When an Italian chef told an 11-year-old Francesco Mazzei that he should consider taking up the profession, the youngster was not best pleased. Spending his summers making and serving ice-cream at his uncle’s gelateria in Calabria had made him realize very fast that this was a hard life, and he believed he wanted no part of it.
But the chef in question – Angelo Sabetta, a very renowned name on the Italian culinary scene – had just witnessed the boy making the gelateria’s signature mangia e bevi with enough passion to make him think there was something there. A concoction of sorbet, fruit, jelly and ice-cream, this was one of the more time-consuming ice-creams to prepare, but the young Francesco nailed it.
“I didn’t want to spend my summers working, I wanted to be with my friends at the beach, to find a girlfriend, to have fun. So when Angelo asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, my reply was: anything but this industry. Turned out I was wrong,” Francesco tells me with a chuckle. So what made him change his mind? Angelo’s reply: “Shame, because you’re really good at this”, caused him to reset his thoughts.
“When you’re 11 no-one tells you you’re really good at anything, unless it’s your nonna. So I took notice of his words. By the time I finished school I was determined to take his advice. My family wanted me to go to University, of course, so I had some convincing to do. But my mother backed me, and off I went to culinary school, and a few years later I went back to Angelo and asked him to give me a job. Which he did.”
Now, he’s spending his time commuting between his adopted London home and Malta, where he’s set up a new restaurant at Villa Corinthia, on the hotel’s premises in Attard. He describes his excitement about returning to the Mediterranean, and at finding similar produce and ingredients to those he’s used to in his own Calabria.
“Peppers, aubergines, courgettes… in Malta I’m enjoying using all the stuff that I find back home. But of course, I’m bringing the typical southern Italy fillings to the dishes at Villa Corinthia too. It’s lovely to be here, coming back to my roots with this wonderful palcoscenico that’s the restaurant,” he says.
I ask him if he has any trouble finding seasonal produce on the island? He shakes his head mystified, recounting how an Italian acquaintance who’s lived in Malta for 20 odds years recently commented on the chef’s Facebook page that “there’s nothing in Malta”. He doesn’t understand how anyone can seriously believe this.
“I replied to this comment personally, and asked him how it’s possible when there’s the best basil, fish, thyme, tomatoes and more in Malta. I discovered this in just three months and he’s been living here for so many years. So how can he have failed to realise this? The land and soil in Malta are fantastic. Yes, the sea water is salty but it leads to different species of fish. When I go to the fish market I get blown away with what I find,” he tells me.
“Chefs are creative people and we can create magic with one tomato, let alone with what we find in Malta. When you have knowledge it makes your life easier, of course,” he adds, describing how was recently walking along the coastline when he spotted a carpet of bushes with pink and purple small flowers that looked like wild thyme.
“I never saw it growing like this, the smell is so particular. I’m now using it for the rabbit ragout with pappardelle on the Villa Corinthia menu. The taste is a bit salty because it grows close to the shore line, and it’s beautiful. We often go out foraging, spending an afternoon picking and finding good things.”
Turns out that Malta’s produce is very similar to that of southern Italy, which shouldn’t surprise anyone really. Francesco describes Maltese honey and olive oil as phenomenal, but the courgette flowers and the strawberries really hold a special place in his heart. And he wasn’t lying when he said chefs are creative people.
“We’re doing lovely things with the produce and the results of our foraging. We use wild herbs and plants to infuse the oil, we put flowers on the salad. There’s so much that can be done.”
Asked what made him open his new restaurant in Malta, he replies that he had been planning to visit with his family for a long while. When he discovered Villa Corinthia he was blown away by its beauty, discussions started with the Pisani family and the rest can now be enjoyed by all of us at the restaurant.
“In Malta you find the British organisation and the Italian passion. I’m proud of my home in southern Italy and coming to Malta is like closing a circle. I am cooking and relaxing, with lovely people that I understand well, so that’s why I came to Malta,” he explains.
So far, the island is more than meeting the chef’s expectations as he keeps discovering new things to get excited about. He believes the best way to understand and to find things is by walking around the island.
“That’s how I discovered the salt flake, while we were walking on the shore and we saw this white mark that’s left when the seawater dries up. Of course, we tasted it. We’re chefs, we’ll taste everything we find. And that’s how we discovered Malta’s salini. There’s still a lot to learn. I’m a very curious person and, so far, it’s been amazing. My wife and kids are visiting soon to see if it’s really as beautiful as I have been telling them.”
He loves the authenticity of the island, and the fact that people – and prices – are so grounded. He is in awe of the quality of fresh fish he finds at the market for just €22 a kilo.
“In London, with €22 you buy nothing. Maybe some sardines if you’re lucky. Here, you buy wonderful, unique specimen! And this is what I want to do at Villa Corinthia, create genuine dishes without scaring people with fancy prices. The restaurant is at a five-star hotel, so people assume it will be expensive, but we’ve really made it a point to keep it accessible. I want the Maltese to be able to enjoy my food. That’s the formula I followed in Calabria, which is now a food destination. I’d love to do the same for Malta,” he says.
Were there any challenges in setting up the restaurant here? He smiles, and says that of course there will always be challenges with a new concept.
“Chefs love a mission impossible! But that certainly wasn’t the case here. We’ve succeeded in opening a simple, affordable concept at a five-star hotel that’s one of the most iconic in Malta. We buy local, and we buy the same things you buy. Malta is small, even smaller than Calabria. Word goes round and we want people to walk away saying it was good food that didn’t break the bank.”
Before concluding the interview I ask about this famous Calabrian ‘nduja, for which he is an ambassador. And this reminds him that he actually received his biggest ‘nduja in Malta.
“I found this massive box waiting for me when I arrived here, and when I opened it I see a 44 kilo ‘nduja, for massive good luck. It was gift from the San Vincenzo factory in Calabria. I was touched, one of the best gifts I’d seen in my life. We put it on a beautiful silver trolley in the Villa and presented it at the restaurant launch. It was the most wonderful thing to see.”
He pauses for a second, and then leaves me with one lovely sentence before rushing off to a meeting.
“That’s how you make a chef happy. Not with a new Rolex, but with salami.”