The area of Bucharest known as the Old Town or Historical Center – or simply Lipscani – has changed a lot in the last four years, becoming the central hub for a night out in the city, the place to hang out, to see and be seen. Many new restaurants have opened, filling the sidewalks with their tables during the summer and offering everything from sandwiches to steak and sushi, from local cuisine to many types of international fare.
Open since March 2010, the Malagamba Restaurant is located just off Smardan Street at No 2 Sf. Dumitru Street, and is already one of the “veterans” in the area. I asked the friendly Irish owner, John McCarthy, how he came up with the name of the restaurant. “I chose the name Malagamba after I heard about Sergiu Malagamba (1913-1978), a jazz composer that played in the area in the past. I liked his story and felt he deserved to be remembered. He was a non-conformist and got into quite a bit of trouble with the oppressive regimes of the time and was imprisoned on more than one occasion. He was not afraid to be different and we continue this tradition somewhat in that even though we are primarily an Italian restaurant we also offer dishes from other parts of the world. The “Malagambist” culture of being non-conformist, of “standing out from the crowd” is one that I would like to carry on. Due to the fact that our location is in “The Historical Center” I also considered it appropriate that we use a historical figure that meant something”. Coincidentally, the Rhapsody Theater where Sergiu Malagamba performed a series of historical concerts is also located in the Old Center, not far from the Malagamba restaurant.
I guess one can say that my husband and I are regulars. We’ve been going to Malagamba once or twice a month ever since we first discovered it about three years ago. We decided to try it based on the recommendation of a friend, and we kept going. Aside from the good food, we also feel really comfortable in the relaxed and friendly atmosphere.
I usually start with either the Italian Antipasto – a plate of salami and ham along with sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and olives – or if I’m in the mood for lots of garlic, I start with the Tomato Bruschetta. My husband often goes for Fritto Misto: breaded and deep fried seafood with a side of salad and spicy tomato sauce. When we finish with the appetizers, we move to on to our favorites, pasta for me and fish or meat for my husband. Asking John if he’d like to mention anything in particular from the menu, he told us that his taste varies from day to day. “I do very much like to eat and consider myself having very high standards when it comes to food. We spend a long time creating and upgrading the menus at Malagamba so we can offer freshness and variety. We use only the best ingredients in preparation and I think it shows and is also appreciated by those that know food. There are also no dishes that I would not recommend at Malagamba. If there were, I would remove them from the menu”.
Even if John prefers not to mention anything in particular, I would like to mention two of the desserts. Their lime and basil sorbet seems to be a legend among the foodies of Bucharest, and the Pecatto di gola is exactly as noted on the menu: “A chocoholics dream come true”. And to go with the food, the menu includes a good selection of local wines, some of which can be ordered by the glass
The portions at Malagamba are not really big, but that is something that I personally like. This way you have a chance to work your way to the desserts.
We’ve never had a bad experience in this place, except perhaps having to wait a little when it’s really busy – usually during the late summer nights when there seem to be no empty tables anywhere in the Old Center.
I also asked John why he decided to open a restaurant in Bucharest. “I came first to Romania in 2007 shortly after Romania joined the EU. I fell in love with the place and especially the warm and welcoming people. My plan was to open a restaurant and if it was successful to open some more. Given the success of Malagamba to date I am happy with how the venture has gone and I am now on the lookout for a suitable location for Malagamba no. 2.”
“I saw when I came first that unless one was willing to pay Western European prices in restaurants that the standards were very low both in terms of food quality and service. My plan was to offer 5 star food and service at 3 star prices.
In Western Europe people are quite concerned with “value” when it comes to restaurants, but I discovered this is not always the case in Romania and is reflected in the fact that the Romanian language does not actually have a word for “value”. There is also the “fitse” culture in Romania which is more concerned with image than quality which I later became aware of and this also lends itself to lowering the quality of what is on offer. By focusing on the quality of food and service, ignoring the “fitse” we have built up a loyal following of clients that respect what we are trying to offer and have helped the business to be very successful.”