Counted among the oldest cafés in Europe, Caffe Cordina is somewhat of a landmark in Valletta. Cesare Cordina opened Caffe Cordina on 11th November 1944, however, the business boasts a long and interesting history beginning from 1837, culminating in a rich family legacy that enjoys continued popularity today.
Its origins, however, are humble. “My ancestors, who were from San Gimignano in Italy, began by selling nougat – which we still make now according to the same recipe – from a cart drawn by a donkey,” explains John Cordina, Cesare’s son and current owner.
Cesare and his brother Ottone went on to open a popular confectionery in Cospicua, which, some years later, would suffer a terrible fate in World War II.
“The business in Cospicua received a direct hit from a German bomb during the war,” reveals John, explaining that its close proximity to the Drydocks meant that it was in a vulnerable position. “When the war was over, we had no business to speak of,” he says.
It was then that Cesare chose to relocate the business, renting the Valletta building that currently houses Caffe Cordina, which was then owned by the Casino Maltese. The building itself boasts a rich history, known during the rule of the Knights of St John as the Treasury of the Order. Inside, the decor is culminated by a unique vaulted ceiling, which is embellished with a series of paintings by renowned Maltese painter Giuseppe Calì, symbolising the previous rulers of Malta and the diverse eras in Malta’s history.
“I was born on 22nd September 1944, the same year that my father was moving the business to Valletta. They came to tell him that he had a son as he was putting up the paintings of Giuseppe Calì,” the affable John recounts, recalling a story his father told him at the time. “When the paintings were being taken down during the war, the frames had gotten chipped, and my father had re-made them using wood from the wooden boxes they used to put eggs in.”
The Cordina family would go on to commission the final three paintings that hang in the café today, which represent Malta’s Independence, the birth of the Republic and joining the European Union. A sweet anecdote related to the painting depicting the country’s Independence features the likeness of John’s own son, Luca – who is now in the process of taking over the business – as a young boy, steering a ship, which symbolises steering Malta towards independence.
When the business first moved to Valletta, John explains, the operation was notably smaller than it is today. “At the time, my mother was working in the pantry, washing dishes, and my father was in the bar, together with one employee,” he smiles, noting that the café only comprised the central part of the building, where the bar is located.
Over the years, Cesare enlarged the establishment, eventually taking over the British Pharmacy on one side and another small tabacco shop on Old Theatre Street. Recalling those early days, John recounts, “I used to sometimes carry pastizzi from the bakery near where the Suq tal-Belt is.”
And that first employee? His name was Frans Cutajar, and he started working with Caffe Cordina when he was just 15 years old. “He remained with us until he was 60. It earned him the nickname of Frans Cordina,” laughs John.
Reliving the major milestones in Caffe Cordina’s story since its inception, Luca, who represents the third generation in the family business, considers the move to Valletta as a notable milestone.
“At the time, there really was nothing in the area where the café is. The pjazza was a garden in front of the public library, and there was one coffee shop, Café Premier. My grandfather’s friends actually questioned him about the decision, calling him crazy. He had a real vision, and we’re so lucky,” he maintains, describing the location today as AAA.
Nodding in agreement, John explains, “Mr Tabone, one of the head people of the Casino Maltese, had actually told my father, ‘Are you sure you want to come all the way down here with a coffee shop?’ and my father’s exact words were ‘When the sun rises, it warms everyone’.”
Over the years, the café would go from strength to strength, welcoming numerous industry leaders, Heads of State and celebrities, and John is brimming with stories relating to visits by the who’s who of the island and beyond. “We catered the ball for Malta’s Independence, and Prince Philip was in attendance. It was a big undertaking, particularly because back in 1964, the catering sector was largely made up of ex-Navy chefs – it’s not what it is today,” he explains, recalling an amusing anecdote from the day.
“My father had discussed the menu with former Prime Minister of Malta George Borg Olivier, and suggested getting some beer. George said no, they shouldn’t serve beer at the ball, but the first thing Prince Philip asked for when he arrived was a Cisk lager! So, my father had to go and open the Caffe and brought back a case of Cisk Lager beer,” John chuckles.
Caffe Cordina earned a name for itself as the first proper caterer on the island, going on to cater for many of Malta’s society weddings. More recently, it even featured in the Steven Spielberg film, Munich. “We actually have a note from him framed in the office, where he thanks us for the hospitality and describes our nougat as the best he’s ever tasted,” Luca smiles.
Another milestone in the business’ development was when the café extended tables into the pjazza, in 1990. “My father had long wanted to do this, but it was difficult, because Kingsway at the time was accessible to cars, and they wouldn’t let us cross with waiters. There was even a time when he considered building a tunnel,” John reveals.
And once they eventually got the permit, business boomed. “My father told me, before he died, that if we manage to extend into the square, it will eventually be like catering a wedding every day – and it’s true,” says John.
Finally, the pair also consider Caffe Cordina’s stand at Malta International Airport another milestone for the business. “We’re the top seller at the airport, according to Dufry,” says John proudly, as John recalls how it came about.
“I remember going to Anthony Demajo at the time, who was in charge, and asking if we could sell our nougat at the airport. It was still in the old, brown and white box which my father had designed,” says John, revealing his motto, which he inherited from Cesare: “in catering, the customer is always right. That, and you have to buy the best available ingredients. Our purchasers buy nothing but the best.”
