“The food we try to keep very simple, Italian, fresh, easy. Not overcook or spoil the product, this is very important,” insists Michael Perrotta, proprietor of arguably Penge’s most popular Italian restaurant — or perhaps just restaurant full stop.
Come nightfall, Penge High Street is pretty much a ghost town, bar the inviting pub lights. But Friends of Flavours, located on Green Lane just past the old police station, is a shining beacon. Michael, along with chef Bruno Guidi, and a rotating crew of waitresses and waiters have made this restaurant not just a rare sit-down eatery in a sea of takeaways, but a destination venue that attracts customers from Penge but also Beckenham, Crystal Palace, Sydenham and beyond.
Serving authentic and high quality Italian food with a Neapolitan flavour owing to Michael’s upbringing in the port city of Naples, assorted Napoli football team memorabilia decorating the restaurant’s walls, its focus on pasta, seafood and meat dishes — eschewing typical staples like pizza — differentiates it from the pack (and helpfully Sicilian Art down the road).
Having recently been spruced up with a new covered terrace area practically doubling the size of the place, most nights it’s busy, and packed at weekends. Up for best local restaurant in the Time Out Love London Awards, it came top in the first round, so Friends of Flavours is clearly a heavyweight contender. Penge Tourist Board sat down with Michael to learn more about one of Penge’s biggest draws…
What’s the history of the restaurant? You used to be in Clock House, right?
“It used to be Flavours then. Initially it was a deli kind of thing, it opened in 2001. When you start up you have to start something small. Eventually we did a restaurant there and it was going well. Unfortunately I was not getting on with the landlord, so I closed that one down. The lease expired actually. And I meant to do a coffee bar here [in Penge].”
So Friends of Flavours was a coffee bar to start with?
“We had ice cream, nice coffee. It was 2009, when I started I still had Flavours. In the beginning it was going well, we had all this chocolate, very trendy expensive stuff. People were coming in, but then in the credit crunch, the first thing you cut is coffee, obviously. People lost their jobs. I closed and then reopened first as a pasta bar. I had a big row with Bromley council. It took a long time, they only allowed me to open up to eight o’clock, so I got fed up, closed completely, put up a sign explaining the situation to people. Eventually so many people wrote in, they had so many complaints, ‘Why don’t you try to help local businesses?’ Eventually they gave me the full [license], which means you can cook, can have a restaurant. It’s just over three years now as a restaurant.”
Why did you choose Penge for the new location of Friends of Flavours?
“I have a good deal here I must admit, and everybody was saying, ‘Penge is going up’. I had a look around and there was not much. So I said, ‘If we have nice coffee with a nice garden, I think we’ll do very well’.”
You’re from Naples originally. I just saw the Napoli team flag there actually…
“There’s a proper one there (he motions). It’s signed by players, somebody who used to work with the Napoli coach gave it to me, he used to come here.”
What influenced your choices with the menu? Is it a particular kind of Italian cuisine?
“Obviously being from Naples, I started this job in Italy. So you always grow up with some kinds of flavours, I think we all do. You remember when your mum used to cook a dish, those flavours remain in your palate forever. I’m from there and as you can see we’ve got a lot of seafood. We specialise in seafood, the seafood from Naples. Even if you go to north Italy, you see Napoli, they’re going to say, ‘Proper pizza, nice seafood’. We do everything, but seafood is our main thing, we eat it every day nearly.”
The restaurant is very popular. Have you been noticing it getting busier in the last year or so?
“I must admit for the first two years, we’d hardly get anyone from Penge. Only my old customers. But the last year I think people from Penge started to appreciate it. They like it, so we do get lots of locals now.”
You’ve lived in Penge for a long time…
“I’m a Penge boy! (laughs). I’ve been in Penge for a while but I like it. Everyone says Beckenham, Beckenham, but I can’t see that much difference between Penge and Beckenham, obviously I’m not from here. To my eyes. I prefer our parks in Penge, even Crystal Palace Park, it’s a more natural kind of park, and I enjoy more walking there, for instance. It’s all small shops, even though they’re not building up yet. There’s potential. If you’ve got a big chain, they accommodate you very well, you get big premises. But they can never offer what you give, the quality and everything else with it.”
So you think that Penge would be better with more independent businesses?
“I think it has the potential, because the way I look at it, there’s already Crystal Palace, we’re kind of in the middle. I know what it’s like, as you start… once I was a little bit upset with the council because they really gave me a hard time, but they seem to be ok now. There seems to be lots of positive energy at the moment. A place I love and go to all the time for the coffee, is the Alexandra Nurseries, it’s really nice. I like the Bridge House too.”
What do you make of the pizza restaurant, Sicilian Art?
“It’s ok. The more places, the better. I don’t want to be big-headed but the quality at the price we give is very difficult to achieve. It takes years to achieve, it’s not easy. Even now, most of our customers, I think they come from Beckenham. We bring the customers here, still 70%. For people to come to a place that is not buzzing, means we must do something that people like, that they don’t find in Beckenham or Crystal Palace otherwise they wouldn’t be bothered to come here. Everybody thinks they’re the best in their head but you can only go with the response of the customer, what they think.”
Do you have regulars?
“Yeah funnily enough, I was saying to my friend the other day, ‘I can’t believe we have customers who’ve been coming for 15 years’. I don’t think it’s easy for any business. For instance, I remember a man met his wife here, they had a birthday party with friends. They’ve got kids, they’re married [now]. I’m very proud of that. They keep telling me I have to move to Beckenham. I won’t do it. It’s like a football team.”
You changed the menu recently, didn’t you?
“Yes. I made it smaller, slightly smaller. But I’m doing more specials. Something different. Before people didn’t like my menu, it was too small. But I don’t like to freeze stuff, I like to keep the menu small even though I know, the bigger menu the better. It’s hard, even though we have a vacuum pack machine, every fridge for everything, meat there, fish there, still it’s difficult to keep everything fresh with a big menu.”
So you have an emphasis on fresh ingredients?
“Yeah I’m not compromising that. We put the price up a little bit but we improved the quality. It’s important. We look to improve all the time, the more popular we get the better we’re going to improve all the time.”
Who else works for you?
“There’s Pollyanna, she’s a waitress, we’ve got Alina. Then we’ve got lots of part timers. Leo, a very professional waiter who works every weekend, Giacomo who is from Penge. Then we have Maria, who works on and off, Pietro. Lots of part timers, which is handy for us. We call it a long bench!”
You’ve been doing well in the Time Out Love London Awards. If you win, what do you want to do?
“Have a party on Penge High Street somewhere, we’ll get a stall and cook real pasta, two or three types of pasta, everybody can try it. Have a party to get the community together.”
Writer and Penge resident Ben Murphy donned the bib and devoured the squid for the PTB.