“It will be a long drive,” says our guide, Carmelo. He’s right, but I don’t care. My mother and I worked up an appetite exploring the southern part of Malta. Now we need pastizzi ta’ l-irkotta. I already ate two of the savory pastries filled with creamy ricotta at breakfast. These perfect, boat- shaped specimens have a crispy crust and velvety filling. Still, no matter how many pastizzi I eat, I always want more — even if it means driving to the other side of the island.
Before I can request the lengthy detour across the island to the town of Rabat, Carmelo offers a compromise. “Let me ask a friend where we might find a good pastizzeria nearby.” He digs his cell phone out of his pocket and begins dialing.
“Should we just wait and grab something from the hotel?” my mother asks. “I’m sure they’re serving lunch by now. And we shouldn’t inconvenience Carmelo here.” I shake my head. Pastizzi are serious business in Malta. Back at home and on all of my travels, I’ve been hard pressed to find my favored cheese variety or its sibling, pastizzi tal pizelli, filled with a spicy pea mash. I’m willing to inconvenience our driver if that’s what it takes to find a reputable shop.
Carmelo hangs up the telephone. “My friend told me of four places along the way,” he says as he backs the cab out of our parking space. “I will take you to the one that is best. My friend tells me the baker is originally from Rabat.”
Over my several visits to Malta, I’ve learned that eating pastizzi is a little dangerous. They are best purchased — and eaten — straight out of the oven, which imparts a high risk of tongue burn. They can be a little messy. After indulging, I often spend a good five minutes brushing buttery crust flakes from my shirt. Pastizzi’s ingredients, unfortunately, mean that they are not a low-fat treat. Whenever I learn a friend is heading to Malta, I do my best to describe this addictive food’s appeal. It’s somewhat frustrating — I can only rely on other cultures’ foodstuffs to help bring it to life. And this does not do my favored Maltese snack the right kind of justice.
“Its pastry is kind of like the puff pastry used in Greek baklava,” I tell them. “The cheese is a slightly lighter & saltier brand of traditional Sicilian ricotta. And the spices in the pea version are the kind of flavors you’d find in Spanish tapas.” But without taking a bite, it’s nearly impossible to explain how all of these “like” ingredients combine to form something utterly Maltese.
Malta is of a unique character, after all. The island’s heritage is a blend of all the cultures that have rested on its gorgeous lands over the past few centuries. Phoenicians, Arabs, Italians and even the British have laid claim to the island at one time or another. Explore the streets of this island, and you may think you are in a typical Mediterranean island town. But it’s all in the details. As Carmelo navigates the narrow roads along the countryside, I spy wooden balconies with a North African flair, bright-red public phone boxes straight from Old London and enough churches and chapels to make a hard-core Sicilian swoon with envy. Pastizzi, I know, is emblematic of these cultural fusions. “Trust me,” I tell my mother. “This will be worth it.”
“Of course it will,” Carmelo chimes from the driver’s seat. “Pastizzi have been here for more than 400 years,” he says. “Archaeologists say old merchant ledgers list pastizzi even before the time of the knights who built Valletta.” I chuckle to myself. I can all too well imagine that these knights had as many pastizzi flakes decorating their tunics and chain mail as traditional Maltese crosses. They surely couldn’t find them any easier to resist than I can.
And the love has endured. Walk outside in any town after Sunday mass, and you’ll find pastizzeria and mobile kiosks doing brisk business. Uniformed school-children use their pocket money to grab pastizzi as a snack on the way home. Enter a cafe at 4 p.m., and you may find a group of Maltese ladies enjoying them with some sugar and a cup of English tea. You can even buy a box of frozen pastizzi at Maltese supermarkets to heat up at home for late-night cravings.
We arrive at the shop: a small store-front with a nearly unnoticeable sign in a slightly run-down neighborhood near Qormi. I thank Carmelo for his heroic efforts and ask if we might get him something for his trouble. He shakes his head and gestures to his rotund belly, which is resting against the car’s steering wheel. “My wife tells me I love pastizzi too much. I shouldn’t.” But once I start for the shop, he calls after me. “Maybe just two of the pea ones, please,” he concedes. “Three if they look a bit on the small side.”
As we walk into the store, the baker pulls a rack of fresh pastizzi ta’ l-irkotta from the oven. The smell of crinkly fresh pastry and ricotta is intoxicating — I request two before he can place the tray on a cooling rack. He wraps each one in a napkin and hands them over the counter. With the first bite, my mouth fills with butter and cheese. Flakes of pastry scatter like confetti. My mother follows my lead, uttering a loud “Mmmm” as she takes her own first bite. They’re so good; I order two cheese ones for the road. I get Carmelo four pea ones — just to be safe.