La Tavernetta: Portrait of a Landmark

In the early 1960s, Felice Puricelli and his friend Romano came to Folkestone from the shores of Lake Como. They found work at the Metropole Hotel, one as a chef, the other as a waiter. In order to improve their English, they took afternoon classes at the School of English Studies and, in 1965, the two friends opened La Tavernetta.

In 1996, my ageing father moved into the Clifton Hotel, just a few doors down from his favourite restaurant. Several times a week, he would visit his old friend, Felice for a plate of Dover sole and a glass of Pinot Grigio. Peter was already suffering with dementia and a few months later, Felice, somewhat awkwardly, explained to me that Mr. O’Connell was still ‘signing’ for, rather than ‘paying’ for his meals. The School of English Studies had an account at La Tavernetta for thirty years and Peter had never physically paid for a meal there in his life. He would have been mortified had he realised he was unknowingly cheating his old friend. I was grateful to Felice for continuing to feed my father, even though he had no idea when, or indeed if, he would ever be reimbursed.

After Romano died in 1996, Felice and his wife, Barbara took over the restaurant. Barbara was front of house and managed the legendary sweet trolley, which still travels around the room like a three-dimensional Thiebaud painting. The scrumptious display would arrive with perfect timing, just when your Pollo Sorpresa had settled, just when a little room had been made for a trifle, a pistachio cheesecake or those delicious orange slices, soaked in Grand Marnier. Once the evening rush was over, Felice, in his chef’s hat, would appear through the swing doors and sweep the restaurant, graciously acknowledging each table as he went.

Felice passed away last year on October 9th. He was 81. I used to visit him in his care home and although he was frail, his memory was strong and we never tired of sharing old stories.

Tommaso and Kirstine Borrello took over from the Puricellis in 2005. Tommaso began his career at La Tavernetta in 1979 when, at the age of 17, Felice gave him a job as a kitchen porter. He soon progressed from washing dishes to preparing starters. Everything I learnt about cooking, I learnt from Felice, he told me. He left for a while – to spread his wings –  before returning in 1992.

The restaurant has weathered three recessions and a pandemic and I asked Tommaso about the secret to its enduring success: Family is important here. Sometimes we see four generations at the same table. People like to return, to remember, to enjoy the dishes they associate with parents and grandparents. We often host wakes here too – for the same reason. Borrello acknowledged the importance of his own family and admitted that without Kirstine and Barbara, he and Felice could never have grown the business as successfully as they did. Behind the bar hangs a framed photograph of Mrs. Borrello Sr. at home in Calabria, stirring a cauldron of pasta over an open fire. The walls are punctuated with black and white photographs of uncles, brothers and cousins in Malvito, where Tommaso was born.

Diego Sanna has been on the staff for 27 years and Ferdinando Lambrusciano has been associated with La Tavernetta since 1976. They are a large part of what makes the restaurant a success, Borrello told me: They know which customers like their steaks well-done, which take sweetener with their coffee and who likes the corner tables. Silver Service is now only found in top hotels, French restaurants and on cruise liners. To those who say it’s old-fashioned, I say – If it works, why fix it? Carpet tiles cover the original parquet flooring but Tommaso is in no hurry to remove them because of the effect it would have on acoustics and increased noise-levels.

You’d be hard pressed to find anywhere that compares to La Tavernetta – not just in Kent but across the UK. I discovered a look-alike restaurant once, near the British Museum but when I tried to go back, it was gone.

I love La Tavernetta for many reasons. I love that everyone was so kind to my father. I love that Diego and Ferdinando will never greet us with the words Hey Guys.. what can I get you? I love the starched linen and the gentle background music that allows you to be in relaxed conversation with your dinner companion. I love that the staff wear black because it reminds me to dress up when I make a dinner reservation. I love that I can order Dover sole on the bone, safe in the knowledge that it will be perfectly-filleted. I love that if I have a sudden craving for Zabaglione, my mother’s favourite dessert, Tommaso will whip one up for me, right there in the restaurant, in spite of the fact that it’s no longer on the menu.

Going to La Tavernetta is like going home and I suspect I am not the only person in Folkestone who feels that way.