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Less is much more

The feeling is that of being invited to the kitchen of an Italian family home.

The feeling is that of being invited to the kitchen of an Italian family home.

Salvinos
32, Archbishop Street,
Valletta
Tel: 2123 5598

Food: 8/10
Service: 9/10
Ambience: 8/10
Value: 8/10
Overall: 8/10

In design terms, it is usually beneficial to do more with less, if I may steal a phrase from the great Buckminster Fuller. Van der Rohe, the German architect, was renowned for the phrase ‘less is more’ even before Mr Fuller applied it to engineering. They believed that reducing design to its bare essentials could create beauty and function. Generalising this theme, one could rather naively apply this to minimalism in general.

Of course, this is just one school of thought. Had this been the only form of thinking we would have very little by way of decoration.

Walking through Valletta, particularly if you are to look up and above eye level, you’ll see that there is plenty of decoration that’s added to our buildings and our city is all the more beautiful as a result.

Look inside our churches for more about decoration. Sometimes, I wonder whether the amount of decoration in some of the smaller churches will one day take over the entire space, leaving no room for a congregation. Beauty would have prevailed, at the entire expense of function.

Maybe, it’s our location in the south of the Mediterranean, perhaps it is centuries of being ruled by egos like those of the grandmasters or maybe we simply weren’t around when good taste was being handed out. Whatever the reason, we like to complicate matters. Adding, rather than subtracting, is too often seen as a good thing.

I’ve seen menus that described spaghetti carbonara as a dish that included eggs, bacon, grated parmeggiano, mushrooms, peas, onions and the famous ‘touch of cream’. My heart sinks before my stomach has the time to.

The dish was created to combine three ingredients that form the ideal ménage à trois – guanciale, eggs and pecorino romano. Adding to this most holy of trinities can only subtract from the beauty of the result.

I recently went to a rather fabled restaurant in Għar Lapsi. They do fish quite well so I ordered a pasta dish for starters thinking that the kitchen should be capable of executing what they described as ‘rizzi and calamari’. Each of these gives its life to provide us with the most exquisitely fragile of flavours. In this case they’d been boiled down into a thick, tomato-laden stew that tasted of garlic and anchovy and herbs and spices so there was no hint of either of the headline acts.

And while the terrible dish sounds like an act of kitchen terrorism, it is simply a reflection of the demands made by the market that pays for dining out. How can I blame a kitchen for delivering a product that the public is expecting?

Luckily, like there’s room for excesses, there is also the soothing tranquillity of restraint. And that’s what today’s account is about.

Salvino’s in Valletta has changed hands a few times over the past decade or so and every iteration brought with it a different style of cuisine. The latest incarnation is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an Italian restaurant. I’ve been a couple of times and walked away with a smug smile of satisfaction. The first couple of times I figured I’d wait a while. Consistency is paramount when you’re enjoying such a marvellous location.

The restaurant is practically dug out of St George’s square in Valletta so it is a hop, a skip and a jump away from the President’s Palace. This makes it very central but it’s conveniently tucked away so the atmosphere inside the little space is tranquil and quiet.

A couple run the place. I’ll call them Mr and Mrs because I never asked their names. Mr is this quietly charming man who, in his unhurried way, keeps up with every single table with the elusive knack of making every patron feel like they’re his only guest. His knowledge of food is encyclopaedic and he must discuss the day’s speciality with Mrs because he describes the dish like he’s tasted it and loved every bit.

Their menu is typical of an Italian restaurant with antipasti, pasta dishes, main courses and salads that chiefly draw from the core cookbook.

I walked in for lunch on a weekday without a reservation and we managed the last table available. The three of us had a hard time deciding because we’d each been enchanted by the prospects of at least three dishes.

We finally made up our minds. I was all set on the speciality of the day – pasta with fresh sea bass and cherry tomatoes. When we’d ordered I succumbed to the pressure that the cavernous void in my stomach was exerting and asked if he’d sort out a couple of little dishes for us to share as we waited.

The tidily understated presentation keep pretentions at bay

He suggested either the calamari in umido or house cured salmon. We’ll have both, thank you. I suspect that if he’d rattled off a list of four dishes I’d have asked for all of them. My brain plays this sort of trick on me.

Our starters were served within a rather short time and we started with the salmon because the little squid stew was piping hot. The salmon had been cut slightly thicker than a carpaccio and cured in lemon and in olive oil, served on a bed of rocket leaves and very simply seasoned with pepper and salt. This runs rings around most of the smoked salmon available on the market (unless you’re prepared to pay caviar prices) and makes such a refreshing change.

The squid stew is also a simple affair with tender bits of squid and cubes of potato in a simple tomato sauce. The pervasive flavour of the squid gave way to a subtle chilli kick at the end and we soaked up every last drop of the sauce with chunks of fresh Maltese bread.

The feeling so far is that of being invited to the kitchen of an Italian family home. The pared back cooking, the emphasis on fresh ingredients and the tidily understated presentation keep pretentions at bay, letting the food speak for itself.

Ever mindful of the time, our main courses were served together and quite soon after we’d finished our antipasti. The baked sea bream is served as a fillet that is completely covered with thin slices of potato that’s been baked to a crisp, golden finish.

Even though I had a delightful plate of pasta in front of me I just had to dig into the fish across the table. As I’d expected, it was tender and moist and, if I am to moan a little, perhaps too fatty for a fish.

Then again, that’s got to do with the provenance of ingredients that make it to our market and force-fed fish will inevitably taste a little more oily than its siblings that actually hunt for their food.

I then blagged some of the fried squid. It’s artfully done so the fry is dry and crisp and the squid inside the batter is just tender enough to keep a textured bite without falling to bits. On the side is a lovely onion marmalade that’s sweet and tart all at once.

For once, I felt like I’d made the best choice of main course. My pasta was another exercise in simple goodness with an elegant sauce that tasted of fresh fish and excellent olive oil. The fragrant liquid was just viscous enough to cling to the al dente spaghetti.

When one can produce a masterpiece out of this simplicity, it is hard to justify any more complicated approach to pasta with fish.

While I would have loved one of the little fruit tarts they have for dessert, we simply didn’t have the time for another course so we paid just over €20 each and walked back out and onto the streets of our splendid capital. The simplicity and the restraint made for an informal, charming, tasty and inexpensive meal.

It really is an argument in favour of stripping away the excess and celebrating the essentials that are left behind when you do so.

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