The Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, October 27, 1999

Croatian San Pedro

By BARBARA HANSEN, Times Staff Writer

     Plates heaped with cabbage rolls in sweet-sour sauce, spareribs and sausage nestled in sauerkraut and pot roast with mostaccioli emerge from the kitchen of Ante's Restaurant in San Pedro. Salads that mix iceberg lettuce, cucumber, red cabbage and onion with octopus appear on some tables. And dessert is flaky apple strudel that sends up clouds of powdered sugar at the touch of a fork.

     It's probably not surprising that there's a Croatian restaurant in San Pedro--by one estimate, there are roughly 15,000 Croatians living in this small city, probably the largest community in Southern California and possibly the West. What might be surprising is that Croatians aren't the main customers at Ante's. "They're good cooks. They don't eat out," explains Ante "Tony" Perkov, who took over the restaurant from his immigrant father, also named Ante.

     In Ante's kitchen, cooks are at work on stewed tripe, stuffed peppers, veal risotto and other Croatian favorites. Among the cooks is Vinka Popov, a blond Dalmatian woman who has worked for the Perkovs for 30 years. Popov, who makes the strudel, is from Komiza on the island of Vis, and a seaside scene of Vis decorates a wall at the front of the restaurant. Perkov's father came from Tribunj, another of the many islands that line the Dalmatian coast.

     San Pedro has lured Croatian immigrants for decades because its coastal site and sunny climate remind them of home. Most have come from Dalmatia, which is bordered by the Adriatic Sea. Some lived in villages on islands so small they're not named on maps in atlases. Others are from continental Croatia, where the capital, Zagreb, is situated. The third major region of the republic is Slavonia.

     "When we were kids [in the 1950s], you really didn't need to speak English. Every other house on the block was Croatian," says Andrew M. Mardesich over lunch at the Dalmatian-American Club of San Pedro.

     The club is down the street from Ante's in a two-story building that overlooks the 22nd Street Landing. On this day, 400 people are lined up at long tables for a bimonthly fish luncheon. The food is Dalmatian-Croatian, and it is served family style, which helps to promote the camaraderie that the club encourages. Decanters of white wine stand on each table--Dalmatia is known for wine, as well as olive trees and fishing. The menu will consist of iceberg lettuce salad with garbanzos, Manhattan clam chowder, mostaccioli, barbecued swordfish and green beans mixed with potatoes. Dessert is only a cookie, but in December, the women of the club will bake their finest cakes and pastries for an annual party honoring St. Nicholas. (Most Croatians are Roman Catholic.)

     Founded in 1926 as the Jugoslav Club, the organization later became the Yugoslav-American Club and in 1992 changed the name to Dalmatian-American Club. The founding group of 25 Americans of Slavic descent has grown to 650 members today. Not all are Croatian. "I would guess maybe 85% are," says Anthony M. Misetich, club president. "We take everybody who would like to be a member."

     The club auxiliary has compiled a cookbook, "Homemade With Love," that contains recipes ranging from Mexican chili corn casserole to Zagreb cake. The diversity of food results from the diversity of membership, says Lore Barhanovic, cookbook chairwoman.

     The club's acclaimed version of mostaccioli is not included. "I think it's a trade secret," Misetich says. Mostaccioli is a hearty dish of meat and pasta in a rich sauce.

     "There are so many influences on Croatian food, including Austrian, Hungarian, Italian, German," Dolores Lisica says. "It all depends on which locality you are from. A lot of dishes are Italian, with a Slavic twist to them."

     Lisica has edited two cookbooks that raise funds for the San Pedro branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. Both are titled "Around the World, Around Our Town" and both include Croatian dishes. Lisica's recipe for mostaccioli is in the first book, published in 1986.

     Lisica's parents came from Selca, a village on the island of Brac. Born in San Pedro, she has noticed a change in the pattern of immigration. "There isn't the immigration push now that there was right after the Second World War," she says. "They came then with the idea of spending their entire lives here. Many of the people coming now have the idea of going back eventually."

     Early immigrants were not popular with their non-Croatian neighbors, she says. "We were too noisy. We drank wine. We ate strange food. We ate things like squid, and you know how codfish smells, and sauerkraut. It wasn't what people were used to. Once they tasted it [Croatian food], it worked out differently."

     New arrivals went to work on fishing boats and in the tuna canneries that have almost vanished. The Croatian Club on 9th Street still holds an annual dinner honoring departing fishing crews. On Nov. 13, the club will celebrate its 40th anniversary. Each year, members honor Croatian Independence Day on May 30 with a block party. "You can hardly walk, that's how many people are there," says Zagreb-born Regina Herceg, who describes herself as the club's "girl Friday."

