Was it really a cruel summer? My recap of summer 2020

A parallel universe

The summer of 2020 will go down in history as one of the most difficult summers our generation has ever had to endure. Typically, my family and I spend our summers in Croatia, however, we (regrettably) decided not to go due to the pandemic. As you may recall in earlier blog posts, 2019 was a very difficult year for me after my uncle’s sudden passing and 2020 was supposed to be a breath of fresh air. Like many of you, I experienced both emotional highs and lows, but at some point I told myself to not give in to negative feelings and try to make the most of this summer.

Was this the worst summer to date? Looking back, it wasn’t really that bad at all. It was very strange in the sense where we did some “normal” things but within the realm of social distancing. In other words, I felt as if we were living in a parallel universe. But for the sake of our kids, we tried to keep things as “normal” as possible: attending Sunday misa (church) at our parish in Oakville, weekly soccer practice in Hamilton, getting together with friends at the park on play dates, going to the zoo, visiting my parents in Windsor and so on. M. and I went out for a few dinner dates as well. As strange as this summer was, we found things to do and made the most out of it the best way we know how: through good food, wine and company.

The holy trinity of food- steak, pizza and fish

In our household, we are definitely foodies and no one can describe it better than my oldest son, T. At his annual check-up at the doctor’s office recently, the doctor asked T. what his favourite food was and he proudly replied “steak!” The doctor was delightfully surprised and sort of taken aback that a six-year-old’s favourite food is steak done rare. Fortunately, our kids like everything we make, from mahune to fish. Growing up in a Dalmatian household, my mother would always ask what we would eat the next day; my aunt used to own a restaurant in Germany, so food is definitely in our genes.

When the lockdown started, my husband made it his life’s mission to re-create the perfect pizza Napolitana as pizza is his all-time favourite food. He spent hours researching the best outdoor pizza oven for it’s value, so low and behold he purchased an Ooni Koda Gas-Powered Outdoor pizza oven. He justified the expense by stating that within 6 months the oven will pay itself off and so far it definitely has (nb: we used to order Pizza Nova like every Friday). During the first few weeks of lockdown, my husband would spend his spare time visiting various local Italian bakeries to find the gold standard of pizza flour- Caputo 00. We even planted Roma, cherry and hothouse tomatoes as well as basil for our pizza in our garden this year. Gardening in of itself was a very worthwhile and memorable experience. We got so into pizza making that we spent hours watching different dough recipes on YouTube. After testing a few different recipes, we decided that the one from Vito Iacopelli’s YouTube channel was best for us. How it works is that I make the dough and M. makes the pizza. This recipe from Vito makes approximately nine 12-inch dough balls; we make about 3 pizzas a week so the rest I just store in the freezer. Weekly pizza making is definitely a family affair as our kids get involved too. Overall, pizza making has become a newfound family tradition for years to come.

Another tradition we started in our home was fish Sundays. We decided to bring the shores of Dalmatia closer to home by making seafood and blitva on Sundays after church. If we remember, we order brancin from the local market and M. grills it on the barbeque; but if we don’t get an order in on time, then its either salmon or scallops. Definitely a nice, light lunch to end the weekend paired of course with my favouriite Pošip from Saint Hills.

good things grow in ontario

The pandemic sort of forced us to “think outside of the box” without really going too far. Being a little bit of a wine snob (Brunello being my all-time favourite,) I must say that Ontario wines really surprised me this year. There truly is a pleortha of wineries, markets and restaurants to discover in the Niagara Escarpement and Niagara-on-the-Lake regions. In July, a few of us embarked on a small wine tour with dinner at Treadwell to end the day. Simply put, just being out on the property brings a sense of peace and tranquility. In a COVID world, many of the wineries and restaurants that I have visited have taken the proper steps to ensure safety but still provide an enjoyable experience. Some notable wines/wineries that really stood out to me and worth checking out are Five Rows, Domaine Queylus, Westcott Vineyards, Kabaca, Leaning Post and Pearl Morissette.

