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Mona's Meals | Sunday, 09 August 2009
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Not reinventing the pizza wheel

I took the staff out to lunch. That’s the staff from the job that pays me a salary, rather than this, which is like a demented hobby. We went to Tal-Familja, pleaser of all and sundry with its never-ending menu pandering to all tastes. The ladies had a creek worth of seafood, which was the original intention behind choosing this particular restaurant. Hello Kitty had Penne Alfredo.
My flabber was gasted. “Penne Alfredo? What on earth is that?” I asked him with more curiosity than is deemed healthy between boss and minion. “It’s pasta with bacon, mushrooms and cream.” “But we’re in a fish place,” I spluttered, flabber completely destroyed by now. “I’m fishophobic” he replied, flicking his pretty mascara-ed eyes my way before proceeding to hate meat and vegetables. He stopped at “and you” and bursting into tears. “What do you eat?” I asked him. “Pasta, pizza, burgers, chicken nuggets.” Well, he didn’t quite put it like that, but that’s what I intimated.
I sacked them all.
Now seriously, of course I did not. I have seen this before, and as we go along, I see it more and more: a good chunk of the generation that is currently in its twenties has gone culinarily haywire. They are the ones that had Micky D’s in their immediate environment when it first opened in Malta, and parents who deemed this a post-Mintoffian treat, thereby taking them frequently, organising all their birthday parties in it. They are from the generation of ‘il-benna tal-Mulej’ which comes in packets, in perfectly-cut squares and circles, mostly ‘bread’ crumbed, all bought from supermarkets.
This is a generation which has never seen a real animal let alone watched it being slaughtered and then ate its brain. They want their food to be as far from the source as is decently possible because the reality has blood and it scares them. They eat beef patties as long as they come in a bun, fish as long as it has fingers, pizza from uncle Alfredo. It’s the carb-laden generation and they will all grow tits and bellies for it. Yes, even the men.
Years ago we organised a slap-up New Year’s Eve dinner at our house. We had pheasant, venison and vintage champagne. Yet one of us told me, just a day before, that she would “just have a burger” because she “really do not like this”, meaning the real food. Later I realised that frozen stuff was all she ate.
And they’re all at it. HK’s bestie, La Lohan, was in Gozo, probably looking for himself, as we all do at that age. He was hungry, so he Twittered me: “Need place to eat, but I only eat pizza.” I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. He only eats pizza.
So I found him a place to go, albeit not on the sister isle, my reasoning being that if you’re going to restrict your food experiences to a flat disc of dough topped with anything, then at least make it the best base, the most amazing toppings, the best surroundings.
The news is that Vecchia Napoli has been toppled off its throne. Margo’s, the new kid on the pizza block has swiped the crown, complete with jewels and prestige, and ran away with it like a naughty little child.
Claude Camilleri, chef patron at Palazzo Santa Rosa, has been dreaming of and working on this project for years. From something that was almost a joke (Will he? Won’t he?) Margo’s was born. It’s a baby right now, but it has the potential of out-growing its mum, the PSR next door.
Never one to do things by halves, Claude went to Naples with a shopping list and returned with a pizzaiolo, some ovens, wood for burning, the best DOC mozzarella he could find, flour, a passion-driven knowledge of the subject in question and even a DOC certification for Margo’s itself. Presumably, they were not all in his hand-luggage.
The situation with pizza in Malta is so tragic that out of hundreds of pizzerie, we can single out just a couple that actually produce an approximation of the real thing. That coupling now includes Margo’s. Everybody else is literally reinventing the wheel: experimenting with ridiculous ready-mixes for dough, imitating the Americans with their bath-deep wheat mix, using instant everything, electric ovens, the whole shebang.
In the vicinity of our village, there is a particular take-away which gives you the world and its mother on its pizza. “Do you want sweet and sour sauce with that?” the guy behind the counter had asked TW when he once ordered the ‘special’ (which included pork, prawns, cheese, mushrooms and shellfish.) The ‘quattro formaggi’ had blue Danish, Benna gbejna, sliced processed ‘cheese’ and Danish mozzarella. We giggled - they thought we were taking the piss and stared openly at us. We just stared at the pizzas. Yet everybody else was taking
