If there’s ONE restaurant to check off your list for Split…
On the west of the Riva – Split’s bustling promenade on the waterfront – red and white neo-Renaissance colonnades enfold the historic Prokurative Square, aptly named after ancient arches aged by radiant sea breeze brushing against the Dalmatian Coast. Commissioned in 1895 by Antonio Bajamonti, the city’s beloved mayor, Prokurative was a benevolent tribute to Split’s unwavering support for Italian roots and traditions, in all of its clout and glory. Such entrenched nostalgia for Venice’s St. Mark’s Square is possibly a metaphor for Bajamonti’s ambitious motto, “Volere è potere” (translation from Italian: wanting is power.)
In the midst of constructing Prokurative, Bajamonti also gave birth to the most contemporary Dalmatian Theater of the 19th century. Unfortunately, after it was destroyed in a horrific fire, the city opened a cinema on the ground floor of Republic Square, Prokurative’s modern name. Its sole opening on the south side is Split’s bay window to a splendid Riva harbor view. Here, locals and travelers can hear Split’s heartbeat skipping to the cadence of music festivals, glasses clinking at local bars, and chatters during popular cultural events. “But for me, this square is this city’s most peaceful place,” restauranteur Stipe Jeličić said, “here is the most beautiful view of the sea that oozes romance.” With a luscious gulp of medovača – a traditional honey liqueur – this is where our story starts.
Upon entering Bajamonti, shadows of the cinema lives in the soul of Split’s most prominent restaurant. “We kept the name of the theater and the local mayor. Since the restaurant’s interior used to be the cinema, you can see that we pay homage to celebrities. Where you see the terrace now is the former garden.” Jeličić explained with a cool but earnest glance. He took over ownership of the property in 2011 solely to realize a grandiose vision of upgrading Bajamonti into Split’s ultimate fine dining hotspot.
A native Croatian, Jeličić attended an American university in North Dakota under a basketball scholarship. One of the biggest lessons he attained from his teammates was intently applied to his approach in restaurant management: kinship. “What I learned from them is a sense of closeness,” he said, “they became my family. This is how I am with my staff. They share a history, they’re at each other’s weddings. They remember what regular customers like. No reminders needed.” Loyalty and commitment, both qualities were deeply felt as we rested our feet on Bajamonti’s outdoor patio, hedged by fuchsia Bougainvillea in full bloom.
Our taste buds glided from the sweetness of medovača to a crispy white wine poured from an obscure bottle without any letters on its ivory label except for a blank wrinkle at the corner. Split might be Croatia’s second city known for its Roman Diocletian’s Palace enameled by Dalmatian Coast’s blazing sun, however, Brač island remains imperative due to its exquisite vineyards producing wines at small volumes uniquely sold to refined Croatian restaurants, ones similar to Bajamonti. The mysterious white which we tasted was, in fact, from Pučišća – a coastal town at the end of a deep natural bay on Brač’s northern coast – most notable for producing limestones used to build the White House. Suddenly, it became crystal clear, at least to me. There we were on Republic Square, reminiscing about life in the United States as we sipped on wines from Pučišća. Jeličić’s chosen wine was intended for our conversation to unravel. In ease yet in indulgence.
Where there’s wine, there’s surely olive oil. Bajamonti sources olives from Brač island where mild climate infused with clear Adriatic Sea produces an ideal terrain for decade-old olive groves. Drizzle Brač’s outstanding olive oil upon fresh seafood, from red scorpions to flavorful groupers, one can certainly taste the Dalmatian Coast.
“We’re not a slow food restaurant. We’re a typical traditional Mediterranean cuisine offering fresh ingredients in a modern way, in a higher level.” Jeličić noted.
Bajamonti’s burrata mozzarella, for instance, extends far more than fresh basil. Its addition of cashew nuts and orange granita, instantly transforms a traditional favorite into a lavish starter stemmed from Dalmatia’s Italian influences. Tagliatelle with salmon might appear ubiquitous, but the accompaniment of prosciutto (in fennel sauce) reveals the core of Croatian gastronomy from north to south. When my daughter was baptized,” Jeličić recalled, “it was all about the prosciutto. A good prosciutto needs to be domestic, it needs to be from the basement of some old guy living in the north, having worked on the prosciutto for 2 years and 4 months. When you smell it, it’s just different. It’s not Italian, it’s completely Croatian. There’s a guy I buy from but he doesn’t provide a bill, so we can’t reuse it for the restaurant or for research. It’s hard to find a local guy who makes outstanding prosciutto just for him, for his family or for his passion.”
Jeličić is a fine example a straight shooter, living up to a Dalmatian local’s reputation for sheer honesty. Or as he explained, “We don’t keep our mouths shut after a zing. Much of this influence comes from Italy, our mentalities are very similar.” If mayor Bajamonti wanted Prokurative to honor Italian roots, it’s possible that he’s smiling from above as the square’s star restaurant which bears his name radiates in tasteful traditions.