Pjesma i vino

Croatia has a long-standing history of producing wines dating back to Ancient Grecian times. In today’s world, Croatia is home to many world-class and unique wineries. Although Zlatan Plavac Sveta Nedelja Plavac Mali will always be my favourite Croatian wine, some notable favourites of mine that were imported from Croatia Unpacked are Korta Katerina’s Rosé and Plavac Mali, Saint Hills “Sv. Roko” Plavac Mali and “Posh” Pošip and finally Stina’s Plavac Mali. Try one of them and you may be pleasantly surprised!

krv nije voda – keeping it in the family

My parents always told me, friends may come and go, but in tough times, we always can rely on family. Although the last six months have been very difficult, there have been moments of complete joy. No one can ever take away that precious extra time I got to spend with my two little boys. This summer was definitely a memorable one, where we became closer as a family and got to explore a bit of Ontario and try some new things out. We visited my family in Windsor a few times and explored Windsor’s Via Italia. Daytrips to zoos were worthwhile, but I found with kids, sometimes the most simplest of activities are the most enjoyable. Walks throughout downtown Burlington over ice cream and exploring new splash pads and parks were probably the most memorable for us.

In summary, although this is a strange and albeit difficult time, the key to making memories are the ones with the people that matter most to you – your loved ones.

Carrying traditions on: learning how to bake my mother’s orahnjača (walnut roll)

Growing up, I remember waking up to the sweet smell of my mother’s orahnjača (walnut roll).  At bridal showers, I always gravitated towards the orahnjača on the desert table as it’s not too sweet, nor too heavy and it always goes nicely with a cup of coffee.  However, my mother’s recipe is my all-time favourite.

My mother always insists on baking it first thing in the morning to let it rise properly.  Whether or not that’s an old Croatian wives’ tale, or if my mother made that up, I can say with confidence that I baked this recipe in an afternoon with no issues.  It didn’t turn out perfect and again (as noted in my previous post about sirnica/Easter bread,) I had to decipher my mother’s recipe as she only provided me with approximate steps and “about” increments.  With some investigative work, a few FaceTime calls and a million questions to my mom, I was able to figure out her orahnjača recipe!

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Ingredients:

Part 1:

  • 4-5 cups of bread flour (start with 4 cups and add more as needed)
  • 1 cup of granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup of unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp of active dry yeast + 1 tbsp of sugar in 1 cup of warm water
  • pinch of salt
  • 5 yolks (separate egg whites and place in fridge for part 2)
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 cup of warm milk
  • 1 shot of Jamaican rum
  • grated lemon zest and juice of 1 lemon

Part 2 (filling):

  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • egg whites from previous part
  • 3/4 of a pound of ground walnuts
  • 1 shot of espresso

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Directions:

  1. Using the paddle attachment of your stand-up mixer, cream the sugar and unsalted butter together on a low speed.
  2. Add egg yolks, one by one, while mixing.
  3. Add the whole egg.
  4. Slowly add your flour on a low speed (I use speed 1 on my Cuisanart mixer).
  5. Slowly pour the warm milk in while mixing.
  6. Slowly add your yeast mixture in.
  7. Add the rum and lemon zest and juice to the mixture.
  8. Once thoroughly mixed, switch the paddle attachment and insert your dough hook and continue on a low speed (at this point I turn the dial to speed 2) until the mixture becomes a little tacky (you don’t want it to be too sticky or too firm; so add more flour or warm milk as needed).
  9. Once the dough has thoroughly mixed, take the dough and knead it on a floured surface for about 10-15 minutes into a ball.
  10. Place the dough ball into a large bowl, cover with a wash cloth and let rest in a warm oven for about 2 hours.
  11. Remove dough from oven and on a floured surface, take your dough and cut into two halves.  Take both parts and roll into two separate dough balls.  Then place the dough balls into two separate bowls, cover each bowl with wash cloths and place in warm oven again to rise for about 30 minutes.
  12. While dough is rising for the second time; take your ingredients from part two (sugar, egg whites, ground walnuts and espresso) into a medium-size bowl and mix with a spatula.
  13. Remove dough from oven after it has risen for a second time.
  14. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees C.
  15. Roll each dough ball into a long flat oval or rectangle (does not have to be a perfect shape)
  16. Then with a spatula, spread the walnut mixture on your flattened dough.
  17. Gently take the edge of the dough and roll (you can also place the dough on a table cloth and pull the table cloth to roll it).
  18. Repeat steps 16-17 on the second dough ball.
  19. Place each roll into a bread pan OR you can place each roll on a cookie sheet.
  20. Cover your bread pans or cookie sheet with tin foil and place in the oven and bake covered for 30 minutes.
  21. After 30 minutes, remove the foil and continue baking until the top is golden brown (use a toothpick test to determine if it is done baking), for an additional 25-35 minutes.
  22. Remove from oven and let rest for on a cooling rack about 30 minutes to an hour as the mixture is hot and can leak if you cut right away.
  23. Enjoy and serve with coffee!  Dobar tek!

