Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

A CROATIAN NIGHT AT "PRIMO RESTAURANT"

By Diana Barbaric

Oluja Magazine - June 1998, p. 11

On a recent trip, this reporter decided to make contact with the Croatian community here. An easy enough task in an American city of 1.5 million, I naively assumed. After all weren’t Croatian communities supposed to be found in every major cityin North America?

Salt Lake City was founded by immigrating Mormons on July 24, 1847. Although the city proper only has a population of 171,000, the greater metro area contains 1.5 million of the state’s 2 million inhabitants. Mormons make up 45% of this 1.5 million, and 60% of Utah’s total population. Salt Lake City is also, not surprisingly, the worldwide headquarters of the Mormon Church of Latter-day Saints.

At Primo Restaurant
From left to right: Nevenko Baresic, Samir, our roving reporter DIana Barbaric, Bare Skalabrin and Ante Skalabrin.

One would think that even against these overwhelming odds, a community of Croatlans would have found a home here. However, orthodox Mormon values combined with strange statewide laws on alcohol consumption and smoking in bars, tend to take the fun out of this place. One evening, as my colleagues and I were silting in Port 0’ Call, a bar we had chosen because a) it was open past 10pm; b) it served alcohol; and c) we actually saw a few dozen younger people hanging out inside, I was contemplating the distinct possibility that no Croatian in their right mind would ever want to settle here. Just as I was coming to this logical conclusion, I met Samir. As chance would have it, Samir was a regulars at Port 0’ Call. That night he also turned out to be my connection to Salt Lake City’s elusive Croatian community. "I’m a waiter in a Croatian-owned restaurant named "Primo" he told me. "Why don't you stop by tomorrow and meet the owners?" He gave me the address and suggested I bring my travelling companions to dinner there the following evening.

The next night my fiends and I set off the restaurant. After about a 20-minute taxi ride, we arrived on the outskirts of the city and were dropped off in front of a quiet suburban plaza. It was already past 9pm and the dinner crowd was slowly petering out. I had called ahead to introduce ourselves and when we arrived, we were warmly greeted by manager and part owner Nevenko Baresic. Samir, busy with the customers, waved hello. Nevenko seated us and introduced us to Bare Skalabrin his partner and the restaurant chef, along with Bare's brother Ante. After my dinner companions and I had been treated to a delicious meal of pasta, fish, fresh salad and homemade dessert and all the other guests had left, Nevenko, Bare, Samir and Ante sat down to talk to us about the Croatian community in Salt Lake City and life here.

"The Croatian community here is very small", Nevenko told us. "In the last 20 years, only about 30 Croats have immigrated to the area". Many of the 2000-3000 who had originally settled here, Bare added, were mostly Licani who had arrived during the time of the California gold rush between the 1860s and the 1920s? They told us that today; most of these Croats have already assimilated into mainstream American life. Undaunted, I asked if there was a Croatian church or any cultural organizations in the city.

They laughed and told me that there were none of the above in the entire state. The few Croats in town attend English-language churches across the city and rarely gather socially.

How then, did two Dalmatinci happen to meet here and go into business together? Nevenko, from Jezera on the island of Murter and Bare, from the island of Prvic had both come here separately by the draw of business opportunities which never panned out. They met in the city’s hospital when their respective children were being born. A nurse, who found out that both were Croatian, introduced them to each other. As luck would have it, both had restaurant experience and a few years later, decided to go into business together.

"Because there is hardly any Croatian community here to speak of, we created a menu for the restaurant which consists of northern Italian specialties", said Bare, adding that the staff, however, is all Croatian and Bosnian. "On very rare occasions, we get Croatian visitors from out of town and if they give us advance notice, we can prepare them any Croatian specialty they wish. But that is very rare. You are the first out-of-town Croatians to visit us in at least half a year". Before us, the only out-of-towners to pass through had been the Los Angeles Croatian Consul and a group of Croatian high schoolers that had competed in Salt Lake City for the US computer championships in l997.

Bare is something of a celebrity among the few Croats who live here. Before coming to the USA he had worked as a chef in the Hotel Intercontinental and Esplanade Hotel restaurants in Zagreb. After tasting some of his specialties, we found it easy to see why "Primo" had won numerous culinary awards and rave reviews from local food critics.

Who would have guessed, however, that this amazing chef had once been a champion rower on the old Yugo rowing team, the same team which had won the World Rowing Championships In 1966? His team had also placed 7th in the North American Championships In 1967. As a memento to those days, an old photo of Bare and the team hangs in the restaurant, surrounded with paintings of the Dalmatian coast. I asked who painted them. Nevenko told us that they were done by the local artists and jokingly claimed that "you can tell that that one there was painted by a Bosanac because he made the boat in the painting look like an his "opanak"!!"

When I asked Nevenko and Bare to name me some other interesting Croatians living here, they told me that Nedeljko Starcevic, who played for the Zadar basketball, team also currently lives here.

Starcevic had apparently met a Momon woman, married, and converted. There is also a Croatian connection to the Utah Jazz Basketball Club, star player John Stockton, married a  Croatian. One of Utah’s state main judges, John Rokic (original name Rukavina) is also Croatian.

Slovenians, however, seem to outnumber Croats an the city. And no wonder. With Salt Lake preparing to host the 2002 Winter Olympics, Slovenians are arriving as athletes and coaches to prepare for the games. The Americans have imported a Slovenian coach to train the US Women’s a ski team and another to train the men's Snowbird ski team. As we sat and talked, some of these Slovenians who make "Primo" their local hang-out, filtered in and out of the restaurant. I asked Nevenko and Bare how many Slovenians tend to gather at their restaurant. Nevenko replied "0, ima ih dosta, oko 10". I guess in a place where Croatians are few and far between, "dosta" is a relative term!

The biggest migration by far, however, has been of Bosnians, who, virtually non- existent before the war, now number close to 10,000 in the city. The American government had settled them in Salt Lake City after the war. Undoubtedly, they were under the mistaken belief that Bosnian Muslims would blend well with the conservative Mormons in the city! "Mi smo ti Euro-Muslimani" joked one we met working as a waiter in another restaurant. "Ovi Mormoni su za nas malo cudni". He had overheard us speaking Croatian and, elated, told us that for him as well, we were the first Croats he had met since moving to Salt Lake City from California (inexplicably) almost one year ago.

It was getting late and the time came to leave our friendly hosts. The evening ended with warm good-byes and a promise by us "da pozdravimo Hrvate u Torontu".

"PRIMO RESTAURANT"

is located at 2350 East. 7000 South,
Salt Lake City, Utah.

If you are planning to visit the area for the Olympics or before, drop by for a delicious meal or give Nevenko and Bare a call at:

(801) 255-1600 and say hello!


Copyright 1998 Croat Publishing, Toronto. Canada
Reprinted by permission of Nov. 7, 1998

Oluja

A Croatian Newspaper that is published monthly by Croat Publishing in the city at Toronto, Ontario. Canada.

Business Address:
Croat Publishing
Station A - P.O. Box 471
Mississauga, Ontario
Canada L5A-3A2
Fax: (905) 615-8864

PUBLISHER
Tomislav Kapular


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