TA’ MARIJA – OUR STORY
Every Maltese family has a nana or nanu who take it upon themselves to protectively guard the secrets behind the art of Maltese cuisine; fare famed the world over for its unique tastiness.
Maltese children are introduced to their inherited national cuisine at an early age by their grandparents, who would drag them round the local butchers, fishmongers, and bustling fruit and vegetable markets until they learnt how to select the finest, freshest, Mediterranean produce by sight, smell, and squeeze.
Whole school holidays would be spent in the kitchen, learning authentic Maltese dishes, which would be cooked repeatedly until recipes are personalised and perfected. Dishes which combine the seductive flavours of North Africa, and the culinary panache of European chefs.
In fact, it is the national duty of each family’s matriarch to keep the Islands’ cuisine alive, so foodies the world over will continue to enjoy cooking traditional Maltese food, as much as devouring it. And gastronomic secrets will continue to be handed down through the generations.
Which is what Ben Muscat Snr (known as Benny), the founding owner and ever-present host of the oldest, and most-popular Maltese restaurant on the Island, Ta’Marija, is doing.
Just like how his nanu Tonna taught him what fruit and vegetables are harvested in what season, the name of every cut of meat, and species of local fish (and his nana how to then turn these culinary delights into magical dishes in the kitchen), he is now guiding his grandchildren through their gastronomic education.
They adore being in the family eatery, and happily spend their summer holidays helping out in nanu’s greenhouse, assisting in the time-consuming process of making his homemade specialities: including Benny’s legendary sun-dried tomatoes, pickled gbejnet and stuffed olives.
Moreover, it is this personal passion for Maltese cuisine that Benny injects into Ta’Marija. Which is why, over 50 years after opening in the quaint village of Mosta, it is still booked solid night-after-night, topping the Best Maltese Restaurant category every year since the government-backed, national Definite(ly) Good Guide to Restaurants Awards started.
However, there is more to a restaurant’s success than just ticking all the award-winning criteria boxes, from having welcoming staff, to scrumptious food, and a cosy venue in the unique village of Mosta, in the heart of Malta. This eatery stays one-step ahead of the competition by having an extra special ingredient: Marija.
Although Benny still dedicatedly devises the regularly changing menu, selects, grows, or makes all the ingredients himself – and possesses all the food, wine, and business knowledge a restaurateur needs – his wife is the garnish.
Whilst he stays in the kitchen to make sure every dish is perfect, appearing to guide meal choices, Marija greets and serves their guests in her energetic and graceful way. Always well-dressed, and strikingly beautiful, she floats around the floor, telling stories in several languages, radiating happiness with her infectious smile and, at the end of the night, gathers her family for an impromptu post-dessert singsong on the dance floor.
If Benny is the heart of the restaurant, she is the soul; their evident love for each other creating an electric atmosphere that makes dining at Ta’ Marija an unforgettable dining experience.
Benny did not dream about becoming a restaurateur when he was a young boy growing up in the petite village of Mtarfa, even though his family ran a successful pork business and nurtured his cooking skills. He wanted to teach. And, after studying Electronics and Telecommunications at London University, he returned to Malta and started lecturing Engineering at the Malta College of Arts, Science, and Technology.
The young teacher’s social life was hectic, yet he always finished his legendary pub-crawls with a visit to his favourite drinking hole: the New Bar Inn in Mosta.
One drunken night, the owner, a young woman called Benna, sold the bar to Benny who decided to run it himself every evening and weekend, whilst keeping his day job.
During the same period, Benny met Marija when he went to meet friends for a Sunday afternoon drink at the West End Hotel in St Paul’s Bay. This was the ‘in’ place for youngsters in the 60s, who enjoyed dancing on its rooftop disco-with-a-spectacular-view.
It was here that Benny noticed Marija. Even though she was dancing with another man, Benny decided she was too attractive, and their connection too great, to ignore.
He pursued her and, eventually, Marija relented, and after a few dates they both knew their futures would be entwined forever.
Marija was also a teacher. Nevertheless, because Benny spent all his spare time at his ‘hobby’ bar, it was inevitable that Marija soon joined him there. She soon started lending a hand, and their chemistry as hosts speedily became legendary with the clientele.
The bar was re-named Brandy A-Cum-Cum, a play on the name of the famous playboy nightclub in London called Whisky A-Go-Go. Benny built a bandstand, and local rock bands and DJs started performing there every night. This was a hit with the British and NATO servicemen who were posted to Malta, as well as launching the career of many of today’s local stars, including the television star Norman Hamilton.