their rota tal-karrettun-sized portion very seriously indeed.
In Malta, pizza is not about the ingredients - it’s about size and quantity of topping. This
disgustorama is as far from what Claude is doing, which is as similar to anything Neapolitan as the Camorra, yet friendlier. Claude has taken that horrible sala at the back of the PSR and turned it into a huge space for pizza aficionados, complete with painting-covered walls, artichoke chandeliers and a general bright atmosphere. Thankfully, he has not tried to recreate a Neapolitan setting, descending into the tacky. Luckily for us, he also has a very large outside space surrounded by aged trees. The tables are marble, the chairs uncomfortable.
The bread basket comes with huge olive crackers, kitchen-made grissini coated with sesame seeds, a thoroughly fantastic olive oil brioche, Maltese bread with the crunchiest of crusts, and if you ask nicely, buffalo butter: one taste of its sweet softness and you’ve had it with anything that comes out of a cow’s udder forever.
We tried the salad. It puts to shame all local ideas of the ‘caprese’ once and for all in such a simple way that I wonder if most people will get it: a base of rocket, sweet cherry tomatoes, a few basil leaves and the most whey-laden ball of fresh Campania cheese I have ever had in Malta. When I pushed the tangs through, it cried with happiness.
The same quality of mozzarella is being used for their pizza. One slice of the Margherita and you realise that when the Italians (and Claude) say that everything else is not pizza, they are right. This is not some ludicrously everlong menu so there are only eight topping choices to go through; the other seven are almost equally fabulous.
The fragrant fumes emanating from burning all that oak is not going to waste: the pizzaiolo, who is called Pasquale (well he would be, wouldn’t he), and Claude have placed mozzarella balls in the chimney and smoked them. They are using the result in the Affumicata, which is also lovely, with its manly, salty overtones and undertones.
The dough is exactly as it should be: thin in the centre and puffy on the sides. It is left to rise for hours and Pasquale told me that they had been experimenting with location in order to get the best results. An initial batch was thrown straight into the bin: they had left it under a tree and the ants attacked it. I have no idea where the process is taking place now, but presumably, it is away from the little busy bastards.
In all their pizzas, they use San Marzano tomatoes (also being brought over from Naples until the seeds they have sown grow into full-blown plants and fruit). The red coating is no slick of tasteless sauce but a bright, horror-film dripping of what tomatoes should taste like: sun, fields and general happiness.
We loved it so much we went back a couple of days later, only to find that the outside area was packed. Claude had sent out one of his never-ending prosaic (and slightly potty) mail-shots in order to tell people Margo’s was on soft-opening. In other words: ‘come along and try it, but we’re still sorting ourselves out.’
They need to, and I am positive they will. On our second night, the management had gone a little haywire. Pizzas which had, on our first visit, taken minutes to come out, were taking a full forty-five minutes to appear. The new members of staff need to get their act together because they have it all here: a boss who is obsessed with good food and who will support them and, at PSR, staff who are equally enthusiastic, polite and generally lovely.
The desserts are Palazzo Santa Rosa lite, for which read ‘Claude’s obsession with the raw ingredient’: a rum baba in the style of Alain Ducasse, drenched in alcohol and topped with a ball of their own ice-cream, Valhrona chocolate based mousses, and loads of ices which are all made in-house. They are huge, which is not something I normally enjoy especially after a carb-fest, but hey, I’m not spoiling it for everybody.
Margo’s is in Mistra Bay and it takes us on average a full 45 minutes to drive there from our house every time we get a craving. Malta is full of pizzerias, most of them producing crap. As far as I’m concerned, if I’m going to sin, then I will do it with a vengeance. The young ‘uns who do not know better yet might try doing the same. They’ll be getting a culinary education in the process.

 


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