Tapas with an Italian Touch
Locals certainly know about Tapas. A restaurant that’s neither big nor showy, this two-story building is long and lean and open to the ocean. Located on the scenic boardwalk that meanders along the stunning southern coastline of Barbados, Tapas is directly on the water’s edge, with an expanse of sea stretching out for miles and a constant ocean breeze giving relief from the day’s heat.
— By Joanna Fox
— Photography: Kenneth Theysen
From the time they open their doors at lunch to when the place is lit up at night, beaming with life, Tapas is a place that makes everyone feel at home. It’s the kind of place where time is taken to get to know the customers, a place that feels like family, where the owners know what dishes their regulars like to eat and what their favourite drinks are. A place that’s perfect for celebrating and splashing out, but also ideal for a quick bite and a beer. All this to say, it comes as no surprise that this lively, jovial, genial spot is owned by two charming Italians who run their restaurant as if you’ve been invited into their home.
It may seem odd that owners Franco Parisi and Alfredo Giovine, both from Italy, are running a restaurant in Barbados named after a word that brings to mind Spain, but that’s part of the charm. Franco Parisi, the executive chef, is very aware. “So two Italians doing a restaurant called Tapas is a little bit weird, because when you say tapas people have the idea that it’s a Spanish restaurant, but that’s not the meaning of tapas. Tapas is actually a smaller version of plates. So if we were just going to do Italian food we were going to restrict the market. We want to create something for everybody, not just the tourists who come over and have pocket money to spend. The concept has always been great food, great service, great value for money. That has always been the base of the restaurant.”
The concept of the restaurant was inspired by Parisi’s experiences travelling and working in kitchens all over the globe. But neither he, nor Alfredo, ever thought they would end up in the restaurant world. Parisi actually studied design in Milan. Alfredo, who is in charge of the front of house, was also in Milan, studying economics at the famous Bocconi University. Neither men knew each other until they met, many years later in Barbados, and neither men could have ever guessed that it would be because they would eventually own a restaurant together.
For Parisi, the decision to choose food over design was gradual and organic. While studying design, he began working at a restaurant in the evenings to pay for his studies. “I just enjoy cooking. My mom spent all her life cooking, so I was always in the kitchen with my mom. I come from a big family, so back in the day when mama used to make the gnocchi or the fresh pasta, I was always in the kitchen trying to do something. I think it’s always been there, I just didn’t realize that it was what I wanted to do until I was working in a restaurant. At first it was just an excuse to pay for my school, but then it became my school. I was always being creative, I always took cooking as more of an art than a job. It’s like painters: you can be a painter or you can be an artist. They both have the brush but they don’t do the same thing. So I always took the job of being a chef more like an art than a way to pay the bills.”
Once Parisi realized that food was his true passion, he dropped out of design school and went to culinary school. Eventually, he made his way to London where he worked for A-Z Restaurants, a company that oversaw many of the famous Michelin-starred restaurants in the city at that time (Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, Giorgio Locatelli). He got the opportunity to go to Barbados when he was asked to set up a food and beverage program for a new place opening up on Sugar Hill in 2001. He stayed in Barbados for a couple of years, and then went back to London to open more restaurants for A-Z, including the famous Michelin-starred Italian restaurant, Zafferano’s. Soon after, another opportunity arose to go back to Barbados, this time to work at the Lone Star Restaurant. Parisi thought it would be crazy to refuse, and so he moved back to the island and ended up working there for five years. After that, Parisi decided that he wanted to stay in Barbados, but it was finally time he open something on his own.
Meanwhile, Alfredo had been working at a popular pizzeria called Mama Mia, and Parisi would go there a lot with his kids. Every time Parisi showed up, he would notice how good Alfredo was with the customers. “I was impressed that every time I went, he remembered the names of all the kids and which pizzas they liked to eat. So when this [restaurant] came available, the first person I called was Alfredo.” A true front-of-house persona, Alfredo just had an ease with people and a knack for never forgetting a face, a name, or even the smallest details about the customers’ likes and dislikes. He was a true hospitality natural and the perfect person to compliment Parisi.
Both workaholics, the two men’s lives became the restaurant. They lived, ate, slept, and breathed for their business. Sharing the belief that they always wanted at least one of them to be present, the restaurant became their extended home. Serving lunch and dinner, seven days a week, 364 days a year (they only close on carnival in August), Tapas became exactly how both men envisioned it. It was an incredible amount of work, but also a true success story. “We don’t believe in places that are run by themselves. We don’t believe in [having] two or three places, a manager here and a manager there. Even though they’re responsible, I know that they wouldn’t take care of the place as well as myself or Alfredo could. If he can’t be here then I’ll be here, and vice versa.”
The men’s formula seems to be working. Tapas is a restaurant that practically never sleeps, welcoming locals and tourists alike, day after day, night after night. “The concept that we were going for was more ‘a restaurant for everybody’. The idea was to create something that anybody can afford.” And that’s exactly what they did.