The Malta Independent 5 December 2021, Sunday

Marie Benoit's Diary: Good food in Mgarr

Marie Benoît Sunday, 17 October 2021, 10:50 Last update: about 3 months ago

Geography is not my strong point. My husband always blamed my lack of sense of direction for the reason I landed in Mauritius.

A friend invited me to go to dinner with her one evening a month or so ago. Our destination, she said, was going to be Mgarr. She would be doing the driving. Good. I might have landed us somewhere quite different.

Now, my last experience of Mgarr took place many mango seasons ago. Another friend, now in the Casino in the sky, had suggested we go there for a meal to introduce my daughters to rabbit. Mgarr was then, and still is, a hotspot for rabbit. That experience was far from good. The rabbit was unexciting but fine however the TV was blaring throughout lunch and people were throwing the peanut shells on the table and the floor as if it was the most natural thing to do. We couldn't get out of that mess fast enough.

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You know it already. The road to Mgarr was being done up. It was almost pitch black and the signs too small. But we did get there in the end. Ah, the sigh of relief once we got a glimpse of the church.

Rose and Roberto Apap Bologna, the owners, and her mother Ċelita greeted us warmly.

From conversations with them I soon realised that this was not just another fly-by-night restaurant but a family business, indeed an institution.

The property was acquired in the late 1930s by Carmelo and Giuseppa Caruana, great grand-parents of Rose, who is now the owner. It started off as a coffee bar with a small grocer at the back. The son of Carmelo and Giuseppa, also called Carmelo inherited the property. "He died at a young age leaving his wife Rosa to bring up 10 children," says Rose. Sadly Rosa and her children had no option but to take over the reins of the business.

***

Unemployment in Malta in the '60s was rife and Rosa and family, except for Mikiel, Rose's father, emigrated to Australia. In 1966 the property was bought by Mikiel and his wife Ċelita who carried out considerable refurbishment and built another storey.

Cooking was all done by Ċelita helped by Mikiel and family members. The restaurant flourished and gained a reputation for its traditional food, especially rabbit.

In 2003 the Caruanas' retired and the property was leased to another Mgarr resident. Now almost ten decades after these premises were built, a new chapter opened in July 2019 and Rose and Roberto are running it.

Ta' Ċelita is right in the piazza of Mgarr with the church keeping sentinel. It has always had a regular clientele. Dr George Borg Olivier was a regular often dropping in with a friend or more.

One of Malta's leading tenors has get-togethers in a private room there, where they cannot be disturbed while they are enjoying one of Michael's meals.

Rose and Roberto have two sons. Nicholas is at University while Michael is the one who puts a bit of magic in the air as he is the chef. His is almost a solo performance. He does get help, of course but the planning of menus and creation of dishes comes from him.

The restaurant has steadily been accruing a good reputation for their wholesome but interesting food. The menu is appealing and changes often enough to make return visits enticing.

When so many restaurants in Malta are plagiarising each other, it's good to be offered a bill of fare that is largely original. If I want to eat spag bol then I would not come all the way to Mgarr.

As the story of Ta' Ċelita was being unfolded to us, amuse bouche were being put on the table. They were an assortment of delights and almost a meal in themselves. One of Michael's soup creations served in those mini glasses was especially delicious. It is the small touches which give a sense of generosity that makes diners feel special. 

***

Michael has a fresh approach to cooking. I wanted to go trad and eat rabbit but fried or biz-zalza? Nah! Their rabbit dish gets the treatment it deserves and is allowed to shine on the Specials rather than being stuck as a regional staple that one is forced to have available.  There on the menu was a Moroccan inspired dish with spices and herbs so that it is different to the classic rabbit recipes one can eat all over Malta (and which are also available). It was delicious and really enough for two people. There is also rabbit paté; fish and chips made with a Guinness batter;  sweet potato gnocchi, soft and juicy in the centre and crusty on the outside dressed in either a creamy white sauce or delicious aglio oglio. Sea Bass, moist on the inside with a crispy skin and served with an anchovy vinaigrette is another offering.

***

When it came to dessert I felt daunted at the thought of more food. I really couldn't. Nevertheless I had a long look at the menu (and their Facebook page). The choice is quite spectacular and very tempting: Helwa tat-Tork icecream which could accompany their carob in-house made seasonal imqaret. Their homemade semi-freddos were beckoning from the freezer, all stacked up beautifully; profiteroles packed with flavour.

In some restaurants desserts are often marred by a swirl of aerosol cream bearing a glacé cherry implant. As far as I am concerned glacé cherries should be banned altogether.

I, if somewhat reluctantly decided I was not going to buy the pitch for dessert, enticing as everything sounded. It would have been sheer greed, Gluttony being one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

***

This is not the kind of place that will ever be taken over by some pizza 'n' pasta joint. The family's presence and involvement are reassuring.

Somehow driving back home was so much easier than getting there. Ta' Ċelita is one of those places that are endearing. You simply cannot help but leave in a good mood.

Great service can lift average food, but great food can never make up for inept service. Here one gets both.

Ta' Ċelita, as they say in Michelin 'vaut le voyage'.

 Indeed. And there wasn't a peanut shell insight.


 

 


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