Restaurant Review | Palazzo Parisio

Believe the hype - Palazzo Parisio proves to be the ideal place for total indulgence.

I am often asked which restaurant I consider to be the best in Malta. I never hesitate to answer “Palazzo Parisio.” I take every opportunity I can to go; they serve breakfast, morning coffee, lunches, a proper afternoon tea and of course dinner. There is also a bar menu in a lounge that resembles mine, in my dreams and of course Luna di Sera, the award winning restaurant open from Wednesdays to Saturdays which spills out into the gardens and stays open with music till late for the discerning older crowd.  

I don’t need to find much of an excuse and while every special occasion is made even more special celebrating it there, it doesn’t need to be a birthday or anniversary, any day is a good day to go. It is relaxed while being refined, you are cosseted without it being costly, and indulged in luxury whilst being surrounded by beauty; I want to live there.

The house has been in the Scicluna family since the early 19th century and belonged to the Marquis Scicluna, an extravagant, artistic man, the Baroness Christiane Ramsay Scicluna’s great grandfather, who used it as an alternative residence to his main home, Dragonara Palace.

Over the years, and frequent visits to Malta from homes in Paris and Rome, Baroness Christiane fell in love with the house and decided to move back full-time  with her choreographer and director husband, Umberto Pergola, in 1990, and open the house up to the public as a historic site. She set her heart on refurbishing what she could to retain the character of the house but added whimsical ‘beautiful things’ and French style furniture to scatter around the house.

She thought it would be only proper to offer guests cold drinks and a cup of tea but soon, her desire for service and passion and experience for cookery (having trained in both Paris and Rome and taught regional cookery to American and British students in the latter) she decided to add simple ftira and wholesome sandwiches and soups to the menu, but I can imagine all delivered and presented with her impeccable style.

Today, the kitchen has a talented and passionate executive chef, Marco Pinelli, and a team of 14, 4 of whom concentrate on pastry under the guidance of Parisian patisserie chef, Olivier Parthenay; last year the team won the prestigious Definitive(ly) Good Guide’s Best Restaurant Award.

The menus describe dishes with an expressiveness that makes the simplest ingredients appeal. What is different is the quality of these ingredients, the combinations and the presentation. When I asked Baroness Christiane about her current favourite item on offer she reeled off a number, the carrot cake, or the chocolate one? The foie gras – seared or in a terrine or with the risotto – or perhaps the club sandwich or the slow cooked really scrumptious suckling pig? Then she confesses the menu changes every couple of months and therefore so do her favourites, though one dish that remains in hear heart is the cottage pie with you may be lucky enough to have with her sectretish added ingredient of pickled walnuts, which she brought back from Fortnum & Masons, "it’s a homely, nobilitated granny dish that I just love.”

Palazzo Parisio appreciate that not everyone can eat out often and that the daily grocery shop has influenced the way we eat; and this is a huge responsibility for the importers and supermarkets. The range of foodstuffs available has at least trebled in the last 5 years, but quality must always remain a priority.

“For us, we find the best products from the best suppliers and this sometimes means we have to bring in ingredients from abroad. Shipping can add a cost and complexity to this process, but we have to meet the needs and expectations of our clientele.”

Coupled with this is the unarguable point of service being a key factor to any customer interaction and I challenge you to find better. They seem to have the balance absolutely right – Baroness Christiane accepts no half measures from serving breakfast to a private function or weddings in the gardens.

The passion, drive and absolute control with a whimsical touch, permeate through every aspect of the operation. The white linen-clad waiters gracefully serve, looking as if they have stepped straight out of an Armani campaign.

This approach goes for the wine list too, believing there are so many producers off the beaten track that may not have stellar marketing budgets but still deserve attention. Of course there is a sommelier on hand to guide you. There is plenty to choose from without being overwhelming but what impressed me most are the extensive vegetarian options; indeed hand on heart I can say it’s the only restaurant I have been to with a vegetarian degustation menu and for celiacs there is a special menu that believe it or not, looks appetising and not at all bland.

What there isn’t listed is ‘gelatinous blobs that float and pop and fizz,’ thankfully. While Baroness Christiane believes there is a place for molecular cuisine, experience shows that such places are only worth the one visit and that today’s true culinary innovation is tradition, ironically, and of the 24,000 people visit Palazzo Parisio a year, many of these are local serial diners, and are proof to this concept.

On this visit we enjoyed lunch in the gardens and had delightful minature arancini as a pre-appetiser, followed by a pearl barley and pear risotto in a red wine reduction served in UFO-like plates. We chose a Nero D’Avola to accompany the meal which was poured into voluminous two-hand size, fine stemmed balloon goblets.

Next came a tomato and melon terrine, the colours of a Kubrick but almost too beautiful to eat. Ours with half shelled prawns entwined in a tango-esque pose and for our vegetarian guest, a gazpacho. Any guilt for destroying the tower vanished on first forkful; crunchy, juicy, sweet, tart, delicious.

Next course was a mini goldfish bowl with a perfectly al dente couscous salad with feta and leaves. A simple salad but it looked (and tasted) so amazing, I have been hunting for similar dishes ever since. We had opted for the veal medallions which were flanked with roasted potatoes and artichoke hearts. 

Relaxing listening to the fountains and pointing out and discussing details, there doesn’t seem to be anything out of place; manicured gardens, pressed crisp linens, decorative cutlery, the prettiest pink candles, fresh flower centrepieces, immaculately dressed, impossibly handsome waiters, even the menu design deserves a mention, swirly pink and cream, a bit like my dessert.

Fresh strawberries and cream. Nothing beats it. But the tiramisu served with a shot of espresso did come close, though the lemon tart with a red berry sauce came even closer. By this point we were pleasantly full, I had been sensible enough to make sure the afternoon was completely free but the others had to dash so I took the chance to relax a while until I could speak to the chef.

Marco and I spent almost an hour chatting, he enthused about the location and about the ingredients; how important it is to get these right. The best vegetables, cheeses and seafood and meat are key. “Baroness Christiane inspires me with her vision and allows me to create dishes that meet her and the clients varied palettes.” The specials change daily and these are concocted from Marco’s years of experience working around the world. The plate he claims represents his and Palazzo Parisio’s culinary soul is a risotto with scallops and the fennel, prune and orange salad which is doused in a campari dressing; that’s definitely one for the next visit!

The varying menu is a team effort and all the chefs have a say. Though each is responsible for his section, they move around the kitchen every few months to ensure good all round experience and to keep them excited and motivated too. It’s a hierarchical organisation but has to be with 10 kitchen staff on at any one time.

Marco will stand for no nonsense though – the key attribute he looks for is a good attitude and respect for the food as well as the clients. They have to be willing to learn and build on the skills they bring with them. And it doesn’t stop there. He is adamant that the waiting staff know as much about the food as those that prepare it; being able to describe a dish, what is in it and how it is prepared is critical; down to every marinade, sauce and dressing. This not only ensures good service but helps those with allergies and intolerances to choose. At Palazzo Parisio, being a waiter is a vocation, a career, not just a job you take to help make ends meet.

The skill of timing and level of attention is, like everything down to the Limoges coffee cups, perfect. They know how to read you and steer you accordingly with the right level of playfulness without overstepping the mark. They remove the ‘stuffy’ side out of good service and allow you to be confident in your choices and comfortable at all times.  So come on over to ‘my place’, because you’re worth it!

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