Bar Italia on Lothian Road is something of an Edinburgh institution. It launched way back in 1978 and Fabio’s family have run it for the last twenty years. Since opening, the restaurant has been in the hands of just two families.
We spoke to Fabio about Bar Italia and the changes which have taken place in the restaurant over the years.
5pm: You must have seen a lot of change since you took over Bar Italia?
FM: There have been a lot of big changes over the last few years. We need to keep ahead of the big chains and we can do that by constantly trying to improve the quality of our offer.
We now make more from scratch in-house. We make our own ice cream and that has won awards. We also make our own pasta from scratch.
It’s also about being able to offer a personal touch. We have regular customers who we know by name. We know what dishes they like and what wine they like. That makes a real difference between us and the big chains.
5pm: When Bar Italia first opened, many people only knew olive oil as something you bought from the chemist to treat ear ache. Has part of the job been to gently educate customers?
FM: It wasn’t just olive oil. Lots of ingredients which were once unfamiliar have now become much better known. Cheap flights mean that people can go to Italy more often and also come here from Italy more often. This means they know what the food is like in Italy.
It is also easier to get authentic Italian ingredients here now. Whatever you can find in Italy, you can get it here now. Previously it could be problematic to get, say, real mozzarella. Now you can get anything that you might get in Italy in a matter of hours.
5pm: The menu at Bar Italia offers plenty of choice but it’s not massive. Is that a recent development?
FM: Back in the old days, you might have a menu that was ten pages long. However, at the end of the day, it was the same ingredients cooked in a different way.
People are more aware of Italian cooking now. In the old days, you might have people from anywhere making Italian dishes and customers didn’t really know what Italian food was. Now they do. They also know that they don’t want the Italian food that they got twenty years ago.
We change the menu a couple of times a year and we try to keep it mostly seasonal and use as much fresh produce as we can.
5pm:The menu has a lot of emphasis on regional cooking and where specific dishes come from. Has that become more important?
FM: Italian cooking is regional cooking. Someone from the north of Italy thinks that Italian food is one thing. People from the south of Italy think that it is another. Italian cooking is all of these regional styles and dishes. We try to reflect that on the menu.
5pm: Most restaurants don’t last four years, never mind forty. Do you have customers who have grown up with the restaurant?
FM: We do have people who started coming as children. Now they are married and coming with their own children. We also get people who have moved away from Edinburgh but will come and eat with us if they are back in town. People like continuity.
Lots of restaurants open and are famous for one or two years and then they close down. On Lothian Road, I think we are the only restaurant still operating from the Seventies. Actually, I think we are the only restaurant still operating from the Nineties. In the last few years, everything has changed.
We have tried to change with the times while keeping the personal touch as strong as it ever was. At the same time, we are always looking at ways that we can improve our menus. Of course, people will always expect some dishes. Carbonara and lasagne are on the menu and I expect they always will be. The difference is that now we make them using our own fresh pasta.
5pm went to Ciao Roma, Bar Italia’s sister restaurant, to see how they made pasta. There is a Youtube here.
Bar Italia has a number of offers if you book via 5pm. For instance, at lunch today, you could claim a 20% discount on the a la carte menu.
Or you could book in a table for two and each have two courses from the pre-theatre menu plus a bottle of wine to share for £44.