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Carrying traditions on: Learning how to bake my family’s sweet Easter bread

Easter is considered to be the most important holiday in the Catholic faith.  For Croatians specifically, Easter is also about tradition.  On Holy Saturday, Croatians (and most Eastern Europeans for that matter) will bring baskets of sweet bread and eggs to be blessed during mass.  Some people also add smoked meats and green onions to their baskets.   This tradition of bringing baskets to be blessed dates back generations.

Usually, we go to my family’s home in Windsor for Easter, however due to the pandemic this won’t be possible.  Perhaps it was a sign for me to learn how to bake my mom’s Easter bread and carry the tradition on.  The Easter bread my mom bakes is a sweet bread, known as sirnica or pinca.  This sweet bread is typically baked in Dalmatia, but other regions in Croatia have their own versions of this Easter bread.  Some put rum in theirs and others raisins.  My mother-in-law who is from Gorski Kotar makes her Easter bread with a ham in it.  This particular recipe that I am going to share with you is the one that my mom makes every Easter.  My mother learned this recipe from her sister-in-law, my Strina (aunt).

Most Croatian-Canadians will understand when I say that figuring out my mom’s Easter bread recipe is like a solving a puzzle.  No directions and all approximate amounts (od prilike) for the ingredients or po potrebi (as needed).   With the help of FaceTime and a lot of questions on my end, I was able to figure out this family recipe.  Overall, I was quite pleased with the results, despite the fact that a part of the bottom tore.  The bread was nice and soft and reminded me so much of home.

3 loaves | 2 hours prep time | 3 hours total

Ingredients:

8 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 packet of Dr. Oetker vanilla sugar
Lemon grinds from 1 lemon
Juice from 1 lemon
2 teaspoons Fleischmann’s active dry yeast (mix with ¼ cup warm water and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar)
¾ cup vegetable oil
1 cup warm milk
Approximately 2-4 cups of all-purpose flour (note: my mom’s recipe just says flour as needed, so I kept adding flour into the mixer until it formed a dough).
1 egg for glazing
Cooking spray for pans

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Directions:

1. Follow the directions for the yeast (mix ¼ cup warm water and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar and let stand for 10 minutes).

2. Mix the yolks with cup sugar; add the vanilla extract and packet of the vanilla sugar. Mix for a few minutes.

3. Add the yeast mixture and continue mixing.

4. Add grinds from lemon and lemon juice while mixing.

5. Add the cup of warm milk while mixing.

6. Add the oil.

7. Add the flour slowly to the mixer until it forms a dough. Then with a wooden spoon, knead the dough into a ball.

8. Take your dough, cover with a kitchen cloth and let it rest in a warm oven to rise for approximately 1 and a half hours.

9. Once dough has risen, remove from warm oven. Punch the dough and knead on a floured surface or use a wooden spoon to knead the dough (I had to knead the dough, my mom uses a wooden spoon so I would say do what is easier for you).