The Whisper Era
But Benny soon started to crave a more adventurous culinary project. So he and Marija renovated the bar with bombastic murals of the Siege of Malta by renowned artist Anton Agius, and erected an American charcoal grill (the first of its kind in Malta) in an open plan kitchen, turning the bar into a steakhouse called Whisper Knightclub and Farmhouse. (Whisper being the name of Benny’s favourite character in a James Bond novel.)
This was a dining out godsend for the island, due to the difficulty of obtaining quality cuts of meat at reasonable prices. However, Benny came from a family of butchers, so he knew where to get the best meat. His quest for quality also included roping in Wigi Sultana, who used to be Lord Mountbatten’s personal Chef, to devise the launch menu.
And the live music and dancing area was not sacrificed. It retained its place as the focal point of the venue, making Whisper as popular as a post-dinner destination, as well as an eatery. Due to there being very few places where people could go out to eat, drink, and dance to live music till the early hours, Whisper was packed night, after night. Benny had succeeded in revolutionising eating out in Malta.
Because the couple took their entertainment as seriously as their food, due to their shared passion for music, they started flying over top British acts to entertain their cosmopolitan clientele while they feasted. International performers included Tim Rice and Engelbert Humperdink, as well as local musicians Joe and Pawlu Curmi. Benny and Marija were also known to join in the sing-alongs, often started by the American servicemen, many of whom turned out to be well-known performers in their homeland.
The hosts’ guests were equally as famous. And Whisper was popular with local politicians, ambassadors, and dignitaries, including the ex-Prime Minister of Malta, Dr George Borg Olivier, as well as the expat military. Stars of the day also dropped by for dinner when they were passing through, the steakhouse having hosted the James Bond actor Roger Moore, comedian Ernie Wise, and the infamous Cleo Laine for dinner.
Due to the success of Benny’s venture, he and his wife realised that they could not sustain such late nights, as well as performing in their day jobs. So, they both quit teaching and got married in 1968, and their wedding reception was obviously held at Whisper. The couple still remember their clients’ gatecrashing the family bash, and everyone partying through the night… and well into the next day.
Whisper was no flash-in-the-pan entertainment hotspot, it remained the most popular restaurant in Malta for years, with photos from their legendary international parties constantly gracing the local media’s social pages.
But it was because Benny and Marija never sacrificed their high standards that clients kept coming back time and time again. The newlyweds made sure the level of customer service went miles beyond good staff; and that every patron left satisfied, every time they visited. A policy which they have prided themselves in maintaining until the present day.
By this time Marija had mothered a baby daughter, Lara, and was pregnant with a baby boy, who would carry on the Muscat family tradition of naming the first-born son Ben. The expanding young family needed a bigger home, plus a garden where Benny could grow his herbs, fruits and vegetables.
But instead of following property trends of the time and purchasing a modern villa, Benny bought Palazzo Pescatore: a rundown, grand property with acres of land. Ever since he had seen the palace as a young man, Benny had dreamt of owning it. However, having been derelict for decades, it now needed total renovation.
Never one to back away from a challenge, or take on a project half-heartedly, Benny threw all his energies, and finances, into restoring the majestic property back to its former glory. He managed to do this in record time, without slacking on his father, husband, and Whisper duties, constructing a luxurious family home on one side of the property, and creating an imposing restaurant on the other.
Aimed at a different clientele to Whisper, Palazzo Pescatore offered fine dining for the wealthy Maltese upper classes, and senior-ranking British and US military, who wanted to dine on exquisite Mediterranean cuisine in privacy. Plus, being the avid gastronomic pioneer, Benny also hired the venue for ostentatious weddings, providing a lavish, silver spoon catering service.
And for two years before it ran into difficulties during the turbulent political times experienced in 80s Malta, the palace hosted the most prestigious guest lists ever witnessed on the Maltese Islands. In fact, it is still a popular venue for sumptuous functions nowadays, and remains the Muscats’ home.
The Birth of Ta’ Marija
Unlike other eateries on the island, Whisper weathered this traumatic period triumphantly. And although the ever-trying competition could not match its popularity nor profitability, Benny was not totally satisfied with his success… because he had a final gastronomic ambition to sate.
The first night he met Marija, Benny shared with her his dream to open a Maltese restaurant serving the authentic dishes his grandparents had taught him to cook as a child. This was an idea that, at the time, seemed ludicrous, because locals only ate traditional food at home, viewing it as unsophisticated farmers’ fare and preferring to indulge in Italian food when dining out. Or more exotic cuisines like Chinese, or Indian.