     The May menu includes barbecued lamb, roast piglet, cevapcici (a Croatian skinless sausage), sauerkraut and mostaccioli. "There is no picnic without mostaccioli," Herceg says. "And the desserts. You wouldn't believe it. I don't know where to start. There are a million cakes at that party, all done at home. And they have strudels, all kinds of strudel. We can make strudels out of anything."

     Cevapcici, which combines beef, lamb and pork, is available at two shops with Croatian butchers. "Cevapcici is always served at Croatian picnics along with barbecued lamb," says Ante Bjazic, owner of the Sunshine Market on Pacific Avenue. "It is typical summer food, and that is when the demand for it is the greatest." Bjazic makes cevapcici on Fridays. He also marinates lamb for barbecuing with garlic, parsley, rosemary, oil and balsamic vinegar.

     The photograph on the wall behind the meat counter shows his home island of Zlaren. Retired owner Vick Sorich, from the village of Preko on the island of Ugljan, left behind his recipe for stewed lamb served over spaghetti. One of the seasonings is Vegeta, a vegetable seasoned salt from Croatia that comes in a can as blue as the Adriatic. The market carries this and a few other Croatian products.

     Like Bjazic, Darko Skracic displays a photograph of his home island, Murter, on the wall of his market, the South Shores Meat Shop near the intersection of Western Avenue and 25th Street. 

     In addition to marinated lamb sirloin for barbecuing, Skracic sells swordfish, halibut and salmon marinated with "lots of garlic, and oil, a little lemon and white wine, and some special spices--that's a little secret."

     The counters of this specialty shop are lined with Croatian products. Shelves in the center hold cookies and candies. "We're well known for good quality chocolate," says Skracic. He lifts a red package that contains Turkish coffee. "They drink a lot of that." He also carries Vegeta and ajvar, a puree of bell peppers, tomatoes and eggplant flavored with garlic and other seasonings that Croatians use like ketchup. It comes in two versions, mild and hot.

     Skracic is especially enthusiastic about Priodno Malinovo Ulje Fino, an olive oil from Vela Luka. "It's the true taste of oil. It's unique. You won't find anything like it," he says. Some Italian restaurants buy it from him to serve as a dip for bread. He also points to a blue and white box of iodized sea salt, Sitna Morska Sol. The use of sea salt is "very common in my country," he says.

     Big jars of Croatian peppers are steady sellers. "The soil we grow the peppers in is extremely good for that," Skracic says. Near the peppers are Croatian jams, including one made with sour cherries, and plum butter that is often used as a filling for the crepes called palacinke.

     The liquor department of McCowan's Market on Walker Avenue displays pear liqueur, cherry wine and plum brandy from Croatia. A bitter digestive, Pelinkovac, is produced from Dalmatian herbs. The deli counter offers Croatian tomato peppers, pickled onions, black olives and sardines in hot sauce. The market also carries dry soup mixes, canned beef goulash, vanilla sugar, hazelnut spread, chocolate bars, raspberry and sour cherry syrups, herbal tea and other Croatian imports.

     For Italian ingredients, San Pedro's Croatians go to A-1 Imported Groceries on 8th Street, which stocks a large variety of pasta, canned tomato products, cheeses and deli meats.

     This easy availability of food in America contrasts with the privations suffered in Croatia during and just after World War II. Herceg makes a cabbage dish with pasta that she calls Little Rags With Cabbage.

"When I was growing up in postwar years, that was our main dish," she says. "Some people might call this poor man's dinner or soul food, but once you eat it you will call it gourmet food.

     "My daughter loves that food, from childhood, and still cooks it as a full meal, with no other courses. She used to call it 'war food' (without meat), or 'disappearing cabbage.' A whole large head of cabbage just covers the bottom of a large pot when finished."

     Skracic arrived in the United States in 1961 at age 20. "I grew up on fish. I used to fish myself to survive," he says. "After the war, in 1946, '47 and '48, we had nothing. Bread was rationed."

     Fishing has been a way of life for many Croatians. "My father and his brothers always had a couple of fishing boats, and they had a small cannery for a brief time," Lisica says. Lisica's husband, Chris, who is from Kukljica on the island of Ugljan, went to sea at 14 and became a cook on merchant ships. In his village, it was common for men to do the cooking while women worked in the fields.

