Eat your heart out: an introduction to Maltese cuisine

By Stephanie Campisi

With its wide-ranging menu of traditional and international cuisine, Malta is making a name for itself as a foodie destination in the heart of the Mediterranean.

Though small in scale, the island nation of Malta is big on history, culture – and cuisine. Numerous cultures have left their stamp on the country’s culinary identity, resulting in dishes and flavours in combinations you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Little wonder the locals love to eat: there are some 2000 restaurants serving a population of just 493,000.

From stuffed pastries and fresh-caught seafood to rich desserts and home-grown wines, Maltese cuisine promises to be one of the many highlights of a trip to this Mediterranean marvel.

A melting pot of cultures and cuisines

Surprisingly, you'll find vineyards in Malta (pictured: Marsaxlokk)
Surprisingly, you’ll find vineyards in Malta (pictured: Marsaxlokk)

A small archipelago south of Sicily, Malta has had a long and storied history. Positioned along major trade routes and long considered a handy strategic outpost, the islands have felt the influence of the Sicilians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, the French and the British – along with the Knights of St John.

It’s probably no surprise, then, that Malta’s cuisine is a delicious melting pot of dishes and tastes. Here, rustic rabbit stews, Middle Eastern-style flatbreads, Mediterranean-inspired grilled fish and even thick cut potato chips are all on the menu.

Malta takes pride in its culinary traditions and trades. In addition to an endless variety of freshly caught seafood on offer at the market, you’ll also find honey, olive oil and even salt, all produced locally using age-old methods. Because there’s so much emphasis on the local and the traditional, what’s on offer rotates out with the seasons.

While Malta may not immediately come to mind as a major destination for wine lovers, it’s been busy producing reds, whites and even rosés for years. Alongside the usual Cab Sauvignon, Moscatos and Merlots, you’ll also find indigenous varieties like Gellewza and Ghirghentina on offer. However, production is so boutique that Maltese wine isn’t exported – so consider packing a bottle to take home.

Traditional tastes to tempt your palate

Malta is home to dozens of unique dishes. These are just a few worth seeking out.

Fenkata

Fenkata with a view
Fenkata with a view

Widely considered Malta’s national dish, Fenkata means “rabbit”, and is a dish that can be served in a variety of ways. Most common are fried (fenkat moqli) or stewed (stuffat tal-fenek), although you’ll find baked and stuffed varieties too. Nougat, peanuts, chips and fresh bread are often served on the side. Fenkata is typically enjoyed when family or friends come together to celebrate or during Maltese festivities.

Stuffat Tal-Qarnit

A slow-cooked stew starring freshly caught octopus as the main ingredient, stuffat tal-qarnit combines both Sicilian and Arabic culinary influences with delicious results. Tal Familja in the Marascala countryside offers a traditional take, while The Medina Restaurant in Mdina serves a popular contemporary interpretation of the dish.

Pastizzi

You're sure to have one of these freshly baked pastizzi every day
You’re sure to have one of these freshly baked pastizzi every day

These crispy-skinned pocket pastries are easily Malta’s most beloved street food. Made from a flaky pastry similar to Greek phyllo, and stuffed with delicious fillings including ricotta, peas and anchovies. Pastizzi can be found in small, hole-in-the-wall pastizzeria throughout the island, as well as at bars and shops. Often it’s a matter of following the tempting aroma – or the crowds. While pastizzeria abound, the Crystal Palace near the Roman Villa in Rabat is a local favourite.

Torta tal-lampuki

You'll see the popular lampuki fish everywhere in Malta
You’ll see the popular lampuki fish everywhere in Malta

As the name suggests, the key ingredient of a torta tal-lampuki (lampuki pie) is a lampuka fish, more commonly known as the mahi-mahi. In addition to the lampuka, these savoury pies also feature spiced vegetables with a touch of Arabic and Italian flair. Mint, lemon, raisins, tomatoes, olives and capers are among the tastes you’ll pick up. Lampuki pies are largely an autumnal delicacy, coming into season as the lampuka does.

Bragioli

This hearty, rustic dish features spiced minced beef stuffing rolled in thinly sliced beef and simmered in a tomato-based sauce. The overall effect is of a “meat olive”, which is what bragioli literally translates to. Ta’ Kris Restaurant in Sliema has a reputation for plating up top-notch bragioli.

Gbejniet

Gbejniet, the small round goat milk cheese, is one of Malta's delicacies
Gbejniet, the small round goat milk cheese, is one of Malta’s delicacies

Roughly translating to “cheeselet”, ġbejniet are small cheeses made from goat’s milk and served up fresh, sun-dried or even cured. You’ll often find them drizzled in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and served up as a side dish, added to pasta or soups, or as a pizza topping.

