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An affordable trip to Puglia

Mandraggio in Valletta.

Mandraggio in Valletta.

Ed eats

Mandraggio
1, Mattia Preti Square,
Valletta
Tel: 7902 4143

Food: 7/10
Location: 8/10
Service: 8/10
Value: 9/10
Overall: 8/10

By and large, we’re a lazy bunch. Hot on the heels of a very well-attended marathon, this might sound like an odd statement. But, I spotted people there whom I’ve previously seen trying to park their cars so close to their front doors that they could open neither.

It’s not just the walking that seems to bother us. Driving a distance that’s longer than can be safely covered within 10 minutes is instantly deemed far away. I was speaking to a French guy who has been tainted by our mentality for just under a year now and he hesitated to visit a restaurant in St Paul’s Bay, because he had to drive all the way from St Julian’s. I stared at him for a while, incredulous, and asked whether he’d drive to Paris from his hometown of Reims, a drive I’ve managed in just under two hours, and he said he did so on a regular basis.

That’s when he realised what living here had done to him and he, too, was in shock for a while. I suppose that it is natural to adjust to the scale of our Islands but it helps to occasionally put distance into perspective.

I also pondered this while paying a tiny bill at a restaurant called Mandraggio in Valletta. I’d eaten what I considered a pretty decent selection of Pugliese cuisine and the restaurant wasn’t packed. I’m guessing that those lucky enough to work in Valletta must consider the five-minute walk to be a bit too far away.

Mandraggio has all that it takes to make us Maltese happy. The first time I visited, I was tempted by the antipasti. These were described as a selection of cold and warm antipasti, spanning the sea and the land, for €15. We could then decide whether we’d want to progress to a plate of pasta, or even a pizza. The lovely lady who took care of us that Saturday afternoon made it clear that there was no rush, that we could decide after the antipasti and that they’d be quick to sort things out for us.

Hearing this made me a little wary. How could this bounty be available at the prices we’d pay in Sicily and Southern Italy and yet there was hardly anyone having lunch there? I didn’t think it was the quality of the food, because the recommendation came from someone I really trust.

Mandraggio has all that it takes to make us Maltese happy

Then, just to confirm that I’d be in for good food, two people I know walked in for lunch and they are both the kind of gourmand I respect. They’re serious and passionate about what they eat and they said Mandraggio had become something of a favourite. One of them was running 42 kilometres the next day and he’d driven all the way from somewhere far, far, away to enjoy his carbohydrate loading. And he’s admirable for more than just his dedication to food.

I told them what I’d ordered and that I had a pizza in mind for later. They gave me a knowing look that suggested I wouldn’t make it that far. But I’d ordered and was all set for the antipasti, so I figured I’d just have to wait and see.

This style of eating reminds me of several unrelated kitchens that are similar in their approach to serving a large number of small portions of food, meant to satisfy a desire for novelty of flavour, temperature, texture, and colour. Tapas, mezes, thali, and even the degustation menu at your favourite Michelin starred restaurant have the same destination in mind, even if they arrive via a very different route. Even when faced with the difficult decision of choosing little savoury pastries at Fatajer in Gzira, I tend to choose six different items.

Soon after we’d ordered, a bowl of freshly-baked bread and focaccia made it to our table and it was all lovely and warm. They bake huge loaves of bread and these are tantalisingly on display on your way into the restaurant so I was very pleased that bits of it had made it to my table.

We started with cold antipasti and these covered our table at an amazing rate. The salmon that had been marinated in orange for 24 hours was sliced thinly like a carpaccio and made for a refreshing take on smoked salmon. The orange is present but not intense, and it had gently cured the flesh so it hadn’t lost its texture. Two cheeses came in the form of a ball of Pugliese mozzarella, served on a generous bed of rucola and simply dressed with olive oil, and a portion of ricotta, also drizzled with olive oil. The ricotta was sensational and I had to turn my attention to the rest of the tableto prevent myself from ordering more.

A selection of meze.A selection of meze.

Next up were bell peppers, slightly sweet and still very firmly tasting of the capsicum family they belong to. The cold antipasti ended with octopus that had been cooked to just the right shade of tender and served with a lively dressing of garlic, parsley, lemon, olive oil and white wine. By now I’d eaten so much of the bread, dipping it into the liquids that each food item left behind, that I resigned myself to forgetting about pizza later on.

Another friendly lady cleared up our table, asking if we’d enjoyed the meal so far and if there was anything else we needed. Everyone we spoke to acted like they were genuinely happy to be doing what they’re doing and take immense pride in it. She retuned with our warm antipasti, starting with gratin mussels. These aren’t my favourite because they usually mean that an inferior bivalve had been concealed but this was not the case and I thoroughly enjoyed them.

I’d somehow expected a Parmigiana and was pleased with the one they’d served, with aubergine that had been allowed to retain a firm texture and steeped in a savoury sauce. Possibly better than the mussels, the prawn gratin was a rather large prawn that had been opened into a neat butterfly cut and baked gently so it retained its moisture and flavour. From higher ground came a little stew of fresh salsiccia and mushrooms that tasted of winter and a roaring fireplace.

As much as I wanted to eat another three courses, I had to stop there. As I sat, pleased with the contents of my belly and dreaming of what the pizza could have tasted like, I resolved to return very soon. I picked up my phone and called my dad.

He’d love this food and would put up with me for an hour while I tasted the pizza. As soon as I hung up, a slice of pizza made its way from my friend’s table with a superfluous, “you just have to taste this”. I did and it was excellent, with that gorgeous mozzarella melted on a sourdough base.

This wasn’t enough. I popped by their table on my way out and stuck a fork into their plate of spaghetti carbonara.

This was quite possibly the weakest link. I’m all for guanciale in my carbonara and this had sliced ham as a weak substitute. I tried not to allow this to taint my impression of the kitchen.

Two days later, I returned. I’d tasted the pizza so decided to go for the antipasti again, this time sharing the experience with my dad.

There were only two dishes that were repeated, showing a kitchen with quite a repertoire. I won’t describe them all but will give an honourable mention to the aubergine involtini, and the stew of tiny cuttlefish, and the goulash that is worth returning for.

At €15 for a little feast and very decently-priced wine list, there can be no excuses.

We’re the laziest country on the continent but we ought to move a little, especially when there’s plenty of food to consume at the end of it.

Just think of it as an affordable trip to Puglia with none of the annoying travel to contend with. I’ll be back for sure, only next time I’ll start with the pizza.

You can send e-mails about this column to edeats@gmail.com.

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