What you need to know about food and restaurants in Malta

Posted on June 24, 2010

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In my own particular way, I love my country, but having said that, I seriously think that wandering aimlessly around expecting to find good restaurants and good food in Malta will inevitably lead to some serious disappointment. So here’s what you need to know before stepping into any eatery in the Maltese islands:

  • Maltese food is limited to the home kitchen and deemed somewhat old-fashioned – There is a whole range of traditional Maltese dishes and appetizers lovingly cooked by our mothers but which never really made it big into the local or international restaurant culinary scene. No chef has tried to reinvent it and real traditional Maltese restaurants are few and far between. Some of them are mere tourist traps. Your best bet for a true taste of Maltese fare is in a local’s kitchen, but many Maltese have forgotten old recipes and substituted them with continental and Italian options without the same attention to ingredient quality. Also keep an eye for little hole-in-the-wall shops selling traditional cheese cakes (pastry filled with ricotta or peas) known locally as pastizzi and other snacks made with dough and pastry – cheap, oily but heavenly.
  • The something-with-chips mentality – For some very strange reason (more so in the past), a large amount of restaurant owners feel it’s ok to open new places and offer the same food over and over again, or that chicken breast/roast chicken/pork chops with no special spice or sauce and served with chips (I mean ‘fries’ for Americans) and salad can qualify as a menu item. To be fair, it would seem that from the local crowd which routinely inhabits these restaurants (where they’ll eat what they could very easily have cooked at home, say, by throwing meat into a frying pan) and then tell their friends how good the food was, that Maltese have the taste buds of anemones. Maybe in a way they do.  All is not lost however, because if you do a bit of research prior to arrival you will find a few restaurants serving well-executed and original options. You just need to know where to look for them.
  • Level of service varies greatly – Most of the guys you find waiting at tables get the legal minimum wage which means that few people choose to do this job in the long-term or are passionate about their job. Most restaurants have a staff composed of students looking to make some extra cash, so that you might find these a bit clumsy, inexperienced or rude. After Malta joined the EU, foreigners seeking short-term seasonal employment also became fairly common, and while some nationalities are typically friendly and chatty, others, notoriously the Eastern Europeans (though I do not wish to generalise of course) can come across as grumpy, and seem to think that smiling should not be coupled with customer service. You will inevitably get the best treatment and most attentive waiters (whatever their background and nationality) at restaurants where the owner is part of the staff.

Mona of Mona’s meals has written about all the above and much more. Read the full article here.

While all this talk may have put you off dinner, I now need to specify that some of the most memorable meals of my life were in Malta and there are restaurants I always run to when I’m back on the rock. Here are my recommendations.

Best for a taste of the Orient Nargile Lounge – If you’re anywhere in the south of Malta, I suggest you head immediately to Nagrile Lounge (Triq Tal-Gardiel, Marsascala, MSK 3801, 2163 6734 / 7974 7694) a daring restaurant in that it offers Arabic, Indian and Mediterranean dishes. The Arabic owner (who also speaks Maltese) is constantly hovering around and his waiters are usually Indian, which means that there at least you have a tie to the cuisine on offer. I once read a review of this place by a person who didn’t really think much of the food on offer here, but I find Nargile’s dishes refreshing in a local restaurant scene where creativity is not always a given.

During my latest visit this past June, I got into a conversation with one of the waiters, a man from Mumbai, who was very friendly and helpful when my mother told him she suffered of high pressure and therefore couldn’t eat overly salted food. He also compared the traditionalism of his home country to the open-mindedness of Europe, and admitted that before being offered the possibility to come to Malta, he’d had no idea where it was.

After our meal, my mother (a woman notoriously hard to please) was extremely satisfied with what she had eaten, and that alone should speak volumes. Just remember that during summer weekends the place can get pretty crowded and loud, so I’d suggest visiting during the week for a much more pleasant experience.

Best for Sushi Gochi – I might be biased by the fact that the first sushi I ever tried was at Gochi (St. Georges road, St. Julians), but after trying several other restaurants around the world I keep saying it’s the best I’ve ever tasted (though of course, I am sure once I visit Japan that will change). I am also sure that I keep returning to this cosy eatery not just for the fresh and slightly salty sushi, but also for the wonderful Japanese/Chinese staff (the Japanese bow lightly when they give you your food and are all smiles, the Chinese a bit more stern-looking) and the pretty courtyard with its couple of tables and chairs and delightful low tables and floor cushions. Gochi offers probably the most affordable sushi on the island – rolls are inexpensive although nigiri can seem a bit pricey. Order one of the platters on offer though and you get a fantastic maki and nigiri mix which is enough to feed three people for a little less than 30 euros. Finish off your meal with their strange but surprisingly good green tea cheesecake and a delicate green tea macciato.

Best for a quick snack Stella’s Coffee shop – I love Stella’s Coffee shop (Plaza shopping complex, Sliema, top floor) because it specialises in a range of well-made sweet and savory pancakes. After a day of shopping with my girlfriends, there’s nothing like a quick lunch with my favourite – rucola, parma ham, tomatoes and Bree. The smallness of the place means service is efficient and attentive.

Best for giant and original desserts Paparazzi – Though I am not particularly fond of Paparazzi’s (159, St. Georges Road, Paceville) food or service, I go again and again for their marvelous desserts. While most restaurants in Malta seem to only be able to provide ice cream and ready bought cakes, Paparazzi offers desserts with a twist. The sweet part of the menu is named ‘comfort zone’ for a reason, and if you order the chocolate fudge cake (the thought of which makes me drool even as I write this) prepare to eat up a big slab of mouth-watering goodness, or make sure a friend is willing to share. All those on diets beware – even simply glancing at the menu will add calories to your figure, so stay clear. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that this place gets away with its questionable no-smiles service because of its outdoor terrace which commands a great view over the sea.

For this particular post, I chose to recommend only those restaurants I had time to revisit during my latest trip to Malta. For more recommendations, check out my older posts about this beautiful little island.

-Text and photography by Denise Pulis @ www.travelwithdenden.wordpress.com

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