners drinking bottles of a local wine called domace bijelo, and ordering seafood caught that day. Some of these customers have been coming here for decades. Kod Joze has maintained its place in Manusha, the oldest neighborhood of Split, since 1984.

Konoba Kod Joze sits at the end of the street across from two ever-changing businesses. At the moment, its neighbors are a tailor and a hairdresser, but the restaurant stays unchanged. Natives recommend the family-run establishment because they all go there and the prices are low. Tourists are sparse at Kod Joze and throughout Split. The second largest city in Croatia (with a population of about 180,000) and the hub of the Dalmatian coast is not exactly off the beaten path, but it hasn’t caught on as an American tourist destination the way its more popular Dalmatian sibling, Dubrovnik, has.

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Split encompasses a certain amount of toughness with a bustling pace and stern expressions, and Gothic and Renaissance buildings covered in graffiti, some dilapidated, indicating hints of damage from a war in the not so distant past. “People continue to eat here because we have been here for so long,” restaurant owner Zeljko Basic says. Konoba Kod Joze was started by his father, Davor. The word konoba means tavern or restaurant; Kod Joze, they explain, is a name without significance. “We lasted through the [war]. Before, we were the best business in town,” says Zeljko Basic. “During the war, we were struggling to keep our heads above the water, and after, people returned to us because they remembered our food.”

During the early ’90s, when Croatia struggled to break from Yugoslavia into an independent nation, Davor Basic would give shelter to whomever sought refuge when the sirens blared.

Like the restaurant and the loyal patrons, the staff has remained relatively the same. “We never fired anyone during the war, even when we could not afford to pay them,” Zeljko Basic says. “We knew it would not affect just them, but their families too. Besides, we don’t like to change our staff and our personality too much.”

But it doesn’t seem to be only loyalty that keeps patrons returning. The food, very traditional Dalmatian, influenced by Italian cuisine, is simplicity at its best. The dishes that emerge from the kitchen — from female cooks — are prepared with lots of olive oil, wine, and parsley. Many menu items celebrate seafood caught in the Adriatic. Davor Basic created the recipes when the restaurant opened and the cooks have never deviated from the original versions. Their specialty, a dish that translates as “green noodles with sea fruits,” is spinach pasta with a garlicky white wine sauce, and mussels, head-on prawns, and clams. The olive oil comes from nearby Brac and the seafood from Vis, two islands just off the coast. Basic prides himself on serving the freshest fish in all of Split.

Pasticada and gnocchi, a Dalmatian specialty, at Konoba Kod Joze restaurant.

MOLLY KRAVITZ FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Pasticada and gnocchi, a Dalmatian specialty, at Konoba Kod Joze restaurant.

Another Dalmatian specialty is pasticada, the best version of pot roast imaginable: delicate brisket-like meat that falls apart with the touch of a fork. This dish represents the heartiness of northern Croatian food. Carrots stud the meat, surrounded by a pool of thick, winey cooking juices, accompanied by plump little gnocchi cooked in pig fat. The meat is also braised with apple, celery root, and dried plums.

And no meal is complete without the obligatory digestive, rakija, a strong spirit made from distilled fermented fruit and the national drink of many Balkan countries. There are variations from herbal to sweet honey, the former stronger and more difficult to swallow. At Kod Joze, Mir, a jovial, longtime server, sends it to our table, compliments of the house.

While Davor Basic still spends a few days a week at the restaurant, it is Zeljko Basic who maintains the daily business. The restaurant is practically a monument to the Basic family.

Zeljko’s mother was born in the building next to Kod Joze and he has worked there since he was 14, lugging produce from the market down the street.

He keeps this restaurant a tribute to his family by leaving the menu unchanged and doing what he does best: upholding his firm beliefs in simplicity and tradition.

Konoba Kod Joze Sredmanuska Ulica 4, 21000 Split, Croatia, 011-385-021-347397

Molly Kravitz can be reached at molly.kravitz@gmail.com.
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