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City Weekend

Head chef of Hong Kong’s oldest Italian restaurant wants to add pizzazz to classic menu

Marco Bajma, who says La Taverna reminds him of home, seeks to revitalise restaurant by planning seasonal menus, regional set meals and wine events

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 1:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 September, 2017, 1:33pm

With straw-covered wine bottles hanging from the ceiling, a century-old cash register sitting in a corner, and soft Italian music playing in the background, La Taverna is a reminder of home for its executive chef Marco Bajma.

“This is what I’ve found to be the most traditional Italian atmosphere in Hong Kong,” Bajma said of Hong Kong’s oldest Italian restaurant, whose rustic interior decoration includes wooden wheels and steel pans on its walls.

“Walking into La Taverna for the first time was like stepping back home. Even from the outside, with the stucco and the painted sign, it looks very much like a corner restaurant in any old Italian town.”

The inspiration for the Tsim Sha Tsui restaurant comes from “tavernas” – cool, dry cellar-like areas found in traditional Italian homes where bottles of wine and food are stored, and a place where people have their meals.

Bajma, who started making pizzas at his father’s restaurant in Piedmont in northwest Italy at the age of 14, joined the La Taverna team in April this year, after working at a nearby Italian eatery.

In the past five months, the head chef, who is 43 this year, has been working on revamping the menu of Hong Kong’s first Italian restaurant, whose longevity is rare in a city where restaurants often come and go.

“I took the challenge because the hospitality industry in Hong Kong moves extremely fast, and places open and close in a fairly short time,” Bajma said.

“Seeing this place that’s been open for 43 years, with a legacy that dates even before that, is like going into a restaurant in Italy that’s been open for 200 years.”

La Taverna was first opened in Central in 1969 by brothers Giuseppe and Aldo Macchetti, before its current Ashley Street establishment was set up about five years later.

Bajma, who aims to gradually introduce new menus as part of his revamp for the restaurant, grew animated when it came to the topic of the dishes on the menu.

“I bring over the freshest ingredients from small producers in Italy – it’s not just about quality, or quantity; it’s about striking a balance between the two.”

He is also working with a sommelier to help him pair the food with the perfect wine, as part of his plans to launch a series of “wine nights”, seasonal menus and regional set meals in the future.

“For me, cooking is creativity,” Bajma said. “It is an art which I put all my passion and adrenaline into. I’m not the type to just copy recipes – I take ideas from books and make them my own.”

After the last orders for lunch and dinner are done, and his customers are satisfied with their meals, Bajma likes to make his rounds in the restaurant to catch up with returning patrons and meet new ones.

“We have customers who have been coming since the 1970s, and couples who return with their children years after having their first date here,” he said.

“I love talking to my guests, hearing their stories and their thoughts on the food.”

“I don’t cook just to feed; I cook to give people an experience, to give people a food haven away from the hectic world outside.”