10. Preheat oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit (or 280 depending on your oven).

11. Divide dough into three round cake pans, or corning ware bowls, or stainless steel bowls (note: if your pans are not non-stick, then spray generously with PAM or whatever cooking spray you have available)

12. Crack one egg and scramble, with a brush, glaze the three loaves.

13. Place pans into oven and bake at 275 (or 280) for 15 minutes; then increase heat to 310 (or 325 depending on your oven) for 40-45 minutes.

14. Remove from oven and place loaves on cooling racks to cool.

Notes:
*I didn’t want to make as many loaves as my mom, so I cut the ingredients in half and still worked beautifully. I filled two small corning ware dishes and one normal sized corning-ware dish.
**I think it would be easier in non-stick cake pans as they don’t stick; in hindsight, I should have placed mine in bread pans but my mom insists it has to be a round shape as that is traditional.  As I did not have cake pans available she said corning ware dishes would be fine. I didn’t have cooking spray available, so I brushed oil on it and some of it stuck but overall it was still good!
***My mom uses a hand mixer but I used my Cuisanart stand-mixer and it turned out fine.

Wishing you a wonderful Easter.  Enjoy!

egg and ceramic rabbit
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

 

Exploring new places, starting new traditions

A wine tour of Twenty Valley, a hidden gem in my very own backyard

When it comes to wine, places like Burgundy, Tuscany and Napa Valley come to mind.  I am not necessarily a wine-connoisseur but I do enjoy some good wine.  I’ve been fortunate to travel to places like Napa Valley and Italy where I’ve gone to wine tours and tastings.   Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, I was well-familiar with Pelee Island and all it’s glory, but I never really thought about Niagara on the Lake or the surrounding areas.   Perhaps because I was so far removed, or never really took some time to consider visiting there.  Since moving to the GTHA, I started to explore various restaurants in the surrounding areas.   It didn’t take me long to realize that you don’t have to travel too far to find good restaurants and wineries, and I am not even talking about going to Toronto!

I’ve been to Niagara on the Lake but I haven’t done it properly, like gone on a proper wine tour.  It all started one afternoon at my niece’s 8th birthday party back in October.  I was talking to a few of my husband’s cousins on how we should get together and what not and how we always do something with the kids, but never just us.  I then said, “I think it would be nice if we all went on a wine tour.”   And like magic, it just happened.  We organized our first ever cousin’s wine tour.

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Just a bunch of cousins hanging out at Westcott Vineyards

We spent a few weeks figuring out where to go, how many wineries to visit and booking a bus.   I booked the restaurant and my cousin-in-law’s husband looked after the wineries.  Luckily, my cousin-in-law’s husband is an expert when it comes to wine, so he put together a lovely roster for our tour.  It worked out that all the wineries were located in Niagara’s Twenty Valley region instead of Niagara on the Lake.

Twenty Valley is located right in between Grimsby and St. Catharine’s and consists of Beamsville, Vineland, Jordan Station and the Town of Lincoln.  Not only is the region home to many world-class wineries, but to breweries, restaurants, markets and much more.  I’ve actually been to Christmas urn-making parties at the Watering Can in Vineland a few times and have been impressed with the beauty it surrounds.

I ended up making a reservation for dinner at Edgewater Manor in Stoney Creek, as it made sense to dine closer to home.

The weather couldn’t have been better for a late-November day as it was sunny.   We started our tour at Hidden Bench Winery, a lovely winery located in Beamsville.  It is a quaint area surrounded by a few barn-houses.  There were 11 of us total in our group and we had our own private tasting room, where we were greeted by some friendly creatures! As we entered our room, a flight of four wines were waiting for us.  We started with their riesling and made our way to the pinot.   It was a nice start to our tour.img_4646
Our next stop was at Tawse, an organic winery with some French flair to it.  This winery is a larger and more-commercialized winery.   We had an hour walking tour of the winery and a private tasting in the cellar.   img_4631I would say the pinot noir was my favourite at this one.  This winery also makes various spirits as well.  The grounds were lovely and had a nice view of the lake from a-far.
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Following this we stopped at Cloudsley Cellars, a smaller, more boutique-style winery.  We had a tasting with the owner, right in the cellar, which made for a more intimate setting.  I would say the chardonnay was my favourite here.

