By Ashley Tavoularis
Cevapcici, with a side of blitva and ajvar, is not found on many menus. However, Veslo, a Croatian restaurant in Astoria, Queens, serves this relatively unknown cuisine in hopes of enticing customers from Astoria’s small Croatian community, as well as among the neighborhood’s Greek, Latino and Asian residents.
A family-owned restaurant that opened in December 2010, Veslo is trying to defy the odds in tough economic times. “We didn’t even consider the recession when we decided to open, we just did it and worked at it, and a lot of our business comes from the Croatian community,” says the owner, Mirela Rosini.
The Rosini family, who hail from Sibenik, a historic seafaring town in central Dalmatia that was occupied under Italian and German rule until the end of World War II, named their restaurant Veslo to pay homage to the town’s rich culture. (Veslo, which means “oar” in Croatian, and for centuries, wooden boats were the main source of travel on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast.) Even today, many Dalmatians say they are going “na veslo” — that is, dropping nets and fishing in the Adriatic — keeping the tradition alive.
Astoria is home to many Croatians and Croatian-Americans, and their nationalistic social clubs and bars. About 22,500 people of Croatian ancestry live in New York City, about a third of them in Queens, according to the 2009 American Community Survey.
In the past year, Veslo has become a watering hole for many members of the community, “not only as a place people could drink, but also a place where kids and families in general could also come,” says Rosini.
Veslo’s menu is dominated by Croatian favorites, many with an Italian influence. The kitchen offers freshly caught seafood and grilled meats cooked mainly in olive oil, garlic and lemon. Cevapcici, a grilled dish of minced meat, is typically served with a side of ajvar, a relish made of red bell peppers. And blitva, a Swiss chard dish, is a Croatian staple. Traditional pastas, such as Bolognese and lobster ravioli, also are on the menu. And for dessert, there’s palačinke, a Dalmatian-style crepe served with chocolate, cheese, ground nuts or marmalade.
Veslo offers “a good menu for Croatians who like to have food that tastes like home,” says Tanya Dobric, one Croatian-American customer.
The restaurant averages about 40 meals on a regular night, not including birthdays, christenings and other special events, at an average of $20-$30 per person.
Of course, Veslo’s Croatian customers provide about 60 percent of its business. Especially during the summer, when many Croatians vacation back home, Veslo has to draw a broader range of customers.
To pull in more business, the Rosinis built a fully stocked sports bar that dominates the front of the restaurant and offers Croatian and American alcoholic beverages. Three flat-screen TVs and a seating lounge seek to draw sports fans. “We show all the foreign soccer games, and all the American football games, which helps bring more diverse people in,” says the bartender, Kim Landen.
In Astoria, a commuter neighborhood where many people choose to eat on the run or stop off after work for a quick drink and meal, offering a full menu at the bar is another advantage. “Other places don’t always offer or have food at the bar, so it’s good for us to have it,” says Nicole Rosini, the manager and owner’s daughter. “We hoped that eventually, through word of mouth, with people going to the bar, they’d see the restaurant in the back and decide to eat there too.”
The Rosinis also put time and effort into marketing. Veslo houses art exhibitions, offers game-day specials and hosts charity events as a way to network and become better known in Astoria. The restaurant’s website (http://veslonyc.com/), Facebook and twitter accounts are all kept up to date with the latest news on Veslo.
“We’re very forward with our social media and marketing,” says Nicole Rosini. “It’s how we get our name out there more, for people living in places like the city being able to search us and come. I think a lot of other, older restaurants don’t take advantage of it like they could.”
Andrea Grane, who found Veslo through the website WhyLeaveAstoria.com, a blog about current happenings in the community, has visited the restaurant more than once. “I have a couple of Croatian friends but never knew much about the food before.” she says. “They had the menu on their website, and it sounded good, so I wanted to try it. The traditional plates are really good, and they have these mixed grill and fish plates so you can try a bit of everything Croatian-style.”
Veslo’s location on Broadway, a major Astoria thoroughfare, “really helps them out because the dense population of the area and Astoria’s proximity to Manhattan,” says Helen Xikis, a real estate broker. “It’s the hottest area to be right now for a restaurant.”
Xikis estimates that rent for a restaurant Veslo’s size — 1,500 to 2,000 square feet — would be about $7,000 to $10,000 a month. She notes that for many restaurateurs, “because they need to invest so much in the beginning, it can take a few years before they can see a profit.”
Nicole Rosini says the family was “lucky, we got the place for really low rent, since it was a mess before we came in and had to build almost everything from scratch.”