The 12th monthly meeting of the Wet Towel Club was about to commence. The dining group had been named spontaneously at the first gathering, when a member looked down at the table after a meal in a Chinese restaurant and spied one of those packaged wet towelettes. I’d been solemnly presented with a membership card, which bore the cryptic inscription, “Where lambs go to die.” We found ourselves in Astoria, standing on the rain-soaked pavement outside the clubhouse of the United Miners, a local soccer team also known by its Croatian name of Rudar S.C. As we learned from a founder, the place was retrofitted from a warehouse three decades ago, when 38 team members got together and contributed $1,000 each toward the project. Some of the players had actually been miners back in Istria—a peninsula that droops like a uvula into the Adriatic Sea just east of Trieste, Italy.
There’s a bar upstairs where old men sit, nursing glasses of pivo (beer) and lozo (grappa). As we entered en masse, they looked up with mild curiosity, then went back to their games of whist. A narrow and serpentine pathway led to the downstairs dining room, which went public a few years ago. Arriving on the lower level, we saw only a few couples scattered around the large dining room, which is lined with fake windows flanked by real lace curtains, and breathtaking photos of mountaintop towns in Istria. (Don’t rule it out for your next vacation.)
Sixteen strong, the Wet Towel members took their seats at a great trestle table, contemplating baskets of bread and butter previously set out. I should mention that this peripatetic dining club numbers among its semi-secret ranks a high school history teacher, a hip-hop magazine editor, a hedge fund manager, an editor of documentary films, an art director for a cinema archive, a financial news columnist, and several reporters for a national newspaper. I asked the dude on my left, “Why no women?” He smirked: “Are you kidding? Our wives don’t want to come. This is a boys-only club!”
The meal began auspiciously with minestra s kobasicom ($7), a garlicky white-bean soup into which the waitress tossed big rounds of smoked sausage as she served it. We also dredged the dried meat called prsut from the soup’s murky depths. “Hey, this tastes like Campbell’s Bean With Bacon,” one member exclaimed. Next, a giant plate of gnocchi arrived (“njoki” in Croatian, $11), laked with a paprika-shot sauce in which chunks of veal stuck up like mountain crags. Unfortunately, the miniature wheat-flour dumplings were as tough as gold nuggets. The Wet Towels vastly preferred fuzi ($11), the signature pasta of Istria, in which squares of dough are stuffed with ground meat and folded into floppy envelopes.
Soon after this course, a member staggered to his feet, stumbled to an adjacent table, and passed out cold, victim of a marijuana brownie consumed earlier in the day. A registered nurse who happened to be dining in the restaurant revived him, and he soon returned to the table.
Meanwhile, a fleshy inter-course of grilled infant squid had materialized ($12), their bulbous white foreheads and squabbly little arms nicely caramelized. Arriving at the same time was a dish of tripe and potatoes, a favorite throughout both Italy and Istria. But instead of tomato sauce, there was a bean-y veal sauce that was a little too much like the pasta sauces we’d already encountered—and the bean soup, too, come to think of it. But no one grumbled, since the sauce was beginning to seem like an old friend.
Now the volume of food began to get serious. Unabashed, the club members called for more wine and plunged into the main courses. Multiple plates of dorado ($18) were ceremoniously brought out, the head of each fish decorated with a livid green relish that was mainly raw garlic, parsley, and olive oil. Also sailing in were platters of skinless lamb sausages called cevapcici, served with ivar, a crushed-pimento relish. As if that weren’t enough, there were mixed-meat platters containing grilled pork chops, sausages, shish kebabs (pork or veal? We couldn’t really tell the difference), and—more cevapcici! Served on separate platters, the sides were just as substantial, and included potatoes mashed with Swiss chard, known by the jocular-sounding handle of blitva s krumpirom ($4), and plates of so-so fries. Really, Rudar is not the place to get your veggies.
Due to our enormous gastronomic and alcoholic intake, desserts were on the house. There were cylindrical crepes filled with Nutella, and triangular crepes stuffed with walnut paste. We finished up with espressos, shakily mounted the stairs, and found ourselves once again before the nondescript building, decorated only with a blue awning.