     In San Pedro, Lisica cooked on fishing boats, then worked on offshore oil rigs and crewed on tugboats. "There are still some fishermen, but it's nothing like it was," Dolores Lisica says. "We had a sardine fleet, a tuna fleet, a whitefish fleet. That's gone. And the canneries closed up one by one. I don't know anyone who is still fishing. We're becoming more of a bedroom community." Yet San Pedro's Croatians remain. "We have three and four generations of people. Some may have left, but they come back," Lisica says. "I think the population stays pretty steady."

     Little Rags With Cabbage

     Active Work Time: 45 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

     The little rags in this recipe from Regina Herceg of Manhattan Beach are homemade pasta squares, which are combined with cabbage cooked until browned. Bow pasta from the supermarket can be substituted, Herceg says.

     1 1/2 cups bread flour
     2 to 4 tablespoons milk
     2 eggs
     1 large cabbage
     4 tablespoons oil
     2 tablespoons water

     * Combine flour and dash salt in bowl of food processor. Add 2 tablespoons milk and eggs and pulse to combine, adding more milk if necessary so dough forms. It should resemble couscous and come together when pressed with fingers. Let stand 10 minutes. Divide dough into 4 portions and roll out each into a thin square about the thickness of lasagna noodles. Let stand 30 minutes to dry slightly. (This prevents pasta from sticking when boiled.) Cut in 3/4-inch-wide strips, then cut crosswise in 3/4-inch strips to form squares.

     * Cut cabbage in quarters, then cut each quarter in 3/4-inch strips lengthwise and crosswise to make squares similar in size to pasta. Heat oil over medium-high heat in large pot. Add cabbage and water and cook, stirring, until cabbage begins to fry. Reduce heat to low and cover, stirring occasionally and cooking until cabbage is browned, about 1 hour. 

Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt.
     * When cabbage is almost done, cook pasta in boiling salted water
until al dente, 5 minutes. Drain, add to cabbage and mix gently. Serve with pepper to taste.

     6 servings. Each serving: 267 calories; 641 mg sodium; 71 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 1.31 grams fiber.


     Pork Ribs, Sausage and Vegetables With Sauerkraut

     Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 3 hours

     This recipe is from Vinka Popov, who has cooked at Ante's Restaurant in San Pedro for 30 years.

     3 (2-pound) jars sauerkraut, drained and thoroughly washed
     2 cups water
     3 pounds pork spareribs, cut into pieces
     Salt, pepper
     Hungarian paprika
     1 onion, chopped
     2 green bell peppers, seeded and chopped
     2 or 3 stalks celery, chopped
     4 polish sausages, cut into 1/2-inch slices

     * Place sauerkraut in large pot with water. Cover and simmer over low heat 2 hours.

     * Meanwhile, place spareribs in large baking pan and season with salt, pepper and paprika to taste. Add onion, bell peppers and celery. Cover and bake at 350 degrees in top third of oven until tender, 2 hours. When almost done, add sausages and bake 10 to 15 minutes. Mix in sauerkraut and cook 30 minutes. Serve meat and sauerkraut together.

     12 servings. Each serving: 492 calories; 1,590 mg sodium; 122 mg cholesterol; 37 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 29 grams protein; 1.79 grams fiber.


     Lamb Stew With Spaghetti

     Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours

     Ante Bjazic, owner of Sunshine Market in San Pedro, says this was a favorite dish of previous owner Vick Sorich, who recently retired. Vegeta is available at Croatian markets.

     2 large onions, chopped
     3 cloves garlic, chopped
     3 to 4 sprigs parsley, chopped
     1 tablespoon olive oil
     2 pounds lamb for stewing, cut up with bones
     2 cups medium-dry sherry
     1 (10-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup
     2 cups water
     1/2 pound spaghetti
     1/2 teaspoon Vegeta (Croatian seasoning)

     * Brown onions, garlic and parsley in large skillet over medium heat in olive oil. Add lamb and brown until water from lamb dries up, 10 to 15 minutes. Add sherry and cook, uncovered, 5 minutes. Add mushroom soup and water and cook uncovered over medium heat until meat is tender, 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes.

     * Toward end of cooking lamb, cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes.

     * Season lamb with Vegeta and salt and pepper to taste. Serve over spaghetti.

     4 servings. Each serving: 596 calories; 838 mg sodium; 111 mg cholesterol; 18 grams fat; 54 grams carbohydrates; 43 grams protein; 0.69 gram fiber.


     Squid With Rice

     Active Work Time: 20 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours

     Chris Lisica contributed this recipe to "Around the World; Around Our Town: Recipes From San Pedro Book 2." In the book, the recipe suggests serving the squid over rice cooked separately, but Lisica recommends cooking it in the pot with the squid and sauce.

