I arrived to Trogir with three objectives: seeing the old town, eating pašticada and eating rafioli.

Just look at those tender pieces of beef in dark, rich, sweet and sour sauce, served with gnocchi (njoki). Pašticada is a trademark Dalmatian dish – or, better said, a range of dishes. The recipes differ from restaurant to restaurant and from household to household. Each city have their own version – or, better said, a range of versions. Zadar, Šibenik, Trogir, Kaštela, Split, Makarska and Dubrovnik all have their own. Umbrella-termed as dalmatinska pašticada, otherwise they will be distinguished by individual names: splitska pašticada, dubrovačka pašticada and so on. Croats serve it for weddings and other festive celebrations.

Before choosing a restaurant, I strolled along the picturesque alleys of Trogir. The city’s location is special. The UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed Old Town is compactly built on a tiny islet tucked between the mainland and the island of Čiovo.

Trogir began its existance as an Ancient Greek port. Several centuries later, while known by the Latin name of Tragurium, it became one of the eight Dalmatian City-States that sheltered the survivors of the invasions that brought the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Then, it changed hands several times – Croat kings, Muslims, Venice, Habsburgs, Napoleon, Fascist Italy, Yugoslav communists: the list is long. From these, the nearly four hundred years of Venetian rule left the most significant mark on Trogir – including its postcard-perfect architecture.

Rafioli are a dessert speciality of several Dalmatian towns, including Trogir, Makarska and Imotski. These jiaozi-shaped (or pierogi-shaped) beauties are filled with almonds.

According to a legend, they were created by Rafiola, a maiden imprisoned in the Kamerlengo castle tower. She baked them while waiting for her prince charming to save her.

I tried my trogirski rafioli in kavana (café) Đovani. Another sweet product I’ve found there is “chocolate Kairos”, named and shaped after a piece of an Ancient Greek stone relief unearthed in Trogir.

I have surfed the Web to compare multiple pašticada recipes, see how they differ and how they overlap.

First, the meat is pricked with garlic and dried bacon / pancetta and marinated in vinegar overnight. Next day, the meat is browned (fried, less often roasted) before being cooked for several hours. Stages at which vegetables, seasonings and wine are incorporated vary between the recipes. When done, the meat is cut into slices and returned to the sauce. The ready dish is paired with potato gnocchi or handmade makaruni pasta.

Beyond that basic template, there are both controversies and space for creativity. Some cooks won’t fry the meat before simmering it in the sauce. Subject to debate is whether Prošek (a type of Croatian sweet white wine) must be used or should it be red wine – or both. Another bone of contention: prunes or dried figs or no fruit at all? Onions, celery root and parsley root seem essential. For some, adding carrots is a sacriledge, for others it’s a must. Tomatoes (paste, purée or canned) are included in many – but not all – recipes. Similarly – cloves. Then, there is the lard vs oil disagreement.

While it is most commonly made with beef round, this question is also open. In a fact other pašticadas do exist: poultry, lamb, game and even vegetarian.

The restaurant in which I had the pleasure to dine that day advertised their trogirska pašticada as made with “the thickest piece of beef leg – fricandó” and dried figs.

Pašticadas are eaten in Dalmatia since several centuries, which – like the architecture – brings to mind the Venetian period. Indeed, many articles source the dish – or at least its name – from pastissadas of eastern Italy, the oldest of which is often believed to be pastissada de caval, a horse meat stew that is a symbol of Verona. A legend traces it back to the 5th century, when an important battle was held near the city – a clash between the armies of Odoacer (the first Germanic king of Italy, whose rule marks the end of Ancient Rome) and the Ostrogoths (backed by the Byzantine Emperor). The battlefield was dotted with dying horses, and the starving Veronese decided to preserve their meat before it loses freshness. They used generous amounts of wine and seasonings, unwittingly creating a tradition that would last until today.

Similar dishes eaten around Veneto and Friuli are not necesarilly made with horse meat – like pastissada de manzo, a braised beef fare. It is not hard to imagine a trend spreading thoughout the Venetian dominion and reaching Dalmatia. Then, there is the pastitsada (παστιτσαδα) from the Greek island of Corfu – a more tomato-ish, any-type-of-meat concoction served with pasta. Corfu was also in the hands of the Republic of Venice for many centuries.

While all these dishes share a common name, they also share a lot with daube provençale, a beef stew from southern France, and to some extent even with German Sauerbraten. Other inspirations for Dalmatinska pašticada cannot therefore be excluded. One thing is certain: it’s delicious.