One small bakery in the Junction has kept the Maltese community alive — and fed — for 30 years
“Are you Maltese?” asks the lovely older woman picking up half a dozen cheese pastizzi for her daughter. For several hours I’ve been sitting in the Malta Bake Shop, watching as members of the small but proud Maltese-Canadian community trickle in and out the door, boxes of flaky, warm, ricotta-stuffed pastizzi in hand. “Too bad,” she says, when I reply no. “You really must visit Malta sometime. I insist. Beautiful country. Beautiful women.”
In a city whose hallmark is multiculturalism, several heavy hitters dominate swaths of Toronto with their languages, faces and foods: the Chinese on Spadina and in Markham; the Indians in Brampton and Mississauga; the west-end Portuguese and St. Clair Italians; the Eglinton Jamaicans and Bathurst Jews.
Because of this, we tend to overlook the micro-communities. Hailing from countries many would struggle to find on a map (like Moldova), or from those simply under-represented here (Argentina), these clumps of immigrants and their descendants can be as small as a few families. When we happen on their restaurants and food shops, it feels like uncovering buried gold.
This is the case with Malta Village, a stretch of Dundas just west of the Junction. Malta is a tiny island nation south of Sicily, with a population under half a million. During the mid-20th century, more than 20,000 of its sons and daughters came to Canada and a Maltese community formed around Dundas and Runnymede, drawn by work in nearby slaughterhouses and rail yards. In the 1970s, as the economy of Malta improved, immigration came to a halt and as much as a quarter of the community eventually moved back. Other families left Malta Village for the suburbs, and today it retains little more than a few travel agencies, churches, social clubs and barbershops bearing the red cross of Malta’s flag.
Holding it all together is the Malta Bake Shop (3256 Dundas Street West), a small bakery and restaurant that opened in 1978. Owners Antoinette and Charles Buttigieg purchased the shop in 1983 and put great effort into maintaining its place as the community’s de facto home base. “My mom had a big hand in creating Malta Village,” says Ivy Buttigieg, a petite 22-year-old brunette in a “Bake With Love” t-shirt emblazoned with the Maltese cross, who runs the shop with her parents. In the 1990s, as the community was on the verge of dying out, Antoinette rallied support for a referendum to allow local merchants to sell liquor (the Junction was previously dry), and got Maltese businesses to band together.
Most mornings at the Bake Shop you’ll find seniors enjoying a breakfast of coffee and a pastry, and on Sundays after church the line stretches out the door. The draw for most are the pastizzi, Malta’s iconic food. These savoury treats are made of hand-stretched, margarine-based puff pastry dough that’s stuffed with a traditional filling of salty ricotta or mashed peas with ground beef or pork, folded into an oval pocket and baked. A single pastizz is crisp, flaky, greasy and hot, and there is just enough filling to add flavour without overshadowing the dough. The family now sells frozen pastizzi to supermarkets around the province, in flavours that include potato and onion, and feta with spinach.
Other savoury specialties include timpana, a dense phyllo pie stuffed with a pasta and meat sauce; fenkata, a rich rabbit Bolognese that needs to be ordered a day ahead; and gbejniet, a dry, pickled cheese steeped in vinegar and cracked black peppercorns that’s slightly tart and tastes of the sea. The front display counter is lined with close to a dozen traditional Maltese pastries, including quat-tal-hanira (looks like a mashed bagel, tastes like a butter cookie), trizzi (almond, chocolate and dried cherry biscotti cake), and quq-tal-ghasel (a donut-shaped cookie filled with dark, anise-scented molasses), each of which gets even better when dunked in coffee or tea.
Sit in the Malta Bake Shop long enough and you’ll quickly see how the food acts as the glue holding this scattered and shrinking community together. A steady stream of shoppers rotate in and out the door, boxes of pastizzi under their arms, bringing a taste of Malta back to mom, dad, grandpa or the grandkids in Markham, Hamilton, Michigan or Vancouver. “This area is now just a landing pad for people who once lived here,” says Joe, a former local who came from Brampton for lunch. “They get in, get their taste and jump out.” When immigrant populations assimilate, first the dress goes, then the language, religion and other customs, and finally the neighbourhood itself. But we hold on to food for generations, because no matter how far we get from our roots, home still tastes good.