Qbajjar Bay, Gozo
Nothing much ever happens in Qbajjar. It is a peaceful, unassuming little Gozitan bay, an extension of Marsalforn that opens onto the limestone chequerboard of the Xwejni saltpans.
But the Tuscans have arrived – three affable friends, hailing from Florence, bringing with them a love of good, genuine cooking. They are not striving to emulate an Italian repertoire here. They have an innate understanding of this food. It is the food they have grown up with, that is very much a part of their lives – only now they have opened up their kitchen and widened their prospects.
This little trattoria has taken the place of the former restaurant, Chez Amand, a well-loved Gozitan institution run by the colourful Belgian chef of the same name.
Monsieur Amand had taken the Gozitan dining scene by storm when he opened his first restaurant well over three decades ago, with the one in Qbajjar being his last and final venture.
The restaurant’s layout hasn’t changed at all since Amand’s heyday. It was never much to look at and now its walls have been further violated, painted a revolting shade of purple, punctuated with red accents. These are the unfortunate colours of the Fiorentina football team, and so we are forced to forgive the three friends for this glaring colour calamity.
Beyond the walls, the restaurant bears its own brand of charm, unmanicured and untroubled by the clutches of interior design. There are no tablecloths, only brown paper mats. Everything has been kept simple and rustic, and I quite like it this way.
Apart from boasting pages of well-known Italian favourites, the menu also offers a number of vegan and vegetarian dishes like the quinoa burger and the timballo di zucchini.
The vegan pasta coi funghi is full of bite, the fusilloni tossed in a sauce composed of three different mushrooms and not much else. It is simple yet delectable, with meaty, leathery textures and good flavours. The sauce is pungent with toasted garlic and shallots and a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil. Seasoned with finely chopped fresh parsley, and a sprinkling of additional salt, the sauce was perfectly nice with just the right slippery oiliness to it.
The kind of hearty fare that makes you feel it’s been prepared by somebody who cares
A classic Italian primo piatto is what I have chosen, Lasagne alla Bolognese. We all adore lasagna. Utterly irresistible, it is the ultimate comfort food; a self-contained meal that is soothing and heart-warming. Hailing from Emilia-Romagna, this baked pasta dish underlines the richness of Bologna’s culinary tradition.
The lasagne at I Toscani is oh-so-good, just like a big-bosomed Italian nonna would make it. A sumptuous, multilayered affair, intensely savoury and brimming with flavour, it is exceptionally rich and filling. A thick, slow-cooked ragu is layered with ripe, robust flavours. It is moreishly meaty and tantalizingly tomatoey.
The mouth-watering ragu has been crammed between the alternated sheets of egg pasta, that interleave through the sauce, bearing the weight of it all. The creamy béchamel, sprinkled with parmesan cheese, had browned and crisped up beautifully; scorched in the heat of an oven. This is the lasagne’s crackling and it is fabulous.
This was as good a lasagne as I’ve eaten anywhere. It was served in a wide, shallow bowl which cleverly trapped in all the lasagne’s warmth and piping hot juices. I quite literally licked the bowl clean, mopping up every last heavenly trace of meaty gravy, cheese and béchamel.
The fifth basic taste, other than sweet, sour, salty and bitter, umami, the savoury taste, is what makes food exceptionally delicious. And Lasagne alla Bolognese has harnessed this savoury power with impeccable mastery. It has been sharing its umami goodness with the world for a long time, with its composition of umami-laden elements: meat, cheese (particularly parmesan cheese) and tomato.
It is, perhaps, the ultimate in umami pairings. Umami’s synergistic effects all work wonderfully well together in this splendid amalgamation of savoury substances.
Fighting a colossal carb crash I approach the shared main course. I breathe in deeply, it’s a bistecca alla fiorentina. This particular hunk of meat was hardly the show stopping wonder I was hoping for.
Typically scored from the flesh of prized Chianina cattle, an ancient Tuscan breed, I Toscani’s offering was less successful than the first course, and far less authentic.
I have a strong sense that, in its lifetime, our cow was more familiar with the Gozitan countryside than with the rolling hills of Tuscany. But graver sins had been committed. The grilled meat was a tad too tough on the teeth, as well as being grossly under seasoned and nowhere close to succulent enough.
Worse still, our T-bone steak had been deprived of its typical T-shape. We had been served a sirloin steak on the bone. The piece of fillet had mysteriously gone astray.
The steamed vegetables accompanying the meat had been burnt to a crisp and were inedible for the most part. We washed the main course down with some Chianti that ever so slightly cheered my disappointed stomach.
Tiramisu, perhaps the quintessential Italian dessert, is extraordinarily good. At I Toscani canonically classic renderings, served chilled, had been lovingly made.
There was none of the all-too-common unstructured, unsatisfying, creamy messiness present. My portion made me giddily happy; its chocolatey, velvety denseness proving the ultimate seduction, until I stopped abruptly to violently cough up the bitter cocoa powder I accidentally inhaled.
The mascarpone cream is lighter than air and melts off the tongue. I wish to dive into it and stay there forever, letting myself sink into the espresso-soaked sponge. At the end of this artery-clogging meal, one of the boys brings forth complimentary liqueurs and we are content.
This little outpost of Tuscany is perhaps a little on the expensive side when considering the restaurant’s location. Overall, the food is good. It’s the kind of hearty fare that makes you feel it’s been prepared by somebody who cares. And that somebody is three Italian boys.
Next time I shall request the prized corner portion of the lasagne. I am willing to fight anyone to the death for that.