The tiny nation of Malta – a rocky archipelago jutting out of the Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa – claims an 8,000-year history that has included rule by the Phoenicians, the Romans, Napoleon, and the British Empire. While that multicultural influence helps define the islands’ traditional cuisine (you can’t leave without trying a ricotta-filled pastizzi pastry or a lampuki fish pie), Malta’s culinary scene is anything but mired in the past.
“Malta’s food scene is undoubtedly expanding,” says British chef Simon Rogan, who recently took the helm of the Michelin-starred Ion Harbourrestaurant in Valletta, the country’s gorgeous sixteenth-century seaside capital on the main island of Malta. “There’s an increasing number of quality restaurants, from Michelin-starred to more relaxed and traditional.”
Time spent on the sunny island can include everything from strolling through baroque palaces to dancing well past sunset at a buzzing beach club. No matter your speed, there’s always a great meal nearby, often with a view that’s just as inspiring as what’s on the plate. Here are Rogan’s picks for where to taste the very best of Malta.
For a Proper Maltese Introduction
To get your culinary bearings, start in the walled city of Valletta at Ion Harbour, which occupies prime rooftop space at the 23-room Iniala Harbour House & Residences, overlooking the port. Rogan’s menu highlights the islands’ heritage through seasonal ingredients, such as broad beans and asparagus from the “second spring” harvest around October. He sources from small-scale and sustainable producers, including spearfishers and third-generation salt farmers on the neighboring island of Gozo, and has a direct line to foragers who specialize in procuring Malta’s best mushrooms and other wild finds. Order the celeriac baked in Gozo salt – it “brings the minerality and flavors of the sea to life,” Rogan says.
“Malta is a melting pot of cultures. A walking tour of Valletta, which your travel advisor can arrange, is a great way to learn about its history through food.” – Amina Dearmon
Ion Harbour's chef Simon Rogan.
Malta Tourism Authority
Nearby, the casual, family-run bistro Rubino also prides itself on a menu that’s dictated by the islands’ bounty. Order the asparagus if it’s in season, Rogan suggests, though his real must-have is fenek moqli, rabbit fried in olive oil with garlic and spices. “It’s a true classic and known as one of the best dishes on the island,” he says.
A couple of Rogan’s other recommendations: Noni, for its homemade ravioli with braised veal cheek and oxtail, and Michelin-starred de Mondion in Mdina, a 20-minute drive west of Valletta, for some of the island’s best views. (The restaurant is located on the rooftop of a seventeenth-century baroque palazzo overlooking the walled city.)
A Maltese staple: Bigilla, a bean dip with garlic and herbs.
Malta Tourism Authority
For Great Farm-to-Table Fare
Zero-kilometer, farm-to-fork fare is a growing trend across Malta. “It involves a great deal of planning and knowledge in order to understand the seasons and use each part of the vegetable, animal, or fish to minimize food waste,” Rogan says, adding he has enjoyed spending time with farmers, producers, and growers since opening Ion Harbour in March. “It’s important for me and my team to really work hand in hand with them.”
Rogan recommends Briju in the harbor town of Gzira, where the Maltese-meets-Mediterranean menu changes seasonally, but “you can always rely on the fact that their dishes will feature interesting twists based on fresh produce,” he says. He’s also a fan of the private-dining space Tal-Petut in Brigu (your advisor can secure reservations) for its simple yet innovative cuisine and traditional Maltese favorites such as bigilla, a broad bean dip with garlic and herbs.
Markus Divinus at his namesake winery.
Malta Tourism Authority
For Some of Malta’s Best Wine
“For such a tiny island, Malta has a unique terroir and climate that has enabled it to nurture vines that date to Phoenician times,” Rogan says. Over the past few years, its wine production has crept into the spotlight, with small, family-run wineries gaining international attention. (Most of the wine produced on Malta stays on Malta, so travelers must travel to the island to sample the goodness.)
From the terrace of a boutique winery such as Markus Divinus, Meridiana, or Ta’ Betta, travelers can sample Malta’s indigenous varietals, girgentina and gellewza, with the coast or the medieval city of Mdina beckoning in the distance. “Your travel advisor can arrange a private tasting at one of many vineyards, allowing you to immerse yourself in the beautiful countryside amid indigenous flora such as olive, fig, and carob trees,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Amina Dearmon, who notes that the local olive oil is also not to be missed.
Another pro tip: After a day of winetasting, return to Valletta and the InterContinental Malta for a cocktail by the 481-room hotel’s rooftop infinity pool. Or settle into the 131-room Phoenicia Malta, also in Valletta, for a post winery-hopping massage.
For a Taste of the Islands’ Centuries-Old Cuisine
The lions carved in stone that crown the city of Birgu's medieval gates and its seaside Fort Saint Angelo – the prison where Italian painter Caravaggio was kept some 500 years ago – have both appeared as sets in television series such as Game of Thrones. Travelers can step inside that storied history during a meal with Taste History, a combination living museum and dinner party that features a menu of recreated Maltese dishes from the eighteenth century.
Taste History’s chefs and historians comb through old books, butcher bills, kitchen inventories, and receipts from pasta factories – in addition to working with local farms and cheesemakers – to curate a collection of recipes that include rabbit risotto and mutton stewed in goat cheese. Meals take place in cinematic spaces such as the Malta Maritime Museum and The Inquisitor’s Palace – your travel advisor can arrange reservations.