The ever-popular Bagatti's Italian restaurant can be found in South End, at the heart of Croydon’s restaurant quarter. If you go back just over 25 years, when Peter Bagatti first opened the door of his new venture, you could make the same statement - if you slightly rearrange the words! Bagatti’s was, back then, one quarter of the restaurants in South End - and the others were a burger bar, an Indian and a small pizzeria. The skyline of Croydon is changing on a daily basis, but few changes match the culinary revolution of South End.

A lot of credit for the improvement of the South End area of Croydon has to go to Peter. As well as building up his restaurant business, he has been a tireless advocate for his home town, even if that meant he has lost his rather lucrative monopoly on the local restaurant scene. “Back in the 1990s, we used to have queues outside the restaurant every day of the week. Happy days!”

The restaurant remains busy and bustling today, but diners now have a healthy choice when it comes to eating out. “The area would have improved anyway, but I do think Bagatti’s was the catalyst for change. At my last count there were about 50 restaurants. Competition is healthy as it brings people to the area and raises standards. Restaurants don’t last if they are not up to the mark.”

Despite the paucity of restaurants in 1990, Peter had a big struggle to find any premises at all. “I struggled for ages to find a place in Croydon as the council were very reluctant to hand out licences where there was a change in the use of the premises. Finding premises with an A3 licence (food and drink) was difficult.

Finally, I came across a gym and dance studio in South End which was available and was valid for a change in premise use.

Fortunately, the council has a more enlightened view on developing Croydon, and that is not the only change that Peter has seen over the years. “People are far more knowledgeable about Italian food now,” he says.

The restaurant has always had a good reputation for the authenticity of the Italian cuisine. Himself born in this country, Peter’s family is from the Parma region of Italy, and he has introduced many local dishes as well as plates from other Italian regions. It also helps that the four chefs have all been with him for over 16 years, with some starting on day one.

“When we first started, the menu was quite simple”, recalls Peter, “It was mainly pasta with some fish options. We gradually evolved the menu, introducing specials dishes, many of which stayed on the menu.

“We have a selection of dishes from regions across Italy, such as spicy Neapolitan shellfish, hearty, gamey food from Parma, and dishes from Tuscany. I am regularly out in Italy, looking for new ideas and tasting regional wines.

“One of the first specials we had was a rabbit dish that I’ve always liked to make. I couldn’t sell any. I tried again some time later and had the same response. The English restaurant-goers weren’t ready for it. Now, when I put it on the specials board, it sells out every time. People are far more adventurous and want to try new things.

“The other change is the emphasis on intolerances and allergies. We cater a lot for coeliacs who dine here, and we have some people who have serious conditions which can be triggered by the slightest cross-contamination of ingredients. We have a booklet that lists all ingredients and potential allergens for all our dishes, even the specials. The legislation on the listing of ingredients is getting stronger, which is a good thing. People should be able to dine out in confidence, knowing that the food won’t make them unwell.”

We recently had a fascinating lunch at Bagatti’s with Katharine and Jo from White Label (who are also great champions of Croydon), and received the usual warm welcome, which is such a trademark element of the Bagatti’s experience.

Great minds thinks alike, and both Katharine and I chose the Branzino (grilled sea bass fi llets with mango, garlic & tomato salsa and a touch of chilli on cracked new potatoes with rocket). “I always choose this,” reveals Katharine. I can see why. The fi sh was beautifully cooked, with a slightly crisp skin, and the sweet mango was a pleasing antidote to the chilli and salsa. Maarten certainly appreciated the tenderness of the veal in his Milanese (pan-fried veal in breadcrumbs, served with cherry tomato and rocket spaghetti). Jo chose the Pollo e Pepperoni (a warm salad of charcoal-grilled chicken, roast peppers, fine beans and rocket). Jo’s verdict: “A delicious combination of flavoursome rocket and delicate chicken pieces, with fresh tomatoes and a light dressing which provided a perfect lunch, hopefully without too many calories.”

On this occasion I can’t offer any pointers on the wine selection as it was a dry lunch. What has happened to business lunches? I despair at this sensible modern living. With all of us having media backgrounds, we should be ashamed! Wine or not, Bagatti’s is an excellent place for a business lunch, as well as dining out for pleasure.

It is deservedly a Croydon institution, and Peter is to be applauded for all he has done for the town, not least his role in the food festival. Aside from everything else, most importantly, the food and service are excellent. But this was no surprise: no-one lasts 25 years in this business unless they are doing something right!

Click here to read the complete article in the Surrey magazine