Perspectives

Insights on the cultural moment in Dubrovnik by way of gastronomy

Restaurant Amoret (image source: Johnathan Roberts

The Bitanga family started their first restaurant, Amoret, in Dubrovnik’s historic Old Town in 1999. Situated across from the Dubrovnik Cathedral, under the management of its founder Tonći Bitanga and his children Ana and Petar, Amoret offered tourists a scenic place in the shade where they could enjoy a light meal and a cool drink in a classical Mediterranean atmosphere. In 2016, the family opened a second restaurant, Kopun, located in the peaceful Boskovic Square within the walls of the Old Town.

While Amoret was set up to maximize the quantity of guests it could nicely accommodate, Kopun Restaurant offers guests the opportunity to experience the true soul of Dubrovnik hospitality, emphasizing the quality of the guest experience above all. Using fresh locally sourced meat, seafood and vegetables, Kopun Restaurant specializes in a modernized style of the cuisine traditionally prepared in Dubrovnik and the surrounding coastal areas. The wines on offer arrive to the table from small family owned and operated vineyards of the Pelješac Peninsula and Međimurje.

I recently visited Kopun Restaurant as a guest and, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that while there I enjoyed the best three course lunch I have eaten all year.

Kopun Restaurant exterior, in Boskovic Square, Dubrovnik

A day later, hoping to get some insight into the workings of what is arguably one of the best restaurants in Croatia, I was able to sit down for a brief discussion with Ana Bitanga, who manages Kopun Restaurant along with her father and brother.  

Ana displays a straightforward composure and strength of personality that she might have inherited from her father, tempered by a charm and warmth which are all her own. Below is an excerpt from a discussion which ranged over a broad variety of topics, from local history and politics, to current trends in Dubrovnik’s hospitality industry, as well as some of the best local wineries.

Croatia Sun News: I first arrived here shortly after the war ended. Tourism was returning to Dubrovnik in a big way, and early on I got the impression that most entrepreneurs had an instinct that the good times couldn’t possibly last. They were in a rush to take every possible opportunity, without regard to sustainability. While a huge number of businesses have opened and closed here over the past 20 years, your family’s restaurants have survived for a long time. What made that possible?

Ana Bitanga: Everyone in my family works a lot, and at least one of us is always present at the restaurant. I started out bussing tables when I was fourteen. Anyone who opens a restaurant thinking they are going to start making a pile of money right away will learn it’s not that simple. Managing a restaurant is not just about cooking food and serving it, or just sitting around telling everyone what to do. Aside from the challenges of managing twenty people, ordering and tracking inventory, and maintaining profitability, being successful takes longer than most people realize. Even if you own the space, you still need to plan for at least three to five years after opening before you can expect to turn a real profit – and that’s if you are lucky. If you don’t make any money after three years, then you are already done – but if you start to become profitable after the first two years, then you won the lottery! Even so, you cannot be sure until after the first three years, because there is no such thing as a guaranteed income. And of course, you have to look at the long term, and you have to keep improving your offer.

Mark Thomas wrote an article on this theme the other day, talking about how people here think they are entitled to a guaranteed income because they live in Dubrovnik. They think that just because we have the walls and the sun and the sea, that’s enough to make tourists want to come for a visit. Those things are not enough! Many people did not consider what could happen over the long term, and some people gave in to greed. And now this season, the month of July has been slower than usual. At the same time, for the last 10 years, we have all been telling everyone that July is too crowded, and that it is better to visit in September or October. People eventually start listening when you continually repeat such things, so we are starting to see more business in September and October than before. This is actually a more sustainable model, stretching it out over the course of a longer season. And more normal. But, still, Dubrovnik is not the only nice place in the world, so you always have to try to do something extra for guests.

CSN: Regardless, the hospitality industry has been thriving here for centuries.

Ana Bitanga: Exactly! You could say that tourism as we know it today has been ongoing for the last 120 years. Nothing has really changed. My family is in the restaurant business because we love it, but many of our colleagues are only in it for the money. The desire for wealth has always been the engine powering Dubrovnik. Anyone who forgets that money hungry people have always existed probably does not read much history. The year before last, a new play was performed at the Dubrovnik Summer Festival called Marin Držić – Viktorija od neprijatelja. It combines elements from all of Marin Držić’s novels, along with a critique of modern times. It is an excellent play. Marin Držić wrote during the 16th century Renaissance period in Dubrovnik. All of his novels in some way show people who are driven by greed. He wrote comedies to criticize the government of his time – which is why he left for Italy and lived out the rest of his life there, because he was so outspoken. There is this quote from one of his novels: “Nije amor amor, tezoro je amor.” It means “Love is not love, money is love.” So, nothing has really changed here. In the 15th century there were already more than 170 restaurants and bars in Dubrovnik. You know, “location, location, location” – Dubrovnik was a major Mediterranean trading point, because it is situated between the East and West. So traders would come here with ships, stop off at Lazareti, and then follow the current to the East. They all needed places to sleep and places to eat and drink.

CSN: So you don’t think the soul of this city – if a city can be said to have a soul – has really changed.

