GEM ON THE ŌMOKOROA WATERFRONT
Beyond its coastal Kiwi outlook and contemporary Italian menu, Alma Eatery has an intriguingly multi-cultural pedigree. The beachfront Ōmokoroa restaurant can trace its roots back three generations and into several corners of Europe.
Alma’s chef and co-founder Marko Velickovic has been immersed in the trade since childhood, thanks to a grandfather who established their family restaurant in the Yugoslavian town of Leskovac. Marko’s father inherited the business and taught his son to cook. The youngest restaurateur went on to hone his skills in an upscale eatery on a Croatian island, near Italy, which is where he became smitten with Italian cuisine.
Marko found another kind of love when he met his Polish-born, British-raised partner Ewelina Large, 18,000km from his home town.
It was a Serbian engineer acquaintance who propelled him across the globe. The friend, who had emigrated to Tauranga, suggested he do the same.
“My friend said why don’t you come, they’re looking for chefs,” Marko says. “I decided, why not give it a go? I knew how New Zealand was a beautiful place and I’m all about nature. I like water and water sports, fishing.”
By mid 2019, he was working as head chef in a busy Italian restaurant in Mount Maunganui. When he met Ewelina, who was managing an award-winning café across the road from his new workplace, neither of them had heard of Ōmokoroa.
They were living and working in Mount Maunganui, happily spending days off in or near the ocean. But the 60-hour weeks and night shifts were taking their toll on Marko, so he switched to daytime work in a retirement village until a business broker friend and former customer approached him.
“He knew I always had an idea to have my own place. He said, I have something special for you. It’s a secret. I’ll take you there.”
The restauranteur laughs, recalling exactly where he was the fateful day he took that phone call and agreed to accompany his friend.
“I was on my way to buy a boat, thinking I have my life sorted now. I have lots of time. I’m all done.”
The property proved irresistible; a café available for lease, with expansive water views just 20 metres from Tauranga Harbour. It also overlooked an increasingly popular cycle path connecting Ōmokoroa to Tauranga.
“It was my first time in Ōmokoroa and I was surprised to see so much development here. It’s still going, there are two more schools being built. And the place itself had so much potential. So instead of me having a boat and this easy life, I had to invest all my money and borrow some, too.”
Ewelina was equally enthusiastic, though the new business did not have an auspicious start. Immediately after signing the contract, New Zealand went into a Covid-induced lockdown. On opening night, the region was hit with a tsunami warning. Staff also proved tricky to find and the couple soon found themselves working 13-hour days, six days a week, initially operating as a café then slowly adding evening dining.
Things are considerably easier now that a Croatian chef friend and his pastry chef wife have joined the team. Renovations are finished and routines are established.
Ewelina opens in the mornings, baking scones, muffins, bread and cakes for the early coffee crowd. Marko and his kitchen team look after the all-day menu, making fresh dough for the pastas they create each day, or the crayfish stock essential in a seafood dish.
“We make everything from scratch and change the menu constantly. Right now we have octopus in chickpeas stew and truffle gnocchi on the menu. I collaborate with the other chefs and I am definitely inspired by the produce that’s grown around me. Anything that’s ripe and good.
“I’m really grateful to live a little outside the city, where there are so many growers I work with. I have local suppliers who will bring mushrooms, capsicums, herbs. There are so many organic and natural growers around. And who has better avocados than where I am, between the avocado capital and the kiwifruit capital of New Zealand?”
Growing up in Serbia, fresh produce was much more difficult to come by during the harsher winters so his grandfather and father had to rely on preserved products in the family restaurant. They also taught him to minimise waste and to utilise lesser-known cuts of meat.
He says Serbian food is influenced by neighbouring nations and by the Turks and Romans who invaded during earlier times.
“So I had the opportunity to try all these different cuisines. I think that helped me to fall in love with cooking.
“For me, I like Sicilian cuisine, which has north African and Greek influences as well as mainland Italian. So I do Trapani squid with fried sage and capers, sesame and chilli with a north African dukkah-style dressing. And fritters with anchovies, cauliflower and parmesan. But I also do a wild boar pappardelle with juniper barries and that is more close to northern Italy. In winter, I’ll do porchetta made from pork belly, stuffed with mozzarella, parmesan, pine nuts, rolled in herbs.”
Food and creativity aside, it is the Ōmokoroa community that has most thrilled the duo.
“People here in Ōmokoroa accepted us very nicely. ”
He relays the story of tentatively posting a message on the local Facebook group, letting people know their plans for Alma. They expected perhaps a handful of people might see it. Within an hour, they had 150 comments from residents thanking them for opening.
Or the day he spotted a man at the front of the restaurant and, by the time he approached, the stranger announced he had mended a broken table leg. “He was just a neighbour who came for lunch and saw it was broken, so he fixed it. Who would do that? Even now it gives me shivers. It’s a true Kiwi story.
“From the first moment, when we moved here, it is like how I read about New Zealand. What we found here in Ōmokoroa is that people support you.”
* In 2023, ALMA EATERY won the ‘Judges Choice Award’ at the 2023 Plates of Plenty Challenge with its Fagottini con fungi e tartufo dish.
Judges said: “It was dancing on my palate. The dish was delicious, a beautiful combination of flavours and so enjoyable to eat. I would recommend it anytime. The atmosphere was amazing, sitting at the open window, looking out over the water, nice day and these beautiful flavours making it a great experience.”