James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Who Cares About the Bus When There Are 24‑Hour Snacks?

Who Cares About the Bus When There Are 24‑Hour Snacks?

Pastizzi in Malta

The sun is coming at us from all angles at the bus junction in Rabat. Pristine buildings of pale limestone, each sporting an overhanging machicolation, refmract the light onto every bus shelter in the center of the plaza.

When traveling to Malta, you’ll hear about the Knights of St. John, the cerulean waters of the Blue Lagoon, and the island’s past as a British colony. What you won’t hear about is the tardy bus system, so unfailingly late that you’re never sure if the bus that shows up is the 12:15 bus running 25 minutes behind schedule or the 12:45 running 5 minutes ahead.

That said, you will be amazed by the systematic tango that plays out as these city buses charge their way through the island’s provincial roads as local traffic cooperatively shifts into reverse. From the port of Cirkewwa in the north down to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk, the Maltese bus system will get you to where you need to go; just don’t be surprised if it’s an hour later than you were expecting. I try to attune myself to island time.

We’ve been waiting for thirty minutes at the Rabat interchange that snuggles up against the walled city of Mdina. The sun intensifies and hopes of municipal transport are quickly evaporating. Island time, I say to myself.

What does one do to pass “island time”? Kick back and eat, of course. And the place you go for a snack in Rabat is Crystal Palace.

Bored looking pensioners seated along this local joint’s benches can’t be bothered to make eye contact as I walk in. A shelf littered with trays of gum and chocolate bars lines the back of the shop. To my right, a Marlboro dispenser, and to my left, the ajar oven loaded with stacks of pastizzi and qassatat. A simple, laminated sheet of paper spells out the menu: pastizzi tal-irkotta, tal-pizelli, tat-tiġieġ and qassatat tal-incova.

It’s an order of the former two (stuffed with ricotta and stuffed with peas) and a coffee to-go for this bus vagabond today. A twirl of the spoon to mix the Nescafé and milk, and we’re off.

Back into the sun, the pastizzi glisten as they meet the morning rays. The phyllo snaps like a firecracker as I chomp into the ricotta fella. The individual sheets of the wrapper flake, shatter, and fall to the sidewalk. The ricotta is light on the palate and lends a hint of sweetness to this otherwise savoury breakfast bite. Pea pastizzi, it’s your turn. This congruent oyster shell of a pastry reveals a mushy pea filling with a contrast of black pepper that dances delectably on the palate. I wash it down with my mild Nescafé and all is good in the world.

That is, until we get back to the bus bay to discover that we’ve missed the bus. Island time, I say to myself. But who’s counting? These pastizzi guys are open 24 hours. Back we go.

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