And the impact that Cesare had on Caffe Cordina continues to be felt, in many ways. He was a perfectionist, explains Luca, recounting how he’d wear two suits a day. “He’d have a morning suit, then go home for lunch with my grandmother, have a siesta and change into another suit before returning to the café,” he says, adding that Cesare’s smart demeanour made an impression on many, and has even trickled down to him.
“Till today, people that don’t know me come up to me and ask if I’m a Cordina. They tell me I’m very similar to my grandfather, which I really appreciate because he died before I was born, so I didn’t have the chance to get to know him.”
Going on to recount an anecdote that illustrates the respect his grandfather was shown by the café’s staff, Luca says, “my grandfather was known to wear a particular ring, and if he wasn’t there – you know what people are like when the boss isn’t in – they’d be chatting and so on. When he’d come in, he would tap his ring on the zinc bartop, and you could hear a penny drop it would go so quiet!”
And the people he employed remained, they reveal, mentioning one employee from Cesare’s time who still works in the café today, at 76 years old, Eucharisto Baldacchino. “People don’t look at catering as a career for life nowadays – they see it as a summer job, or a temporary position. But we have people that my father and grandfather have employed many years ago who are still with us today, and that says a lot,” beams Luca.
Indeed, the landscape in the industry has changed substantially over the years, not just in relation to employees. “Nowadays, there are around 52 coffee shops in Valletta, but it hasn’t affected my business,” John says, affirming that it is difficult to build up a name, but very easy to lose it. Apart from the emphasis on service and product, however, he also considers the café as a destination in itself, which certainly factors into its continued popularity.
“The most we spend in money terms is on the upkeep of the building,” he says, referencing the continuing restoration and 18-carat gold leaf on the ceiling and walls. The family is also working to have it recognised as a heritage site, owing to its unique history.
“My biggest achievement in relation to the building itself was acquiring the chandelier,” confides John. “I remember that the late Dr Mark Micallef, who was the Ambassador to Portugal and Spain, came up to me and told me ‘Johnny, I’ve found the right chandelier for you.’ It was at the house of Dun Eddie, George Borg Olivier’s brother, who had recently passed away. Prior to that, it had been hanging in Castille Palace.”
John bought the chandelier at auction and, eager to discover more about it, took a couple of pieces for evaluation to the island of Murano, in Venice. “When they saw the white glass, they told me that it dated back to the 15th century,” he smiles.
Currently, the chandelier, which the family affectionately refers to as ‘The Old Lady’, is being restored, with Luca planning a grand reveal in December.
The family is now in the process of transferring the business to the next generation, with Luca at the helm – and as the global pandemic dealt a sizeable blow in recent months, he isn’t afraid to admit, “it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever experienced.”
At 29, Luca anticipated having a few more years to find his feet within the business before taking it over completely, but when the pandemic hit, his father entrusted him with steering the ship through the COVID storm.
“It was a baptism of fire, and very tough, having to lay people off especially. Valletta was dead, and we don’t have a name for takeaway food, so getting into that was very difficult. The light at the end of the tunnel is there now, and in a sense I’m almost grateful for it, because I had to learn some tough truths very fast,” he says, revealing that the biggest lesson he learned from COVID was not to keep all your eggs in one basket.
Discussing his aims for the business moving forward, Luca explains that he intends to focus more on the B2B sector, as it will bring about more steady work. “With outside catering, it’s very seasonal work, and the amount of competition that has come into the industry has made it very tough,” he notes. Apart from that, without an affiliation with a specific venue and the logistical issues involved, Luca decided that rather than try to do both, it would make more sense to focus on the café itself, to really do it justice.
Luca’s B2B plans involve more emphasis on Caffe Cordina’s products – besides the sweets range, the company has also expanded on a gourmet range of Maltese delicacies including prickly pear jam, carob syrup and ġbejniet.
The aim is also to change people’s perceptions of what Caffe Cordina is known for, stepping outside of the obvious offerings of pastizzi, coffee and sweets. “It’s great that people know us for these things, but we’re so much more. At the moment we’re pushing lunch and breakfast options at the café, which are becoming quite popular,” Luca maintains.
“We’re also focusing on exporting our products, particularly since we do so well at the airport, and we’re also about to launch our new website, where customers can log on and buy our packed products and ready items, as well as custom cakes. It’s all about consolidating what we have and diversifying the business,” he continues.
Apart from that, he adds, another aspect the pandemic revealed is the need to expand out of Valletta. “It would be interesting to move outside of the capital to somewhere a bit more accessible,” he teases, hinting at a possible second location in the foreseeable future.
Moving forward, he summarises his drive to continue growing the product range, move outside of Valletta, launch the website and grow Caffe Cordina’s online presence. Meanwhile, John is working on a book, which will bring together comments and quotes from the various notable personalities who have visited the café throughout its rich history.
“We’re confident and looking forward to the future, and taking the business on into a new age, whilst still looking to the past and staying true to our values,” Luca concludes, ready to write the next chapter in Caffe Cordina’s incredible story.
She was previously Head of Marketing and Public Relations at the Malta-headquartered law firm.
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