The Diocletian’s Palace in Split has a multitude of buildings and branching laneways packed into it, with assorted stores and eateries to be stumbled upon. In our wandering, we came upon Corto Maltese Freestyle Food. What they offered was something different from what we had been having (and deliberately seeking out) so far, traditional and local Croatian food. What Corto Maltese pitched was an adventurous, creative spin on typical dishes. We were intrigued, and bookmarked it for a return later.
Coming back to it at a more suitable mealtime hour, but before the crowds set in (usually a better way to do it), we were shown into the inside seating area, and invited to sit at any table we liked.
We had not seen it from our saunter past previously, but the interior was interestingly decorated. We were not familiar with Corto Maltese, who the eatery was named for, but discovered that Corto Maltese is the main character in a series of graphic novels, lauded as one of the best European adventure comic series ever written. Some of the walls were covered in panels from the comics. In keeping with the early 20th century adventuring theme, trinkets like an old radio, a gramophone, and antique oil lamps sat on shelves. The shelves also held stacks of books, including some volumes of Corto Maltese, so one could get lost in an adventure while waiting. Models of biplanes were suspended from the ceiling between hanging lights with curled orange filaments.
The sections of raw stone walls and old tiled floors with mosaic patterns at intervals gave it an appropriately old world feel. There were wooden tables in square and round shapes, with metal chairs with padded seats for comfort. Though they were different, they matched. Lively jazz music including some of Sting’s songs played over the speakers. It created a bright atmosphere, although the volume was perhaps a touch loud for the space.
We picked a bar-height table at the window facing the outside world, and were brought menus. The tables were set with paper placemats that had a black and white drawing of Corto Maltese himself, and cutlery waiting to be used. We found that although the inside area was non-smoking, cigarette smoke unfortunately still came through the door and the open upper parts of the tilted windows.
The menu came in a hardcover folder, with another drawing of the sea captain on the front. Inside it were plastic slips into which were placed sheets listing the available dishes and drinks. There was certainly a tongue in cheek vibe in the menu, with witty lines scattered through the pages, and puns in the dish names (for instance the Chick Norris, their chicken salad, and their rib-eye dish called “Should I Steak Or Should I Go”). Interestingly, their menu listed mains first, then appetisers, then desserts. We managed to figure it out though. They also offer a range of alcoholic drinks, as well as a variety of iced tea combinations they put together themselves.
We chose the Sea Pie from the appetisers, and Smoke On The Water and the Freestyle Pasticada for our mains. Perhaps the order of the menu was intentional after all, as the mains arrived first, then the appetiser..
The Freestyle Pasticada was described in the menu as a traditional Dalmatian meat meal cooked freestyle. It was presented as ravioli in a bowl with sauce and wafer-like slices of meat atop them. Although it looked like it was going to be a dry dish, it didn’t turn out to be the case. The pasta sheets were al dente, and the meat filling, which was pulled beef, had spice notes that reminded us of Moroccan flavours, a little sweet and cinnamony. The sauce on it was tomatoey, sweet, and slightly tangy. It was a thick, rather than runny sauce, and there was enough to flavour the ravioli without soaking them. The meat slices were crisp and smoky, like bacon crisps, but of different cuts of meat. The blistered cherry tomatoes with them also added a sweet and tart punch. This was a flavourful dish.
Smoke On The Water was listed as having smoked risotto, smoked mussels, prawns, and cheese cream. The dish of orange-hued risotto certainly smelled smoky as it was brought to the table. A quinelle of creamy cheesey ricotta was neatly placed on top of the risotto. The risotto had good rice texture, al dente without the grainy crunch that sometimes disappointingly turns up. The balance was right, so that it wasn’t dry, but also not too sloppy. It was a thick, rich sauce, and the smoky aroma translated to smoky flavours, without being overpowering. It was well seasoned, which complimented those notes. When the ricotta was mixed in, it gave a tempering creaminess. There were a few pieces of halved mussel meat in it, and a few pieces of prawn. There wasn’t much seafood meat in it overall though.
The Fish Pie was described as traditional fish pie from the island of Vis, freestyle prepared. We were expecting a typically European-style fish pie, served in a baking dish. Instead, we were brought a black stone dish with two stuffed buns on it, and what looked like dollops of mayonnaise. The bread was fluffy, with a little pull, like the texture of bao. A tomato and onion sauce lined the inside, and anchovies were pressed into that. There were also bits of caper hidden in it for another flavour punch. Those cream-coloured, mayonnaise-looking blobs on the plate were actually a chilled, pickly puree. Black bits, camouflaged well on the plate, were pieces of olive, which added hits of saltiness. This dish was not what we expected, but it was a salty, tangy, moreish flavour mix that made for a good way to whet the appetite (if had as an actual appetiser).
Corto Maltese Freestyle Food was an interesting experience all around. It was indeed not traditional Dalmatian food, but it was certainly tasty. Their spins on typical dishes were not too out there and kept them accessible, and, importantly, the flavours worked. If in Split, this is worth adding to your eating list.
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Price point: Appetisers 69 to 350 HRK (about $15 to $75 AUD) – note that that most expensive option is for a platter for four that includes four beers. Mains 99 to 239 HRK (about $21 to $51 AUD).
Value: Not bad.
Address: Obrov ul. 7, 21000, Split
Phone: +385 21 587 201
Website: Corto Maltese Freestyle Food