     1/4 cup oil
     1 large onion, chopped
     3 pounds squid, cleaned and cut into rings
     4 cloves garlic, chopped
     1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
     1/2 cup parsley, chopped
     2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
     Salt, pepper
     1 3/4 cups rice

     * Heat oil in heavy-bottomed pot over high heat. Add onion and saute until lightly browned. Add squid rings and tentacles and saute together. Add garlic, bell pepper, parsley, tomato sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Squid will release liquid. Cover and simmer over low heat until squid is tender, 1 to 1 1/2 hours, adding rice last 30 minutes. Stir regularly.

     8 servings. Each serving: 302 calories; 425 mg sodium; 222 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 37 grams carbohydrates; 18 grams protein; 0.59 gram fiber.


     Pot Roast and Mostaccioli

     Active Work Time: 1 hour 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours 30 minutes

     Dolores Lisica contributed this recipe to the first volume of "Around the World, Around Our Town."

     2 1/2 pounds pot roast (round bone, 7-bone or rump roast)
     6 cloves garlic, 1 thinly sliced and 5 pressed or minced
     2 strips lean bacon, 1 strip cut into 1/2-inch pieces, 1 strip minced
     1 1/2 pounds spareribs, cut in 6 pieces
     Freshly ground black pepper
     1/3 cup olive oil
     1 (14 1/2-ounce) can chicken broth
     1 broth can water
     3 onions, finely chopped
     2 1/2 pounds beef, ground twice
     1 teaspoon MSG, optional
     1 teaspoon ground allspice
     1/2 teaspoon white pepper
     Large handful parsley, minced
     2 tablespoons flour
     2/3 cup wine (half Marsala and half white wine)
     3 tomatoes, chopped
     1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
     2 pounds mostaccioli

     * Make slits in pot roast using paring knife. Wrap garlic slices in 1/2-inch bacon pieces and insert in pot roast. Season roast and spareribs with salt and black pepper to taste.

     * Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat and brown meats, about 15 minutes. Remove from skillet and set aside. Add broth and water to pan drippings. Heat slowly, scraping bottom of skillet to loosen brown bits.

     * In large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat remaining olive oil and minced bacon over medium heat. Add onions and saute until golden brown. Add ground beef, breaking up clumps of meat. Add 2 teaspoons salt, MSG if using, allspice, white pepper and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper. Stir until ground beef is browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Add pot roast and spareribs to onion mixture. Add parsley and pressed garlic and stir to mix evenly. Add flour, stirring constantly until absorbed. Pour wine over meat in pot and stir until evaporated. Add tomatoes and cook 5 minutes. Add tomato sauce. Pour broth, water and pan drippings over meat mixture. Simmer on medium low heat, covered, until pot roast and spareribs are tender, about 1 hour. Stir often.

     * Cook mostaccioli in large pot of salted water until al dente, 10 to 12 minutes. Drain.

     * Slice pot roast and arrange on platter with ribs. Add mostaccioli to sauce and mix. Cover meat with sauce and serve.

     12 servings. Each serving: 669 calories; 447 mg sodium; 109 mg cholesterol; 24 grams fat; 64 grams carbohydrates; 45 grams protein; 0.73 gram fiber.


* * *

     The San Pedro Story


     * Ante's Restaurant, 729 S. Palos Verdes St., San Pedro. (310) 832-5375.


     * A-1 Imported Groceries, 348 W. 8th St., San Pedro. (310) 833-3430.
     * McCowan's Market, 1932 S. Walker Ave., San Pedro. (310) 832-7581.
     * South Shores Meat Shop, 2308 S. Western Ave., San Pedro. (310) 831-0044
     * Sunshine Market, 1105 S. Pacific Ave., San Pedro. (310) 833-4705.


     * "Around the World, Around Our Town," $23 including postage and handling, and "Around the World, Around Our Town, Book 2," $28.95 including postage and handling. Order from San Pedro branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, 931 S. Gaffey St., San Pedro, CA 90731.
     * "Homemade With Love," $18 including postage and handling. Order from Dalmatian-American Club, 1639 S. Palos Verdes St., San Pedro, CA 90731, Attention: L. Alvarez. (310) 831-2629.


     * Williams' Book Store, 443 W. 6th St., San Pedro. (310) 832-3631. This Croatian-owned bookshop carries Croatian dictionaries, "Who Is Who In Croatia" and both "Around the World" books.

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