Real Italian food has to be fresh, and no one knows that better than La Follia. Here, Daniella Gavin sits down with owner Sara Velutti to discuss the café’s mission to bring authentic and locally-sourced Italian food to Tunbridge Wells – with the help of Chef Antonio Padalino…
Where did your love for Italian food begin?
I love to eat! I grew up in the north of Italy with parents who were always cooking. As they say, it’s ‘like mamma used to make’. Antonio, our Chef, does the majority of the cooking here in Monson Road, whilst I assemble the food and look after our customers. The beauty of Italian food is that it’s so different wherever you go in the country. Everyone loves food in Italy, yet we all do it so differently.
Why did you decide to open your restaurant in Tunbridge Wells?
I started as an au pair in Tunbridge Wells. It was the first place I came to after leaving Italy. I have travelled a little within England, but ultimately you return to what you know. And I’ve known Tunbridge Wells since I arrived in 1992.
The original plan was to go to Australia, but I ended up in England as it was much closer and I fell in love with the place.
What do you think makes this so different to other Italian restaurants?
Often, Italian restaurants are not all that authentic. We actually have the knowledge of Italy and the passion for it. Not many restaurants can say everything is fresh, but we pride ourselves on that. People are used to a kind of Italian food that isn’t real Italian – real Italian food needs to be fresh.
Also, the atmosphere here is different. We are a relaxed café. You can come here with friends, you can come here to chill out – it feels like family. It’s the same vibe as when you invite friends round to your house for a dinner party, except we do the cooking.
The focus is on the good food and relaxed atmosphere.
Where do you source your products to ensure they are so fresh?
Everything is sourced within a five-mile radius. As I’ve said, good Italian food must be fresh, and fresh needs to be local.
Pembury Farm is great, particularly in the summer, and for fish I go to Sankey’s.
The meat we get from Fuller’s butchers is particularly amazing.
We are a small restaurant and it’s easy to know that if we run out of vegetables or nice bread, I can quickly cross the road to source it, rather than go to the freezer.
Have you established any regular customers?
We have a family from Gatwick who travel all the way here for us, and have done a fair few times. They say they appreciate the quality of the food. So many restaurants drop their prices to be the cheapest meal, but I’d rather make sure we maintain a good quality of food that people want to travel for. You get what you pay for, and my customers tell me not to change a thing.
I have had a few people from London, too. I just hope they enjoy it and want to come back.
What patterns have you noticed in trade since you opened?
We get a lot of passing trade in the summer, when people are out and about more, which is great. It’s been really strange actually – once we are busy, we continue to get even busier, but if it’s quiet it can be challenging to get people in. The winter is a little different, as we are pretty tucked away here. Being hidden actually makes us a really chilled-out and quiet spot to dine, but it’s getting people to hear about us first! Some potential customers probably don’t realise we are here offering real Italian food so close by.
How did you develop your menu?
We constantly change our specials board, and a lot of people choose to order from those. We have a lovely couple that come every Sunday specifically to try our new specials. Similarly, if you want something, ask. Sometimes people request a meal, and we will make it if it’s feasible.
Other than that, meals like seafood pasta are always popular. People love truffle with gnocchi, and then there are the easier dishes like carbonara, bolognaise and lasagne, which we always offer.
Do you have a speciality dish?
Actually, the truffle I mentioned is very popular – no one else around here has it. We are trying to do the white truffle more, but it’s such an expensive item to source, especially with the drop in the sterling, so we have to make sure it’s what the customer wants first.
Truffle is the ultimate Italian ingredient. We do the truffle pasta as a special sometimes and that never fails to impress.
We have to ask for a deposit sometimes for a bottle of truffle that we sell. It’s currently £71 in Harrods, which we sell for £35. You can save the train ticket to Harrods if you come to us, and we offer guidance on how to cook it the Italian way, so you don’t need to worry about wasting any of the exquisite flavour.
Do people often buy from you? I notice the bottles of truffle, biscuits and chocolates on display…
I think people don’t realise we sell these products. Saying this, we do get customers after the chocolates, or a bottle of truffle oil to take away. They make excellent Christmas presents. I love to sell these little tastes of Italy. Anyone who wants to cook specialist Italian food at home after visiting us is great!
Looking at your Trip Advisor page, you have solely ‘excellent’ and ‘very good’ reviews – what’s your secret?
I’m so pleased with those! I won’t ever ask anyone to write me a review, so they are based on genuine customer opinion, which make them really special. I hate not knowing who posted the reviews, though, when they’re all so positive. I can’t thank them personally, which is a shame.
What does the future hold for La Follia?
I just want to be an Italian restaurant with a difference! I don’t necessarily want a big restaurant, I like the intimate feel here, but a bigger kitchen would be nice. I’d like to finally bring proper Italian pizza to Tunbridge Wells, but I’d need a bigger oven because, at present, it would take half an hour for every pizza.
I’d like to do more parties as well in the future. We had one before that was really successful, and we are fully licensed to sell alcohol.
I just want to encourage more people to come and enjoy our food.
3B Monson Road
Tunbridge Wells TN1 1LS