It is likely that the restaurant at Istria Sport Club in Astoria has seen better days. I first visited here during the 2014 World Cup to watch one of Croatia's three games, expecting I might hang out with a rowdy group of fans. What I found was three old dudes drinking Heinekens, a quiet atmosphere, and a passing interest for their team. I grabbed a Karlovacko and a plate of Istrian noodles and made the best of it.
These days at the street entrance upstairs, passersby are greeted by two stickers. One reads "Members Only" while the other declares "People love us on Yelp!" Somehow neither of these is likely true. I finally had the chance to return recently to find basically the same feeling I had during the World Cup. The starched shirt wearing staff are lovely and accommodating, but the room just has a notion of faded glory. Pictures from the Istrian coast of Croatia and Adriatic Sea adorn the walls, but I could not find the 2002 New York Times article that I had previously read. That article talks about smoke from cigars and card games, long gone now.
What remains is a line of dusty trophies and a small menu that has none of the fish selections you might also find online if you look the place up. Maybe on a night where more people are expected you can find the fresh catch and get served something you may find back home, but on most nights it is a simple couple pages of what mostly reads like any Italian American restaurant. While the Istrian coast does connect up to Italy and the cuisines share some similarities like pasta, unfortunately dining here is nothing like taking a drive through the peninsula and stopping at tavernas.
Something you can try is fuzi (below), a traditional Istrian pasta that I have ordered on both occasions. I have never tried a version in actual Istrian lands, but I figure this version would put a skeptical face on a native. The salty meat sauce tasted a lot to me like what I remember coming out of a can as a child. The pasta itself is fun, odd-shaped bits that seem torn from a sheet, some thicker than others.
The only other dish on the menu spelled out in its native language is cevapcici (below), small links of ground meat in a style you can find all over the Balkans. It's definitely tasty here, and accompanied by a decent helping of the always delicious ajvar red pepper sauce.
So far I have described a lackluster meal and readers may be wondering why an entry exists on the website, but the real reason is just a feeling. I like coming to this basement restaurant and bar. I like reading their plaques on the wall, and trying to take in their over 50 years of history. Immigrant groups coming to New York and forming communities are always interesting, and this place is one of a few that is accessible nightly to the general public, despite what the sticker says on the front door.
The next time I return might be to try another big football game for Croatia during this summer's Euro Cup. A game between them and the Czech Republic, another group well represented in Astoria should have the neighborhood buzzing.