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Watch - Full interview: Famous Serkin pastizzeria owner wants to call it a day

Gabriel Schembri Monday, 21 March 2016, 09:07 Last update: about 9 years ago

It’s sad news indeed, to hear that the legendary pastizzeria in Rabat, famously known as Tas-Serkin, is up for sale. But not all is yet lost as Martin Azzopardi, the owner of the establishment which still sells coffee and tea in glass, said he hopes the person who buys the place keeps will keep the tradition, both in service and attire.

“It would be foolish to change things around here. This is what people want and this is why we are so popular. No one would dare to renovate the place completely.”

Of course, we conducted the interview with two fresh pastizzi in front of us and some “kafe fit-tazza” to wash the crispy delicacies down our throat. We had to finish the interview by 9:30am. You see, this Martin, is a bit of a night crawler. He basically sleeps by day and works by night. The men sitting at the tables eating pastizzi as if they were peanuts lowered their voices as Martin settled in his chair, ready to answer our thousand questions.

Why does everybody call this place Tas-Serkin?

Serkin is the nickname I inherited from my father. He used to be called Is-Serkin because he used to serve hundreds of pastizzi to those who would come to the shop on horse carts (serkin). My father used to know their orders by heart and he would prepare the coffee and pastizzi even before they arrived. He was popular for being quick with his catering skills.

So why do you have Crystal Palace written on the outside?

This place has been selling pastizzi for two generations. So we remember very clearly, the days when British Military men used to frequent the streets of Rabat. Many of those who used to work in this area came from Crystal Palace, which is a locality in the UK.  They did not only come for pastizzi, of course. They also used to drink beer, a lot of beer!

These soldiers were in fact stationed in Mtarfa and many used to spend their break time at Is-Serkin. Hundreds of soldiers flocked at the shop on a daily basis. For them, this shop became their little ‘Crystal Palace’.

Is-Serkin has been serving hot pastizzi, coffee and beer for the last 75 years. Martin has headed the establishment for the last 46 years.

“Not much has changed in all these years and we have been selling pastizzi ever since the shop opened” he said before halting the interview to go and take out a tray of pastizzi from the oven.

This shop is mostly famous because it’s open, basically 24 hours a day. How do you manage?

During the week we close only for two hours a day, between midnight and 2am.  But on weekends things get a little crazy. From Friday to Saturday to Sunday, we simply never close. Door is always open. In summer, we don’t even close on the night between Sunday and Monday.

Most of the time, the shop is managed by Martin and his brother in law, Charlie. But they also employ two more employees when emergencies arise.

Lack of clients at the Crystal Palace was never an issue. They are busy on weekends because of disco parties, busy during the hunting season, work breaks and for those who suffer from the late night, post-alcohol crave for something oily. Bus and taxi drivers, are also frequent visitors to the establishment.

Martin has served pastizzi to ministers, presidents and to foreigners from all over the world.

Where did you learn to make pastizzi?

At first I was taught by my predecessor, but eventually, I started to learn how to create a better taste until I reach perfection.

Pastizzi are not prepared at the shop. Martin has another place in Rabat where they are prepared.

“We follow a specific process on how to make pastizzi, but we never reveal how they are made to taste so good.”

So there is a secret ingredient?

There is a secret ingredient and I will not tell you what it is.

I always say, whatever I’m doing, they are being sold in the thousands. That is where I confirm that my ingredients are working.

Martin seemed very reluctant to reveal the exact amount of pastizzi that are sold daily. I’m pretty sure he did his math, but he insists on replying, “it is very hard to calculate the amount of pastizzi we sell each day.”

“I can only tell you that there are sometimes when we literally cannot manage to keep up with all the people that come to the shop. There were instances when we had to go back to the place where they are made and bring hundreds more to sell.”

Is the rumour true? Are you selling the shop?

It is true, yes. I’m selling the place. I’m 61 years old, I’m exhausted. I’ve been doing this for the last 46 years, maybe it’s time to call it a day.

Martin is a father of three, all women and he knows they will not follow in his footsteps. “It is a tough job after all,” he said.

But what will happen to the shop if you do get to sell it?

What I am hoping is that this shop remains exactly the same. It would be foolish to change the look and the way things are served here. This is what makes it so special.

The property for sale also includes another small area which Martin said could be turned into a wine bar, but insists, “Is-Serkin should not change.”

We were interrupted once more, this time as a large group of youths came inside to have their share of pastizzi.

As he was selling pastizzi, Martin confessed that sometimes he goes to other pastizzerias, to one of the hundreds that have suddenly opened on the island, to taste their version of pastizzi.



None taste as good as mine!

Besides the ingredients, what do you think made this shop so popular?

First of all, I think it’s the price. Young people come here before and after the parties at neighbouring discos because they can have a drink and a good snack for a few euros. Secondly, the secret to the shop’s success was the time. We practically never close. Those that sell hot dogs outside discos leave after a couple of hours. But young people know we’re open all night and pastizzi are sold at any time of the day.

Did you have any trouble with the authorities because of opening hours?

Now we have the permit to operate round the clock, but before, back in the day, rules were not that clear.

There was one time when they attempted to close us down but we bent the rules a little bit and started selling pastizzi from a kiosk outside. We sold pastizzi and drinks in plastic cups but we still managed and people still came in their hundreds.

Martin did not want to reveal for how much is the property being sold. But the person who is going to acquire the establishment will have to maintain a very widespread local tradition. Because, let’s face it, although more than a couple a day can kill you, pastizzi are still the most famous item on the Maltese cuisine.

Video and photos Jonathan Borg

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