What The Heck Is Ftira?

Ftira seems like a simple concept, but it's not. And it might not even really be ftira.
Malta isn't a big place, and Gozo (the "other island" in the archipelago) really isn't a big place. But it's big enough to have culinary specialties, and ftira - or is it ftajjar? - is principle among them.
We journeyed all over this speck of rock, getting confused, finding clarity, getting disappointed and, finally, finding the best ftira on earth (probably). So, what is this thing? It took us a while to figure that out.
Ftira, we knew, was a Gozitan specialty that was something like pizza, but also different from pizza. But I'll get to that in a minute.
Trying to be good about tasting local specialties, we stopped - on our first noon in Gozo - at the Clock House restaurant in Victoria, in front of which was a blackboard advertising Ftira. There was a list of different options, and the waitress was very flattering when I ordered. "Ah," she said. "You've ordered the one that we order. That's the traditional Gozo choice."
Well, this is what I ended up with. A tuna sandwich. It turns out, Ftira is a little more complicated than I'd thought. The clockhouse wasn't being misleading.
This is the second ftira I ordered, in the seaside town of Xlendi, and probably the worst. The sandwich, at least, was flavorful.
So, here's the thing. Ftira is a specific type of Maltese bread - not Gozitan bread, but Maltese bread in general. So, sometimes, a sandwich made on Maltese ftira bread can be called a ftira. That's a country wide thing. But Gozo has a special kind of this bread, which is similar to a pizza. But a pizza with Gozitan ftira toppings - anchovies, olives, onions, capers and slices of potato - isn't really a ftira either. This was basically just a pizza, masquerading as something else. It was dry and uninteresting, with no sauce or cheese. I was beginning to think that eating ftira was a worthless experience.Here's one problem - what I was looking for is actually called ftajjar, but is listed on menus and referred to as ftira (or, even, pizza). Here's the first good one I had a slice of, at a place called (inauspiciously) Victoria Hotspurs Sportsbar and Pizzeria.
It had all the elements - a strange crust, all the traditional toppings and the thinly sliced potato, plus a generous drizzle of olive oil.
Just across the square, and even less outwardly appealing, we found Rizzle's pizzeria, which was attached to a sweets shop and sold a lot of deep-dish pies and green pea pastries called pastizzi (another local treat). In their window, though, were some excellent examples of classic ftira.
The crust is unleavened, but still bouncy and doughy. It's reminiscent, somehow, of focaccia or - as Rebecca noted - very thick eggroll wrapper. The texture is chewy and it oozes oil, almost as though it were fried.
We bought a small one and decided, at that point, that Rizzle's was the best. We almost decided to stop eating this stuff - ftira fatigue, one could call it.
Malta is often mistakenly thought of as somehow Italian. In fact, it's decidedly un-Italian, with its own language, traditions and feel. Much of the tongue and culture is more north African than anything, and modern influences are heavily British. The word ftira is actually Tunisian, and calling this stuff pizza, just because it's round and flat (and Malta is close to Italy), is an attempt at fitting something exotic into a familiar role. That's what had me confused at first, and what has every pizzeria in the country offering inauthentic "gozitan ftira."
Above, premade, frozen ftira sold at Jubilee foods, in Victoria.
So, what does a perfect ftira look like, and where can you find it?
On a sun-baked street, in the quiet maze of little Nadur, is the incomparable Maxokk bakery. Open for over fifty years, the little storefront initially baked and sold all kinds of bread, but then gave in. Their ftajjar was so popular that they decided to dedicate their whole business to it.
Run by a small old lady and a large young man, Maxokk sells ftira either cooked, and ready to eat, or "half cooked," designed to be finished at home. There are no tables, just a couple of benches under a tree in the square outside. There is pizza on the menu, but nobody orders it - everyone comes for the specialty.
And it is delicious. The potatoes are crisp and well cooked, the tomatoes are melted, the capers and anchovies add a perfect level of salt and brine. We ate our ftira in a reverent state, in awe. This was completely different than pizza or bread - it was a kind of heavenly, savory tart. This is what a local specialty should taste like: surprising, interesting, specific and confusing.
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