We concluded our wine tour at Westcott Vineyards, a family-owned and operated winery with a beautiful view and equally lovely rose!  I really enjoyed the story behind their “Temperance” wine, inspired by two women who were feminists for their time.  We tasted four wines here and I think the rose was my favourite at this one.
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We had a bit of time in-between the last winery and the restaurant, so we made a quick pit stop for cappuccino and drinks at Cappola’s Ristorante in St. Catharine’s.  My husband’s cousin-in-law grew up in the area and is friends with the owners.   We were greeted with friendly smiles and some Louis Martini!

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Drinking a much needed coffee after a long day of wine touring

We concluded our evening at the historic Edgewater Manor, located on the shores of Lake Ontario in Stoney Creek.  The manor is absolutely beautiful and is well-decorated for the upcoming holidays.   The food was phenomenal and our service was second-to-none. We were surprised by a guitarist who played some lovely flamingo music to us.
img_4703It was overall, a magical experience which made me realize you don’t have to travel too far to experience good food and good wine.  But most importantly, we created a new tradition for us to carry for years to come.  

 

Natalie’s easy pasta sauce

A few weeks ago, one of my friends asked me when I learned to cook. I told her “not until I got married, and before that I was awful.”  She was stunned by my admission.  Truthfully speaking, my mom did most of it growing up, so there was no need for me to even try and when I did, it was awful. I couldn’t even make Kraft mac n’cheese.  It would turn out so watery that my brother teased me and called it “water n’cheese.”  I couldn’t crack an egg properly and my pancakes always burned.  But that didn’t mean that I didn’t love food.

Growing up, I lived in a very unique family setting a la Full House: it was me, my brother, my parents and my late uncle.  My late uncle loved to cook, dine at fine restaurants and to entertain.  For a long period of time, I was his partner in crime.   He took me everywhere and treated me to the finest Windsor had to offer:  Erie Street.  He was a class act and his passion for food and wine was a great influence on my life.  I was always amazed by his love for cooking, entertaining and being social.

Although I didn’t learn how to cook until I was married, it is definitely in my blood: my aunt and uncle run a restaurant in Germany and my late grandfather made an amazing Hungarian goulash.  But it was my very own “Uncle Jessie” who made me a foodie from a very young age.

My passion for food grew even larger when I met my husband.  His mother is the queen of entertaining and my sister-in-law is an impeccable cook and baker.  In my mid-twenties, my husband and I were living in Toronto and we thoroughly enjoyed city life.   He had a list of Blog TO’s top 50 restaurants in his wallet, making it his mission for us to visit every one…and was it fun!

It was not until I was on my first maternity leave that I realized my true passion was for cooking.   Early mornings feeding the baby introduced me to some of the “gods” on Food Network:  Giada De Laurentis, David Rocco, Laura Calder, Michael Smith, to name a few. I was inspired to try different things out, explore different cuisines and cookbooks and basically practiced my way into cooking.

I wouldn’t consider myself a master chef but I am miles away from making that watery Kraft mac n’cheese I did many moons ago.   Today, I love cooking and find it very relaxing.  I also enjoy entertaining and love having company over a nice meal, some meze and vino.

Being a busy mom,  it’s nice to make something that everyone will love, that can last a few days and something you can freeze for another day.

Here is my easy pasta sauce that has taken me a few years to master and perfect.  It was influenced partly by how my mother makes bolognese and how my mother-in-law makes it.   It’s not a real bolognese in the sense because I don’t add milk to mine and I add a ton of veggies to it to make it more flavourful.   Is it authentic? No because I add premade tomato and basil sauce to it.  But it works.  This recipe has become a hit in my household and is great on top of penne or in-between lasagna sheets.

Natalie’s Easy Pasta Sauce

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Ingredients

1. One cooking onion, chopped

2. One large carrot, chopped

3. One celery stalk, chopped

4. One yellow zucchini, chopped

5. One garlic clove, minced

6. 1 small package of lean ground beef and 1 small package of lean ground pork (or: two mixed ground beef, pork and veal packages).

