Food, food, food… what better way to delve into a country’s heart than through the cravings of its stomach? In keeping with stereotypical images of ripe red tomatoes and cloudy olive oil stirred by any mention of the Mediterranean, Malta does not disappoint. Maltese culinary delicacies are the result of mixing local produce with hundreds of years of foreign influence. From platters of Maltese cheese and sundried tomatoes to main courses of fresh fish and local pasta dishes, dining is sure to be a highlight of any holiday in Malta and Gozo.
What to keep an eye out for
More rustic than delicate, traditional Maltese food is an eclectic mix of seasonal produce and Mediterranean influence taking you through local delights from breakfast through to dinner. With a promise to clog up your arteries should too many be consumed, pastizzi – puff pastry parcels filled with a mixture of mushy peas or ricotta – are traditionally eaten for breakfast. That said, they are mouth-wateringly delicious at any time of the day as a quick snack. They can be bought across the Maltese Islands from small snack shops that you are sure not to miss. Another snack that no local will ever tire of eating is hobz biz-zejt, crusty Maltese bread rubbed with ripe tomatoes and dipped in olive oil. This is a particular favourite in the summertime, eaten on the beach in the post-swimming haze of food cravings.
Most Maltese restaurants offer platters of seasonal Maltese appetizers that are ideal for sampling the little bits and pieces that are resident in any traditional Maltese fridge. Among others, gbejniet (local sheep or goat cheese, eaten both fresh and cured), zalzett Malti (Maltese sausage, filled with herbs), galletti (Maltese water crackers), bigilla (broad bean dip), sundried tomatoes and stuffed olives are part of any Maltese platter and are also widely available in any local supermarket. Malta’s national dish is rabbit, fried or stewed in ample amounts of garlic and wine. Though not eaten regularly, rabbit is most often enjoyed as part of a fenkata. A fenkata is a gathering of family and friends for the purpose of feasting on rabbit, copious amounts of wine and, curiously, snails as appetizers. Some other traditional main dishes to keep in mind when perusing Maltese menus are lampuki pie (a fish pie made during the seasonal catches of lampuki or dorado), bragioli (stuffed beef rolls), ross il-forn and imqarrun (baked rice and pasta) and ravjul (the Maltese version of ravioli, often filled with Gozitan gbejniet). This is all polished off with rounds of imqaret (date-filled pastries) or kannoli (sweet ricotta-filled pastries).
Where to dine
Any visitor to Malta should expect to find a vast assortment of options when it comes to dining venues and cuisines, from Italian and other Mediterranean dishes to Indian curries and the ever increasing sushi trend. Nestled among the variety of foreign cuisine are the restaurants, both new and old, serving up favourite Maltese dishes. The fenkata, of course, promises a uniquely Maltese experience. Many restuarants nowadays serve rabbit but the traditional fenkata is best enjoyed in rural restaurants in small towns and villages that are often off the tourist radar. These restaurants include Ta’ Soldi, United Bar and Ta’ l-Ingliz, all of which are located in Mgarr.
Being surrounded by the Mediterranean, it comes as no surprise that fish and other seafood are widely enjoyed across the Maltese Islands. Marsaxlokk is Malta’s traditional fishing village and its Sunday fish market remains a favourite among locals and tourists. Some of the Islands’ best fish restaurants can be found in Marsaxlokk, including Tartarun Fish Restaurant, Hunter’s Tower, Ristorante dell’ Arte and the Marsaxlokk Water Polo Club. Other restaurants that offer superb seafood dishes as well as other traditional Maltese dishes include Tal-Familja in Marsascala, Del Borgo in Birgu, Ta’ Bertu in St. Paul’s Bay and Da Luigi in Rabat.
Malta’s sister island of Gozo is synonymous with traditional dining with most restaurants cooking up delicious plates of rabbit and fish. Among these dishes are other local meals teeming with rustic flavour. Gozitan pizzas come on a dough base that is slightly more bread-like than the thin Italian-style pizza. Interestingly, Gozitan pizzas often include a layer of thinly sliced potato, which causes a double take when looking at a menu but proceeds to hold extra flavour when being consumed. Another dish to keep an eye out for in Gozo is ravjul (ravioli). Gozitan ravjul are most often filled with Gozitan cheese (gbejniet) and served with a basic tomato sauce, allowing the rich flavour of the cheese to permeate the basic sauce. Marsalforn and Xlendi, both by the sea, are favourite locations for dining in both summer and winter. The Boathouse and Ta’ Karolina, located next to each other in Xlendi, as well as Arzella and Il-Kartell in Marsalforn, are well worth a visit at both lunch and dinner for typical Gozitan feasts.
When it comes to variety, however, no location in Malta or Gozo can beat Sliema and St. Julians. As the commercial centre of Malta and Gozo, Sliema’s restaurants and cafes are well renowned for lunchtime treats. And, as the centre of nightlife, St. Julian’s offers a dense variety of restaurants from which to choose. The semi-circular Spinola Bay in St. Julian’s is a good place to walk about when in search of a restaurant for lunch or dinner. With most restaurants there being renowned for tasty well-priced food, dining out in Spinola is rarely disappointing. Restaurants to keep in mind in the St. Julian’s and Sliema area include fine dining at Barracuda, Zest, Blue Elephant or The Terrace Restaurant as well as great food at reasonable prices such as at Piccolo Padre Pizzeria, Gululu Restaurant, Wigi’s Kitchen, Peppino's and Gochi.