Where to try those local flavours

From casual pastizzi to fine dining in a magnificent estate, Malta has something to tempt everyone’s palate. Below are a few must-try destinations.

Crystal Palace, Rabat

This hole-in-the-wall venue is easy to pass by, but it would be a travesty to do so. A local favourite, this tiny restaurant serves up traditional pastizzi and qassatat (pea pies), along with tea served the old-fashioned way: in glass cups. It’s a bargain as well – expect to pay just a euro or two for your meal.
Address: Triq San Pawl, Ir-Rabat
Phone: +356 2145 3323

Il-Horza Restaurant, Valetta

Moments from the Valetta’s Lower Barrakka Gardens, Il-Horza is a cozy subterranean venue seating a total of eight patrons at any given time. The menu brims with an upscale take on traditional Maltese dishes and wines, and the underground, cellar-like setting makes for a uniquely intimate setting.
Address: 6 St. Christopher’s Street, Il-Belt Valletta
Phone: +356 2122 6936

Sottozero – the Gelato Factory, Bugibba

It'll be difficult to say no to the ice cream at Sottozero ©Nocturne Malta
It’ll be difficult to say no to the ice cream at Sottozero ©Nocturne Malta

Right on the Bugibba waterfront on the way to the National Aquarium, Sottozero scoops up a delectable array of creamy gelato and sunny sorbets. Enjoy yours to-go as you stroll the quaint streets of this laid-back beachfront town.
Address: 44, Spring Street, Bugibba, St. Paul’s Bay
Phone: +356 2701 9339

Tartarun Restaurant, Marsaxlokk

Located in the traditional fishing village of Marsaxlokk, famed for its fish market, Tartarun plates up fresh fish and seafood in a rustic environment. The menu ranges from local to international, but it’s hard to go wrong with the catch of the day.
Address: 20 Xatt is-Sajjieda, Marsaxlokk
Phone: +356 2165 8089

United Bar & Restaurant, Mgarr

In Malta’s northwest between Mgarr’s Punic Tombs and its football ground, United Bar & Restaurant is a homely, well-priced spot focusing on traditional Maltese cuisine. Fenkata in all of its varieties makes up most of the menu, but you’ll also find summien (quail), bebbux (escargot) and qarnit (octopus).
Address: Triq il-Maghkuba, L-Imġarr MGR 1505
Phone: +356 7905 0283

Sally Port – Caffe and Pizzeria, Valetta

You're in for a treat at Sally Port © Sally Port - Caffe & Pizzeria
You’re in for a treat at Sally Port © Sally Port – Caffe & Pizzeria

With a fire-engine red facade and cheerful terrace umbrellas, Sally Port is as good a spot for taking photos as it is for dining. The menu compasses crispy calzones, fragrant wood-fired pizzas and stuffed puccia (pocket bread).
Address: 102, Triq San Bastjan, Valletta
Phone: +356 2730 2222

Ta’ Barbetta, Iż-Żejtun

This unassuming bakery has been serving the villagers of Iż-Żejtun since before World War II. Steps from the enormous Jesus of Nazareth Church, it’s a must-visit for freshly baked bread, cakes, biscuits, rolls and other Maltese treats.
Address: 101 Triq San Girgor, Iż-Żejtun
Phone: +356 2167 3774

The Fork and Cork, Rabat

Helmed by award-winning chef Carl Zahra, the Fork and Cork is a culinary gem hidden within the limestone walls of a 19th century family estate just outside Mdina. Serving up beautifully presented Mediterranean dishes with a wine list to match, it’s well worth the trip. The menu changes daily, but spans seafood, pasta and homemade desserts.
Address: Telgha Tas-Saqqajja, L-Imdina, Malta
Phone: +356 7904 7043

Qbajjar Restaurant, Gozo

Overlooking the ocean on the island of Gozo, Qbajjar Restaurant delivers magnificent views along with an impressive menu of Maltese and Mediterranean options ranging from seafood to pizza to rabbit-infused pasta. The fish soup and carpaccio are top picks.
Address: Triq Ix-Xwejni, Iż-Żebbuġ
Phone: +356 2155 1124

Nenu the Artisan Baker, Valletta

Dig in at Nenu The Artisan Baker
Dig in at Nenu The Artisan Baker © Nenu The Artisan Baker

A cheerful venue near the Basilica St Dominic, Nenu peeks its head out from between a dozen or so of Valetta’s famous painted doors. On the menu are a variety of authentic plates for sharing, as well as stews, pastas and meat dishes. Its key point of pride? Everything from the meat to the liquor is entirely Maltese-sourced.
Address: 143 St Domnic Street, Valletta
Phone: +356 2258 1535

Now that you’re in the know, go out and sample all these dishes. Bon appétit!

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