188, The Strand
Tel: 2133 6446
Once, a long time ago, the VHS became a popular staple of the Maltese home. Within a year, everyone who had a garage he wasn’t using had turned it into a VHS rental shop. The transition to DVDs was easy. Then it was mobile phone stores, nail bars, and even massage parlours.
In time, the vast majority close down. Their location sucks, their pricing is off, the service is grumpy, the product is of inadequate quality, or an unholy combination of these factors causes the weak to sink into merciful bankruptcy and only a couple to survive and thrive.
I remember the day of the wine bar. Every other week, a new wine bar popped up. They were mostly townhouses with the exact same décor – wooden bars, a couple of wine barrels they’d begged a winery to pass on, and bare walls that flaked limestone into your glass of tipple.
The food was something to behold. The ones with a ‘concept’ served multiple platters, usually distinguished by some sense of place. Mediterranean, Asian and Mexican platters on the same menu, for instance, was a thing. If one is drinking a fiver worth of New World Sauvignon, then deep-fried spring rolls can be forgiven. The more discerning wine-lover, however, would never consume either.
Luckily, they went the way of the DVD store and died a natural death. The couple that remain are remarkable and are run by lovers of wine and all things wonderful. If you haven’t been to Trabuxu lately, I suggest you pay a visit.
The thing about a proper wine bar is that you will go there for the wine and have food that’s there to complement it. You’re going to spend a decent amount on a wine you like, and then match that with a spend on food to go with it. It takes commitment to spend a night at a wine bar, commitment to a noble cause if there ever was one.
Italy does the wine bar well but it also does what one could consider the reverse of it, even if the fare they serve is analogous. The prosciutteria is more of a deli that one can sit and eat at, with wine served as an ancillary. It takes the wine bar experience and democratises it so one can enjoy a quick dip into the world of hams and cheeses, sip some inexpensive wine, and be on your way within an hour. It’s like a date that needn’t progress to the commitment of a relationship.
There’s one in Gżira and I visited a couple of times. Each time, it was a relatively quick in-and-out and I was glad for it. The last time I visited was something of a privilege. We walked in and were given a table up a flight of stairs on the mezzanine dining area. The man who brought menus was the kind of person who exemplifies the pinnacle of Italian service.
After gracefully asking for our permission, he pulled a chair from the adjacent table and sat next to us to explain what they were all about. He’s charming and friendly, and splendidly polite. His opening line served to introduce himself. This was immediately followed by a humble, “You know my name, you know my face, so now you know who to speak to if anything doesn’t go exactly the way you’d like it to.”
The combination of low light, pleasant music, and a simple and effective décor creates a backdrop that fades away, allowing for conversation to take centre stage
With that sense of ownership and accountability, the man could only be the owner. I pressed him further and he revealed that he was the man behind Zero Sei and Sotto, two of my favourite haunts in Valletta. Zero Sei Carbonara is a meal I wouldn’t mind as a last supper.
His suggestion was to share the smallest of the taglieri, a wooden board that contains their daily selection of cured meats and cheeses, and to add a pinsa – the Roman version of a pizza – with a topping of our choosing.
I asked how he managed to serve wine that was decent at €13 a litre and he said that it was part of his outlook. He buys it in bulk packaging, mainly to save on throwing away glass bottles. He doesn’t want to waste packaging. He plans to stop serving take-out coffee in paper cups. “Imagine a thousand coffee bars, each serving a hundred coffees a day in paper cups. I’m happy to serve a coffee at the bar downstairs and to wash the crockery. Can’t people take a minute to drink their coffee and save on useless packaging?”
The man stands for a good cause and is putting his money where his mouth is. He admits he doesn’t make money on the wine but wants his customers to have an inexpensive wine to sip while enjoying the core offering of the prosciutteria.
The place itself is quite attractive. Mismatched chairs are charming and quite pretty, the lighting is comfortably low, and there are shelves filled with books and knick-knacks. It manages to look tidy and attractive without being pretentious.
The better half is allergic to salami. This worked well the first time I visited because it meant that I consumed three-quarters of the tagliere. This time we mentioned it to our man and he made sure there was no salami. I’ll take a brief detour for a factoid you may file under ‘mildly interesting’. The interesting bit is the way salami allergies work.
Salami that’s made by stuffing a skin that’s inside a mould is first dusted with powdered penicillin to keep bacteria at bay. This means that anyone allergic to penicillin stands a significant chance of exhibiting symptoms simply by consuming the skin of the salami. May this information serve you well. It’s annoying having to drive to the hospital half way through a meal.
With that public service announcement over, let’s progress to the meal. The first to arrive is the pinsa. Romans will insist that it is the precursor to the pizza and I’m sure there will be others around the country who will debate this. I’m not going to war over provenance. Suffice it to say that the pinsa is like a light cloud of fluffy pizza, topped with one of a variety of toppings. The mortazza is topped with an abundance of thinly sliced, generously folded, slices of wonderful mortadella.
The painstakingly slow fermentation adds a natural digestibility to the pinsa’s lightness so it is dangerously easy to consume this beauty by the ton. It is worth holding out though. The tagliere, heaped with cheeses and cold cuts, makes excellent friends with the pinsa and are best consumed together.
Every time I’ve visited, the selection has been slightly different. There are variations on cured and cooked hams, capocollo or coppata, bresaola, salamis (unless, in this exceptional case, I’ve asked for none of it), sheep and cow cheeses, speck, as well as slices of orange, nuts, pickled or sottolio veg and breadsticks.
It sounds like a bit of a lucky dip but I like the surprise. As soon as we’d started to navigate our way around the board, our man turned up and asked, “How is it?”. I replied saying all was just wonderful. This was only half of what he was interested in. “Are you happy?” was a second question. We were and I told him so. He looked pleased and vanished, allowing us to consume half a litre of the least pricey wine I’ve enjoyed for a long time.
There’s not much I can say about the tagliere. Of course, it’s artfully prepared. Of course, the ingredients have been carefully selected. Having contemplated death by deli as a fitting way to go in an apocalyptic scenario, I would advocate ordering a larger tagliere than the one recommended. I don’t think there is such a notion as ‘too much ham’ and have never believed anyone who said the words ‘too much cheese’.
What’s worth speaking about is the experience. We were treated well when being served, and left to our own devices the rest of the time. The spot upstairs on the mezzanine is a quiet and cut-off reprieve from the bustling seafront. The combination of low light, pleasant music, and a simple and effective décor creates a backdrop that fades away, allowing for conversation to take centre stage.
Paying less than €30 for the temporary escape into a fantasy world where cold cuts and cheese can make up every course in a meal is a winning formula in my books. Of course, I can’t do this every day but I do look forward to popping in often. I selfishly hope that drawing attention to the place doesn’t make it popular. But I can’t exactly ask you not to visit now, can I?
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