Hidden in a surprising location, Bromley-By-Bow’s Polentina serves contemporary comfort food that’s well worth seeking out
There aren’t many restaurants located inside factories. Finding Polentina, a cosy Italian-meets-Austrian canteen hidden inside a factory off Empson Street is easier said than done. But, once you have you’re in for a treat.
Founded by Sophia Massarella in December 2021, Polentina is the kind of place that keeps on giving; with food that’s hearty and yet elegantly presented, a delicious natural wine list and the feeling of an undiscovered hidden gem. We asked Sophia what inspired her to set up shop, and why she left a career in photography behind to cook comfort food “just the way my grandma did.”
Sophia, you’re a Canadian-born photographer. How do you come to own a restaurant in London?
For a long time photography was all I ever wanted to do – and I still shoot a bit on the side. I have a project called Citrus Archive that documents the traditions and techniques of harvesting citrus in Italy. We moved to the UK seven years ago, so my boyfriend could study. When the pandemic hit, my photography work disappeared, and I realised I didn’t want to do editorial photography for the rest of my life. As horrible as COVID was, it gave me an opportunity to do something new.
So how did the idea for Polentina take shape?
I’ve always been inspired by food. I grew up with really great food around me on both my Italian and Austrian sides, so cooking for people has always been in the back of my mind. Just before the pandemic, my boyfriend and I were actually thinking about getting a food truck and cooking at farmers markets. Then, when the space we’re in now opened up, the food trunk became a restaurant.
Tell us about the restaurant – it’s in quite an unusual location?
Polentina is attached to a sustainable clothing manufacturer called Apparel Tasker, which is actually my boyfriend’s business. We knocked through a wall in the factory to put in the glass partition, and I started cooking for his team. Originally, we just wanted give great food to the staff, and things have grown from there. We serve lunch 10am to 3pm Monday-to-Friday, and our clientele is very local. Then, we do a dinner service on Friday nights with around eight dishes that change every week and people come in from further afield. Then, once or twice a month, we do bigger events like supper clubs, or we’ll have special evenings with guest wine suppliers.
What kind of food do you like to serve?
The food is the kind I grew up with, either Italian or Austrian. But, I never blend the two. I’m really traditional, in the sense that if I don’t cook something exactly how it should be, I get a bit freakish. I like to eat things exactly how my grandmother would’ve cooked them. Most of the time we cook Italian dishes, but in autumn, we get into stews and some more wintery dishes from Austria. A lot of Italian people come to eat on Friday nights because they appreciate that we do proper traditional Italian food, and it can be hard to find the dishes they grew up eating in London.
Wine is important to you too, right?
It is. For our Friday dinners we always have four wines by the glass and the rest by bottles – and we like to serve natural wine. I have a colleague who works with me just for our dinner services, and she’s actually a research scientist, so she understands the science behind wine and is super-knowledgeable.
What’s coming next for Polentina, then?
We’re only a year old, so we just want to keep things going here, right now. I’d like to do more events and keep progressing our menus over time. Eventually, I’d like to have a restaurant that’s standalone – not inside another building. But, at the same time, I think that’s what’s so amazing about this place. Sometimes we joke about making a chain of Polentina’s in different factories, but I don’t know. Let’s see what happens!
Learn more about Polentina here, or view our homes in Bromley-By-Bow.