Ana Bitanga: I don’t think the soul of the city changed much. Perhaps people don’t consider the long term as much as they used to. I love this city. I have lived here all of my life, and I love the history and I love the intelligence of the people who have lived here. Even when they are too focused on some areas to the exclusion of others, in some ways they are really open-minded. The people of Dubrovnik have always had good instincts about the best partners to ensure their survival, and they know how to protect themselves. It is a small town, so there is not a lot of privacy. It can be suffocating. On the other hand when you really need something, it is only a phone call away. I sometimes wonder how foreigners who come to live here feel.

CSN: I can only speak for myself on that. For every insight into Dubrovnik’s centuries-old culture that newcomers – which I am one of – might have, there are a lot of small but important aspects of it that are practically invisible to us, and there will always be communication barriers. But in my experience, almost everyone here has been open-minded and friendly.

Ana Bitanga: When it comes to local views on women, and their support for aristocratic families, they were not always, you know, quite as open-minded. Also, as much as we depend on foreign tourists for support, I don’t think everyone is all that open-minded when it comes to having people from outside the area come here to live. Not everyone likes having foreigners settle here, but I think we should take it as a compliment: of all the places you could have chosen to live, you decided to live here! Dubrovnik is a great place – it is very safe compared to many other places, and we have an excellent climate (although the climate is changing, so we will see…)

CSN: Do you see any evidence that Dubrovnik is becoming more aware that the good times could last if tourism is managed in a more sustainable way?

Ana Bitanga: Yes, and I think it’s good. But now that that’s happening, the season is not as busy as it has been, and everybody’s panicking because they are afraid of losing that guaranteed income they think they’re entitled to. Those of us who focus on quality of offer over appealing to mass tourism are less worried. Quality over quantity: just because a lot of guests arrive does not mean business is good. I would rather have three tables full of really happy people having a three course meal and a bottle or two of fine wine than 100 people who have a light lunch and a beer. Your profit is about the same, but it is more reliable. While I think you have to consistently improve over time, or you will never get anywhere, not everyone feels that way.

Royal seafood stew Brodet,
made with a rich selection of fresh fish

CSN: Your family restaurant Kopun recently got a Michelin recommendation. What process led to that?

Ana Bitanga: There wasn’t a process that we were aware of at the time. Over the course of a season they sent three different people to dine at Kopun Restaurant – like mystery shoppers. And then they sent us an email to inform us. That was all. Being recommended by Michelin is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you can get excellent guests because of it, on the other it can lead to unrealistic expectations. Overall it is a good thing. As long as you start with fresh and good ingredients, you do not have to mask anything, so then you are going to have a good product, and everyone is happy. People ask us what the best fish is, and we always say “Fresh fish. It doesn’t matter if it is red scorpionfish or John Dory, if it’s fresh it is going to be the better than anything you have ever eaten.”

CSN: Given that you are a trained sommelier and have operated wine tours, which Croatian wines do you prefer?

Ana Bitanga: I like to offer wines from places like Međimurje and some local regions that do not get as much tourism. Personally, I don’t have a favorite. I do love Pinot Noirs and Rieslings – those cool climate wines – but I like everything. It just depends on how well it pairs with whatever food you’re having. Sometimes you’re in the mood for a strong and complicated wine, when you have a couple of hours to spend relaxing. Sometimes you just want something simple and easy. It’s hard to say, “Oh, this is my favorite!” There are a lot of excellent wine makers in this region. Križ winery from Pelješac Peninsula is a great one, and Bartulović as well. They are neighboring wineries – in fact they are cousins and friends. Križ, which is owned by Denis Bogoević Marušić, is the only biodynamic winery that exists in southern Croatia. They’re great people, they are hardworking and they produce amazing wines. They operate in a completely different way from anyone else, and also follow ecological and organic standards. I love them. And then right next to them is the Barušić winery, which is also excellent and honors natural, organic processes, so you really feel the grapes. I prefer working with smaller scale producers who are good people and have great wines.

CSN: Do you ever find yourself with any free time, and if so what do you enjoy doing?

Ana Bitanga: Haha! What is free time? Ok, I would love to travel more, and I feel like I need to do more traveling. I get most of my reading done in the winter. Usually I go to the gym and work out, because that’s how I de-stress. If I have free time, I spend most of it with my friends, which is what I most enjoy – or going to Lokrum Island to relax in the summertime.

CSN: You started working at your family’s restaurant Amoret in 1999, when you were still a teenager. Is there anything else you can imagine yourself doing?

Ana Bitanga: I majored in Human Resources and Sociology at the American college here in Dubrovnik, which is affiliated with the Rochester Institute of Technology, because I knew that whatever I did in my life, I would always work with people. I would never want to have a solitary job, I always want to be around people. I started teaching a restaurant management course at the University here this winter. As soon as I began teaching I wanted to call every professor I had ever had and say “I’m sorry!”, and “Thank you!” because it’s not such an easy job. I like teaching because, in my mind, it’s an honor to be able to help people do better in life. If even one person is better off for it, then I am happy.

(Source: Croatia Sun News)