time to explore with esplora
A Chef and a Foodie on Tour: Ir-Rizzu
A Chef and a Foodie on Tour: Ir-Rizzu
Take a journey with Emily Francis (Emily in Malta) and Chef Ariel Guivi, two foreign tour guides to the island of Malta, who flock from one restaurant to the other in search of an authentic dining experience. This time they make their way to ir-Rizzu in Marsaxlokk…
As we kicked off our first summer series for this column, Chef Ariel and I found what we consider to be the best seafood on the island that is both fresh, local, and wild-caught seafood. We also looked at places that were affordable and provided wonderful and charming staff.
Ir-Rizzu is a beautiful eatery that sits directly in front of the water in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. This delightful restaurant is owned by two Georges: George Barbara and George Galea. Both of whom are incredibly welcoming and generous. When you are sitting inside, it might blow your mind to watch all the local fishermen coming through the door at various times of the day with their freshly caught fish, sea urchins, lobster, clams and at this time of year, the beloved Lampuki; which is what we originally came for.
As you might have learned with the Maltese people, they are very warm and inviting. In this case, both of the owners went above and beyond our requested lampuki dish and served us some of their best plates, too.
Let’s begin with the Lampuki. Lampuki season only runs for a short time during the summer months. You can catch my Lampuki the interview I had carried out last year with one of Marsaxlokk’s own fishermen here. The Lampuki in many places is served fried, and can be a bit greasy for such a tender and thin fish. At Ir-Rizzu, this is not the case. They grill the Lampuki for two minutes on each side, season only with salt and pepper and drizzle with a little olive oil and serve. It was light and fresh tasting with the char grilled lines that gave it just the right extra flavour on the crisp grilled lines. The fish was perfectly cooked, not overdone in the least. This is the best Lampuki I’ve tasted over the last two years on my search of the best Lampuki recipes. What this says to me is that simple is the way to go on this fish… if it’s fresh.
Speaking of simple, this restaurant is known for its traditional menu. The seafood speaks for itself here, and changes daily with what comes in. They do not overdress the plates and keep the focus on the seafood itself. That’s easier to do when it’s caught practically at your front door!
Because George was so generous, he would not allow us to come in and only try the Lampuki. Instead he served us up five different courses of different seafood! We began with scallop and prawn Termidor served in a perfect seashell. This was breaded and filled with goodness. It tasted warm and creamy and full of flavour. Next to that plate was another plate with prawn cocktail served in a Marie Rose pink sauce and sprinkled with smoked paprika on top, which was creamy and delicious. The Marie Rose pink sauce is a traditional sauce that is tangy in flavour and has been served this way with shrimp cocktail for many years.
After this came what George Galea dubbed “the best seabass you will ever eat in your life!” And I am inclined to believe him now that I’ve tried it. Sea bass is a fish that is more difficult to find wild caught. Most of it these days comes farm raised. In this case, the sea bass came in on a cart of ice with several other fish in the cart that had all been caught that morning from the sea. One of the things that Chef Ariel pointed out to me in looking at the sea bass was that the fish’s teeth were not perfect. A farm raised seabass, or most farm raised fish, have perfect teeth because they don’t have to fight for their food the way that they have to in the wild. Our seabass had some crooked teeth and thick body.
The seabass stole the show for us that day at Ir-Rizzu. Though the Lampuki was grilled to perfection, the seabass was a show on its own. They first take the fish and cover it in a thick layer of rock salt that has been mixed with water and forms a crust that completely covers the fish. The salt mix itself is a work of artistry as it can’t have too much water added or the salt won’t remain dry enough to pack the fish in. They begin with the salt layer at the bottom first and then lay their fish on it and cover it around the fish until you cannot see any part of the fish. Then, they cook it in the oven between 180-190 degrees for over thirty minutes, depending exactly on the weight of the fish. There is no way to tell if it’s perfectly done by a smell or by a look or by anything more than the weight ratio and the chefs knowing their seafood as precisely and perfectly as these guys do.
Next, they bring out the salt baked fish on a cart. Next to the plate of the fish was an empty plate to put the salt pieces on once they begin to cut through the salt blocks around the fish. On the other side of those plates was a bowl of fresh cut parsley, a lemon and a bottle of olive oil. The server removed the salt in chunks off the fish until the fish was finally uncovered and ready to be sliced and served. The seabass was presented on my plate covered with parsley and the perfect amount of olive oil. The fish was absolutely the show stopped. It was out-of-this-world perfection. Simple, light, so full of flavour and fresh.
One of the points that Ariel made is that when a fish is not fresh, it smells ‘fishy’. In this case, with everything we ate here, nothing tasted less than the freshest we could get. This is the love and joy of finding our seafood in the fishing village. It doesn’t get any fresher than that!
Following our seabass, if you can believe it, George then brought us a fish cake of baby white fish to split just so we could taste it. It was served with the perfect tarter sauce (tarter sauce is something I am very picky about and love if it’s made well, which in this case, it was awesome).
To top off what was already an over-the-top experience, we saw those sharp, porky-pine of the sea-looking creatures being carried in by local fishermen. The next thing we know is that he’s asking if we want to try one! Of course, we said we were full and of course he responded by bringing us one to share. I know them as Sea Urchins. Inside we took our spoons and pulled out the orange part to eat. Most people love this delicacy. For me, it tasted like a creamy sweet potato mixed with salt water. Ariel love it and finished mine for me. To each their own. Not everyone will like everything they get served. I didn’t dislike it, per se, because it was as fresh as it could possibly get. In this case, it felt like I was eating the sea itself with something extraordinarily creamy! That is usually why they are such a big draw, though. So this in no way should discourage anyone. If anything, it should highly encourage anyone who loves these surprising little sharp-edge babies.
Then in typical Maltese fashion, after all of these courses of fish George did exactly what I love about the Maltese hosts. “Do you want Limoncello as your digistif?” “Oh no, George, we are so full! We don’t need anything else!” And he replies with “Ok, I’ll just bring you one each. Just a little!” Because that is what it’s like to come and visit a local restaurant owner who loves to serve his guests. And the limoncello was the sweetest and most delightful digestif I could have asked for. I could not taste the alcohol in it; only the sweetness of the lemon and sugar, which is exactly how I prefer it. I know it had the alcohol, because I could feel it! But, I couldn’t taste it, which is just how I think it should be.
All in all, we were highly impressed with this precious restaurant and all that fills it. The seafood was so fresh, so delicious, so easy to eat and enjoy. The service was exactly why I have fallen so deeply in love with this island. I often say that the backbone of Malta is made up from the farmers and that the heartbeat of the island beats right out of the fishing village. So far, no one has been able to prove me wrong.
Go visit Ir-Rizzu and see just why we had such a great experience! Tell them we sent you!
Ir-Rizzu is open Sunday-Monday from 11:30-3:00 and again from 6:30-11 pm.