But Benny’s golden foresight had stuck again. Mass tourism was booming, and holidaymakers were swarming to the Maltese Islands, many wanting to try local fodder. But there was nowhere to go, except dingy fenkata canteens, and snack cafes serving pastizzi and timpana. Benny thought that did not do the unique Maltese cuisine justice, and he wanted to change the scenario.
So, against the advice of everyone, Benny shut Whisper at the height of its success and spent months revamping the Mosta site once more. Marija designing the interiors, including the illustrious ship galley bar, and set about auditioning traditional Ghana singers, and folk dancers, to perform in the restaurant and keep up the Muscats tradition of offering atmosphere-inducing live entertainment.
During this time, the culinary visionary started researching traditional dishes. He and Marija spent days locked away in their kitchen, with their family, chefs, books and friends, adding twists to familiar dishes, and unearthing forgotten ancient ones, till they had a suitable launch menu.
And, with great trepidation, they opened Ta’Marija in 1990, the first traditional Maltese a la carte restaurant on the island, named after Benny’s muse, and love of his life, his wife Marija.
Again, Benny proved his critics wrong. Ta’Marija was an instantaneous victory, with the restaurant remaining busy every day, often turning over two sittings for lunch, and two for dinner, serving 800 people daily in peak holiday periods.
And with a Maltese band serenading diners with cute traditional songs like xxx (The Kissing Song) and the sing-along classic xxx (xxx), scrumptious authentic food, attentive staff and hosts, plentiful parking, and the warmest atmosphere you will find on the island, it is easy to see why the Mosta eatery continues to be a success until today.
A New Generation of Muscats
Benny and Marija realised that their children had inherited their culinary talents when they were still toddlers. Lara and Ben Junior loved being around either restaurant, joining their parents for after-dinner family sing-alongs, much to the delight of diners, who, along with the staff, spoilt the adorable brood rotten.
They also cherished the time they spent in the Ta’ Marija kitchen with their parents, and grandparents, learning how to cook, and deciphering the family gastronomic secrets. Plus helping Benny grow fruit and vegetables in the Palace’s generous gardens, creating his specialities, and going to the fish market with their mother to select the finest seafood for that day’s ‘specials’.
By the time they were teenagers, the Muscat offspring were both experienced foodies. Ben showed an exceptional ‘nose’ for wine and the managerial side of the business, and decided to go to London to work as an accountant, rather than enter the family business straight away.
And, although Lara would often turn up to the restaurant to join her mother in hosting guests, and was constantly updating the menu with her new creative dishes and legendary desserts, she started her own beauty business, and didn’t become a permanent fixture at Ta’ Marija immediately either.
But now, 53 years since Benny and Marija started running Brandy A-Cum-Cum together, the Mosta venue is ready to embrace a new era. Lara and Ben have started taking a more active role in the family restaurant, and the next Muscat generation are gradually taking over the gastronomic reins from their folks, to head the Ta’ Marija empire.
Ben moved back from London and went to work at the restaurant full-time, bringing his business knowledge and youthful vision with him. Although he still sings, greets and serves with his mother, and often goes with his dad in the day to select the ingredients, he is mostly concerned with the business side of things.
He has spent the past few years re-organising the books, streamlining the business to make it more efficient, and enriching the corporate image.
Lara is also heavily involved, albeit in a more subtle way, as is her character. She and her brother constantly make sure they have the best wines on the menu together, and she spends hours with the chef each month making sure the menu is innovative and interesting, as well as meeting customer demands.
A youthful, new lease of life has been injected into this popular eatery.
And now Benny and Marija are in their golden age they are naturally slowing down. But they are still at the restaurant every night, hosting old and new friends alike, like they have done for the past half century, dining at ‘their’ table, because they believe in eating as a client does to keep an eye on food quality and service.
Plus, on their rare days off, they make it a point to try one of the other restaurants on the island, so they can keep an eye on the competition – their enthusiasm for the business seldom dwindling. Clearly Benny and Marija are not capable of retiring. It is not in their nature to completely let go of the restaurant they have put their heart and soul into for the majority of their lives.
Which is why they are still winning awards, and in permanent demand by the local and international media. The success of Ta’ Marija turning Benny and Marija into national gastronomic icons, whose cookery shows are even screened as far afield as Canada and Australia: countries with thousands of Maltese emigrants hungry to learn how to cook traditional Maltese food from the experts.
But even though they share many popular recipes, Benny and Marija still veraciously guard the secret ingredients and methods used in family dishes, like the house favourite, nana’s ravioli, which has been passed down the Muscat family tree since before anyone can remember.
So this is the Ta’ Marija story – the story of the most popular Maltese food restaurant in Malta !