7. 2 jars of tomato and basil sauce (any brand; I usually buy what’s on sale).

8. 1 small can of tomato paste (to thicken it).

9. Salt and pepper; to taste

10. Dash of sugar

11. Olive oil

Optional: Podravka Vegeta (to taste); chilli flakes (to taste)

Directions:

1. In a large pot, drizzle olive oil to have bottom of the pot evenly covered (about 2 tablespoons) and heat pot on stove to about medium. Add onions, minced garlic, carrots, celery and zucchini and sauté until a nice golden colour.

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2. Add your ground beef/pork/veal and cook until brown.  I break up the meat with my spatula so it’s not clumpy.

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3. Once meat is cooked, add the jars of tomato and basil sauce, dash of sugar (to get rid of the acidity) and bring to a boil.

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4. Reduce heat to about medium-low; add tomato paste and salt and pepper to taste. Vegeta and chilli flakes is optional.   Let cook for about 30-45 minutes and enjoy on top of your pasta of choice or use for lasagna.

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Enjoy!  Dobar tek!

***Notes: if you do not want to be your sauce to be “oily,” drain the meat/veggies through a strainer and store all the oil from the meat in a separate container and disregard.  Then add your tomato and basil sauce, etc. and continue cooking.

This recipe is great for freezing for another day so my rule-of-thumb is to keep it in the freezer up to one month.

Konoba Pelegrini: An experience of a lifetime

One of life’s greatest pleasures is enjoying good food and better wine.  I wouldn’t describe myself as a foodie per se, but one of my favourite types of date nights is exploring new and different restaurants.  My husband, his cousins and I decided to go out for dinner at Konoba Pelegrini, located steps from the Cathedral of St. James (Croatian: Katedrala sv. Jakova) in Šibenik.  Pelegrini has been rated 1 Michelin star for the past two years in a row.   Both the menu and the views are beyond exquisite, making Pelegrini more than just a restaurant.  It’s an experience of a lifetime.

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I found the service to be extremely pleasant and very well coordinated.   Our Sommelier provided an excellent interpretation of Croatian wines and I found that he mastered his craft well in the way he presented our wine.  We started our evening with a bottle of Saint Hills – Sveti Roko Plavac Mali.   Plavac Mali literally means “little blue” in Croatian.  This is in reference to the type of grapes commonly found in vineyards across Dalmatia.   I thoroughly enjoyed this wine and found it to be very smooth.

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As a restaurant that serves a tasting menu, I was a bit nervous that I would leave feeling hungry.   I was completely wrong.  You basically have three options, a 3-course menu, a 4-course menu or a 5-course menu.  I opted for the 4-course menu.  I decided to mix it up with my selections, starting with octopus as my first course, rooster pasta as my second, lamb and eggplant as my third and then ending with the apricot caramel for dessert.   I was pleasantly surprised to find that an appetizer was served at the start of the meal and a dessert was given at the end.    With non-stop bread in-between courses, you will leave feeling very full.  This restaurant aims to please and much, much more.

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We choose Milos Stagnum as our second bottle of wine for the evening.  My mother-in-law gifted us this wine a year ago so it was nice to enjoy it again.

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Another feature of the restaurant which caught my eye was it’s close attention to detail as well as the coordination of the staff.  I found that our evening flowed in a well-choreographed manner.   It just seemed as if the food kept coming….and coming!

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After a few days of rain, the weather was finally back to normal temperatures again.   The sun in Dalmatia is much different than the sun in Ontario; there is no humidity and you can tolerate the heat.   I found the overall mood in the restaurant to be that of a perfect Dalmatian night.   Coincidentally, a klapa festival was taking place at the Cathedral while we were enjoying our meal, making the experience much more wholesome.

If you are looking for a restaurant that is decadent and unique; for presentation that goes above-and-beyond; and for something that excites your sights, sounds and tastebuds, look no further than to Konoba Pelegrini in Šibenik, Croatia.

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