Malta and Gozo - Day Four: 'Il Forno'
Earlier this year I spent a week in Malta and Gozo with my wife and a couple of our best friends. On the fourth day there we made our way to Gozo, and had a great day out in Victoria (Rabat) and Dwejra. For the evening we headed back to Marsalforn where we were based, in the Maria-Giovanna Hostel, to find somewhere to eat.
We at first headed to the Eastern end of the harbour, assessing each place as a possibility for dinner, and looking for somewhere where we could have a drink in what was left of the days sun.
We ended up on the patio of a hotel, not before having a quick conversation with the proprieter of 'Il Forno', who invited us in to drink on his veranda. We passed, for now. After one drink we headed to the opposite side of the harbour, to look at the restaurants there. This was the first-time on the Maltese islands that we had been aggresively invited in. One of the restaurant owners was insistent that my wife should go inside to see the fish. 'Come in and smell the fish' became another catch-phrase for the rest of the holiday alongside 'She's got Tina Turner eyes'. At the next restaurant we got similar treatment, but this time from a very attractive young waitress, so V. & I said "Let's stop here". That's boys for you. :-)
They had a gazebo on the harbour front with a gas heater, so we stayed there to see if it was warm enough to eat there - but it wasn't, so we headed back across the harbour to eat at 'Il Forno'. Earlier I had been criticised by my wife for always being clever after-the-fact, and not saying things up front. So having already spoken to him, as we approached the restaurant and we saw the owner again presiding over the front patio I turned to my friends and said - "This guy is a mentalist. Grade A Weirdo. Mark my words". I was not wrong.
The Il Forno Restaurant in Marsalforn was very oddly set out, with just three or four tables downstairs, and in the corner a coffee table, a TV and a couple of sofas, as if it had been haphazardly set up in someone's front room. The toilet took the form of a wooden confession box in the corner of the room.
The owner was a Maltese guy, maybe in his early fifties, wearing a very open-necked shirt who was very chatty. The more you looked around the place the more you began to think the set-up was strange. The waitress was an oriental woman in her forties, also wearing a very open shirt, that seemed to get more open as the evening progressed. In fact, as she leant over the table to serve, it was difficult to know where to look - well, for a bloke it was obvious where to look, but it was difficult to know how to remain polite.
As I said, the owner was very chatty, but everything he said somehow started making us laugh. And once a group of people have got the giggles, it can be very hard to shake, and from that point on we were struggling not to laugh at everything. At one stage I nearly walked out - because I thought I was going to injure myself supressing laughter. Virtually everything became funny - he offered to advise J. with the menu, and when she said "I didn't fancy the fish, I was looking at the pasta" he said "Well, I can't help you there" as if the pasta wasn't worth talking about. It was such an unexpected response.
Whilst we were waiting for our food he sat on the sofa near us and began asking us where we were from, what we did etc. I managed a summary of that, and then asked him about himself. It turned out that he had previously run tourist cruises on Malta, but had moved here to operate this property a few years back. He was currently, as well as running the restaurant, rebuilding the upper stories of the house.
Once our food arrived our host then settled down to provide us with the evening's entertainment. The lid on a wooden cabinet behind us was lifted to reveal a vintage 70s mixing desk and a vintage 80s drum machine, and then an acoustic guitar was produced. He settled down to serenade us with a selection of bossanova and rhumba tunes. At the end of each track V. started a round of applause which rippled around the restaurant, to which the owner replied by shouting out a self-deprecating "Rubbish! Rubbish!". When we were chatting to him later he said "Sometimes I don't know if I am playing for the people or just playing for myself".
It was whilst he was playing the guitar that for the first time we as a group suddenly noticed the selection of small dolls around the place. A couple of them appeared to be dressed as Herr Flick from "'Allo 'Allo". I was trying to surreptitiously take photographs of the more 'interesting' aspects of the décor, but got spotted, not by the owner, but by a group on the table next to us. They then seized one of the dolls in question and got myself and the wife to pose with it for a proper photo. To be honest I was mortified - it was one thing giggling, but this seemed like open mockery. Sure enough, when he had finished playing the owner came over to demonstrate the doll. He seems to collect dolls that dance and sing, so we were treated to a demo from the Herr Flick doll, and then another demo of an oriental doll that danced and sang by responding to hand-claps. Which was sinisterly similar to the oriental waitress serving us...
Still, throughout the evening I kept the owner engaged in conversation, asking the right open type of questions to get lots of information from him. (I'm repeatedly told that it is probably my single most transferable skill at work, although frankly to me it just sounds like I'm being nosey like my mum!)
He settled down to play a second selection of tunes, and after each track V. and I discussed with him his picking style. I couldn't help myself and went a bit further, (slightly) criticising his drum machine programming as being too busy, and we ended up getting on like a house on fire.
Which was simply all too much for the girls who rapidly got bored and decided to head off to a bar around the corner and left us to talk about guitar technique and pay the bill. Fair play.
I have to say that bizarre as it was, in the end I really warmed to the owner, and the food was exceptional. If you ever find yourself eating on Gozo in Marsalforn I would definitely suggest you visit Il Forno - the food is mostly Italian based, the service and atmosphere unique, but the welcome and conversation you can have is genuinely warm. I stress again - unique, but well worth visiting.