My wife likes to say that United Nations of Food NYC isn’t really a food blog – it’s a cry for help. Yeah, I agree: it’s an online cry for help finding interesting international food. At least I think that’s what she meant…?
Anyway, a friendly Maltese-American reader heard my cry for help last week, and sent assistance in the form of a thoroughly entertaining email (thank you, Rachael!). Here’s a snippet:
I know that you’re in pursuit of foods from countries that have more than one million residents—but how about foods from countries that have less than half a million residents, but more than twice the amount of national pride? That has to count for something.
(For the record, if a country has less than a million residents but more than three calories, sign me up!)
Picture Malta, an archipelago in the heart of the Mediterranean ocean. Beautiful beaches (I mean really beautiful. Tom Cruise and Madonna are both frequent visitors, probably because it’s the last country anyone’s ever heard of and the closest thing this planet has to paradise. Did I mention that Britney Spears is ¼ Maltese?), friendly people, and yummy food. Authentic dishes range from the street-food pastizzi (stuffed filo pastry, usually with ricotta, meat, or peas) to rabbit stew. Wouldn’t you know it, you can get some of these authentic foods right here in NYC. We even have a Maltese Center in Astoria.
Ooh, rabbit stew and stuffed filo pastry! That sounds awesome. I wiped the drool off my keyboard (related: I don’t recommend touching my keyboard unless you’re either wearing gloves or have a strange drool fetish), hurried through a lamentably low-calorie meeting, and raced to Leli’s bakery in Astoria.
Leli’s is a thoroughly charming place, serving a glorious variety of cookies, breads, cakes, sandwiches, quiches, and drinks. I resisted the urge to snuffle through all of Leli’s offerings, and instead told the friendly Maltese owner that I wanted to try everything that could be considered Maltese. She smiled, and immediately pointed to the pastizzi. (I may or may not have drooled on command. Normal people totally do that… um, right?)
Pastizzi are savory filo-dough pastries, vaguely reminiscent of spanakopita or boureks. Leli’s offers three types: ricotta cheese, spinach & ricotta cheese, and beef & pea ($1.75 each). I ordered two of each flavor, and ate all six as I walked through Astoria; each pastizzi was a little bit larger than my fist, and all were delicious. (Related: my fists are starting to develop double chins of their very own.)
The pastizzi appeared to be the work of somebody with some serious baking talent: crispy, flaky layers of filo on the outside, with softer, moister layers of dough once you get past the initial layer of crunch. The spinach & ricotta pastizzi reminded me of a perfectly baked version of the individually wrapped Greek spanakopita that I grew up with, but with the sharpness of Greek feta replaced by the creaminess of a nice ricotta. I was also pretty excited about the beef and pea pastizzi, which seemed to feature a hint of clove.
The only other Maltese item at Leli’s Bakery was Maltese bread, served in a variety of shapes and sizes; I opted for a medium-sized round roll (generously comped by the owner), since “round” is one of my favorite shapes. Even though the bakery was busy, the friendly (non-Maltese) woman at the counter kindly took the time to explain that the Maltese bread was deliciously crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, and possessed a mild sourdough flavor. She even explained how, exactly, the Maltese bread was different from other sourdough breads. But because I’m a terrible person with a one-track mind, I can’t tell you much of what she said, because I just couldn’t hear anything over the smell of fresh-baked bread.
The Maltese bread was delicious, even after… well, this is embarrassing, but I brought half the loaf home to my wife, and she put it in the refrigerator by accident and completely forgot about it, which I’m pretty sure is a violation of several international treaties with Malta. The crazy part? It was still delicious two days later, after a quick cameo in the oven.
But yeah, I probably violated Maltese law by letting that bread land in the fridge. Extradite me to Malta, somebody? Please? Maybe they’ll feed me that Maltese rabbit stew in prison.
Huge thanks to Rachael Xerri for the tip! If you can help me find the elusive Maltese rabbit stew or other tough-to-find ethnic cuisines, email me at email@example.com or find me on Twitter (@UNofFoodNYC) or Facebook. If you invite me to a meal, I promise not to drool on your keyboard.
35-14 30th Ave., Astoria
Subway: 30th Ave. (N or Q train)