Tucked in between a computer shop and an off-licence on Sydenham Road, Trattoria Raffaele looks as modest as its surroundings. Yet users on Tripadvisor recently deemed this little Italian the best out of more than 16,000 restaurants in London, despite competitors such as the three time Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay Restaurant.
Raffaele Giannandrea, 44, is busy picking up the phone with one hand, while greeting customers with the other. The former golf pro took over the business from his father, Dominic, just as the recession was kicking off in 2008. Since then, it’s been onwards and upwards with people now coming all the way from China, USA and Sweden.
“It’s nice to be noticed, but it’s nicer that the popularity has brought people in without controlling what we do. We like what we did before. We haven’t changed anything. There’s a lot of pressure but it’s good pressure. And obviously, we can pay the bills now,” Raffaele says, in his distinctive South London accent.
The small trattoria, which has been in the family for 45 years, serves Italian classics such as meatballs, ravioli and pizza, alongside more experimental specials. The small space is characterised by the fresh smell of pasta, red checkered tablecloths and small personal details, such as the front-page of a golf magazine hanging above the cashier.
The secret to the mouthwatering dishes, lies in the simplicity as well as the quality of the products, according to Raffaele.
“The basic Italian ingredients are olive oil, tomato and basil, then you add in the mozzarella, the ham, a bit of garlic, and it gradually builds up. It’s always the same fresh ingredients though. Half of the people who come in never see the menu. They say “what’ve you got tonight, Raf?” which is what you want really.”
Raffaele, who has a six-year old daughter, has lived in Sydenham for most of his life, although his family is from Cassino just south of Rome. He knows the area and many of the residents better than his own recipes. Sydenham can hardly be described as a tourist nor trendy area, but there is a strong sense of community. To Raffaele, it’s the people that make the long stressful hours of having a restaurant worthwhile.
“We meet some fantastic people. Over a period of time the customers become your mates. They’ll come with their children, and it’s like having someone around to your house basically. It’s nice with all of the publicity, but all our regulars can’t get a table at the moment, which is quite sad. A lot of people I went to school with are still coming in, and how can you say to someone who you went to school with “yeah sorry, we’re fully booked”? You can’t,” Raffaele says.
The constant flow of customers leave no tables empty, and many have to go away without getting a seat. Raffaele happily greets several of them by name, and those who are new are quickly introduced. It would seem that if there was ever a good time to expand the business, it would be now.
“We’ve reached the point where it can’t really get much busier, but I’d like to keep it the way we are. I don’t want to get carried away. We’re still a little trattoria in Sydenham. To make something bigger as a restaurant, it trades its charm, then you’ve got more overheads, everything becomes a bigger problem and it just loses its personality. And I don’t want to be rich, I’ll let someone else be rich,” Raffaele says before returning to his customers – or friends as he likes to think of them.
Note: The ratings on Tripadvisor change all of the time. At the moment Trattoria Raffaele is ranked as number 13 out of 16,853 restaurants. You can find it here.