Maltese Food Like Grandma Used To Make, and other Antiks

Tuesday, our last day in Malta, consisted of visits to Rabat and Mdina, a pair of cities high up on a plateau in the center of the island. Rabat featured a small cathedral and some catacombs which had been used by many of the previous residents of the island, including Romans and Phoenicians. Mdina is an older city surrounded by a city wall, with lots of palaces and a large cathedral. There were some really ancient Norman-era walls and doors pointed out, and some fascinating door-knockers. After visiting these towns, we checked out the enormous dome church in Mosta, which is said to hold 12,000 people. It was bombed in World War II, causing minor damage and no injury to the 300 people in it at the time — a replica of the bomb is on display. The fact that the bomb failed to explode is regarded as a miracle, and was fully explained to us by a pious woman whose particular tapasya is to approach tourists and recite a Marianite poem to that effect, for free. It would be interesting to hear how that explanation plays to groups of tourists from Canterbury, Coventry, and even Dresden (tons of German tourists in this part of the world), on the behalf of whose cathedrals the saints were unable to intercede.

The place where we stayed had a business card of a very interesting-looking restaurant which we tried and failed to locate on Monday. We tried again Tuesday night, entering its suburb from a different direction, and we were lucky enough to find a local who knew about it and could give us simple yet correct directions there. It’s called Ir-Razzett L-Antik, and in a Slow Food way, is dedicated to preserving and presenting traditional Maltese cuisine. We ordered only three items, including a plate of assorted appetizers. The most interesting was a ftira, which is essentially a Maltese pizza. Instead of a cooked crust, it’s a thick slice of bread; instead of slathered tomato sauce, there’s a little tomato sauce; instead of a coat of melted mozzarella cheese, there are large chunks of herbed goat cheese (at least on the flavor we got). Our ftira also had Maltese sausage and fried potatoes on it. Altogether, it’s quite tall — it’d never fit in an American pizza box. The third thing we had was leg of pork which had been cooked for eight hours in wine and apples. Along with date tarts for dessert, we were stuffed, and all of it was insanely great. Maybe next time we’ll go back on Fridays when they have a Maltese Feast buffet.

[Ray continues…]

Our return to Sicily on Wednesday was pretty stupid until about 5 pm. We got up at 5 am, and had some coffee and orange juice that our wonderful hostess got up to serve us and some other guests who had an early plane. We went on the short downstairs walk to the ferry terminal an hour in advance, got right on and waited for it to leave, and had a pleasant 90-minute crossing once it got underway 15 minutes early. “Pleasant” if you ignored the Kevin Smith movie. I have decided that he is the anti-Clint Eastwood. Where Clint Eastwood is obsessed by showing how characters who appear to be as stolid and upstanding as he is are secretly a mess, Kevin Smith wants to show how his boring middle-class dopplegänger are secretly long suffering saints with secret disagreements with the Pope about the nature of God. It’s called Protestantism, Kevin. You didn’t invent it. What precisely is the drama in choosing not to be a publicist when you aren’t very good at it? Who invented the chase scene to get to your child’s school play and why isn’t he in prison or at least one of the torture museums that are the repository of broken mannequins throughout the world? Abu Ghraib will be one, you will live to see it.

The plans were to take a bus or train from the landing at Pozzallo to Ragusa, where we had a car reservation. Taxis into town were offered, but we got distracted by a Hertz outlet right at the ferry, and we decided to check it out. After helping two other customers into their cars, the agent told us it would be 400 euro instead of the 200 euro deal we’d already booked, so we rejected the idea. Meanwhile the taxis were all gone and a gate had closed making the walk into town a half hour instead of fifteen minutes. With all our luggage. We found the combination of buses to take to Ragusa, arriving there just before noon. It seemed strategic to delay our acceptance of the car an hour or so so that we’d avoid paying an extra day, so we ducked into a restaurant for a snack. This totally backfired, because when we got to the office we discovered that it was closed until 3:30 for lunch. There were a few drops from the sky, and we took shelter in front of the Europcar office. The guy in the bar wouldn’t let us use his bathroom. Finally the agents returned, we rented the car, and then the torrential rains began. Fortunately they didn’t last long, and we had a nice drive in a zippy new little Opel diesel to Siracusa, where we’re deciding where to have dinner.

[The next morning…]

Where we decided to have dinner, Don Camillo, is a highly rated restaurant that is resting just a bit on its laurels and on the backs of tourists. Just for example, the soundtrack from a neighboring table was a loud lady from L.A. One of the nicest things about traveling in Islam is that a big chunk of American tourists are afraid to go there. They have been replaced by Germans. Anyway, about Don Camillo. A couple of years ago we were with James Shaiman and I forget who else eating at one of the almost-good restaurants that cluster around B44 in the Fisherman’s-Wharf-For-Yuppies quarter of the Financial District, and when the time came to order wine, we asked for a suggestion and the waiter made a show of discussing and pondering and said we should get some Rioja and I forget if it was right after he turned around or when the wine arrived, that James said, “He was going to recommend that wine no matter what we said.”

Well, Don Camillo is definitely one of those. I have no clue about Sicilian white wines but I thought I ought to try one some time and before the words were even out of my mouth the sommelier said, “With your menu, I suggest the bla-bla-bla.” I am just not combative enough. If I had the personality to support it, I would say, “What did we order, smart-ass?” but I don’t know any Italian, I’m a stranger to the whole area, and I have a soupçon of Asperger’s so I just trust them. The wine came. It was pretty much Kendall Jackson Chardonnay made a touch more inaccessible by whatever means vintners use to make wine people raise their eyebrow. It was only €18 so no great loss. The shrimp in the shrimp and tomato ceviche was a little tacky, like it had been in the fridge too many hours, or maybe frozen, I’m no expert. The spaghetti with swordfish chunks and pignon nuts suspended in a kind of raisin in applesauce base was great. The fried albacore (is that what “alalunga” means? The waiter didn’t know) with onion marmalade was also very nice. After two weeks in the Canned Tuna Zone (why do Tunisians put canned tuna in everything? And who told the Maltese that was what to imitate in Tunisian culture?) we needed tuna. The fennel salad was a cut up fennel bulb. This is a bold stroke; I think it would work even better if the EU was not mandating that all fennel be the giant bulbs you get in California that are all crunch. These were better than California but drifting in that direction. Olive oil and vinegar on the side. Nero d’Avola vinegar. Nice to have something besides balsamic. The Italians seem to be descending toward putting balsamic vinegar in everything just like home. It’s the new catsup. Dessert was way better than California. Some kind of soaked chocolate cake, underneath a pistachio cream of some kind, underneath a couple of other jam and cream layers. I think all Italian desserts are secretly trying to be tiramisú but that is not the worst life goal.