Ed eats

Osteria Ve
Pope Alexander VII Street,
Tel: 7703 0174

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

While idly scrolling through my Facebook news feed one day last week, I read a brief note about a small restaurant in Vittoriosa that, according to the friend who posted the status, could quite easily become his new favourite place to eat out.

Luckily I happen to know this man to be quite the gourmand. I haven’t shared many meals with him but I know that food means more to him than it does to most, so visiting the Osteria he recommended would be only a tiny risk. I quickly made arrangements to have dinner in Vittoriosa one night during the week, keeping my expectations very neutral.

Finding the place was relatively easy because we quickly figured out that it used to be Taverna Sugu. Parking close by wasn’t easy but walking through Vittoriosa at night is so pleasant that I really couldn’t complain. There was the tail end of the feast going on as well, so people spilled on to the street from band club buildings, creating an atmosphere of merriment and celebration.

It was a quiet night for Osteria Ve. A little table outside the restaurant was occupied but the rest of the place wasn’t. The restaurant is essentially a little house that’s been converted to create dining spaces wherever this is possible, so there are a couple of tables on the ground floor, a handful in the room above it and even a single table for two on the landing that’s five steps up from the ground floor.

This table even has a window on to the narrow street outside, so it is probably the most charming spot in the house. The man who greeted us, smiling like he was genuinely happy to see us, told us we could sit anywhere so I immediately picked the table on the landing.

A young lady brought menus and a list of daily specials. The menus felt more like lunch menus, with sandwiches and piadine and such like, while the daily selection was more interesting. Baccalà with polenta, tagliatelle with clams, risotto with sausage and peas, and even ‘sarde in saor’ reveal a kitchen that is doing all it can to live up to its Venetian origins.

The man who had greeted us initially was hovering a few feet away from us, eager to see our reaction to the menu and a quick glance in his direction was all it took for him to dash over, beaming broadly. He spoke to us in English all the time, even after we’d figured out that he hails from the region that was once the Serenissima Repubblica. I appreciate this. I’m occasionally in the company of people who can’t speak Italian and I’m annoyed at Italian restaurant staff that assume we should all speak their language.

Every exchange with the man was one that was characterised by his humility, his love for food and his carefully guarded humour, as if he was just on the verge of cracking a joke all the time. This kind of character in the front of house is an ingredient that’s hard to come by and one worth returning for, even if the food were only half decent.

After going through the menu and trying to figure out what I was going to leave out, I looked at the column on the right. Not a single item was priced above €11. There was little to separate starters from main courses. So I asked our host whether it was fine to start with one particular item and then go on to another. He immediately said we should feel free to pick and choose as we liked. One course or two, in any sequence we felt like.

The better half and I ordered the mussels in a spicy tomato sauce for starters practically in unison. Given this liberty, she decided to live dangerously and follow up with a tuna tartare. It is customary to order this as a starter but our host’s approach is curiously liberating. I was definitely having the sarde in saor.

Next time I want to experience the taste of Venice without the price or the annoying American tourists, I know exactly where I’m headed

This item on a menu at a restaurant in Malta is either foolhardy or brave. Or a bit of both. The dish of fried sardines with sautéed onions and raisins isn’t quite what we’re used to and, if it comes as a surprise, can disappoint an unsuspecting diner. When it came to wine, our host said he’d be happy to serve wine by the glass, eager to keep costs low. We knew we’d share a bottle quite easily, so we said so and asked him to recommend one.

He first suggested a Soave. I don’t normally pick a Soave because the denomination has had its reputation severely dented by tons of undrinkable wine, but I trusted the man and simply agreed. He pointed out that it cost €13 to make sure we knew what we were in for.

He returned a minute later with an IGT from the Dolomiti, saying he’d changed his mind based on our choice of food and that this one cost a little less than his original recommendation. It was fine really and nicely chilled, with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in there and possibly something else. It was, as he promised, dry as a bone and entirely drinkable.

The young lady from earlier got busy laying our table, delivering a basket of fresh bread and making room for the food. Less than 10 minutes later, a huge bowl of mussels with slices of toasted Maltese bread was steaming gently between us. The mussels were very fresh so they remained plump, juicy and full of flavour. The sauce was a delight, spicy and thick and with plenty of fresh basil. Popping a bit of the toasted bread into the sauce and eating it with a mussel or two could easily have formed starter, main course and dessert. I stopped when I realised I needed room for the main course.

This was also served quite quickly and this time the chef popped downstairs to see how things were going. He is also Italian, just as jovial as his colleague, and politely unintrusive.

The tuna tartare was very neatly presented in a circular mound with a little dressing on top of caper and lemon and olive oil. Fresh basil leaves formed a colourful dressing around the chopped up tuna and slices of toasted baguette completed the dish. It tasted as lovely as the execution of the dish so there was one happy diner across the table.

My dish was also neatly arranged. A mound of lettuce was completely concealed by the fish that were placed in a circle that rose gently from the plate. The small fish had been butterfly filleted, lightly floured and fried, bone and all. Onions and raisins were placed on top of all this.

The result is, unsurprisingly, quite sweet and unusual, particularly since the fish is served only slightly above room temperature. I happen to love this dish, even if I can’t recommend it to everyone, and this was a particularly fine specimen.

When we were done, our host tempted us with dessert. He said that the tiramisu wouldn’t be worth missing out on and then listed a few others. His description of an ‘unusual’ pineapple flambé seemed to strike a chord with the better half and the deal was sealed. I was uncertain I had room for dessert but was primed for it with a sweet main course. I finally decided to decline.

Our host pretended to be offended that we wouldn’t try their tiramisu. I knew he was kidding but I just had to order one. He said that if I didn’t like it, then we need not pay the bill for our meal.

Well, if you like the Venetian tiramisu, you’re in for a treat. It is soaked in spirits and just sweet enough to offset the coffee and bitter almond. True to its name, it picked me right up.

Even though I’d realised that the items on the menu were modestly priced, I was surprised to pay €25 each for three courses, wine and water. At this price, it is really hard to beat and, more importantly, we walked away in high spirits, having loved the personal service that turned our evening from a meal into an experience. Next time I want to experience the taste of Venice without the price or the annoying American tourists, I know exactly where I’m headed.

You can send e-mails about this column to ed.eatson@gmail.com or follow @edeats on Twitter.

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