I ate at legendary Bristol restaurant La Grotta before it closes its doors after 42 years

Alfonso and Andrea Merlino of La Grotta, which closes this week after 42 years (Photo: Mark Taylor)Alfonso and Andrea Merlino of La Grotta, which closes this week after 42 years (Photo: Mark Taylor)
Alfonso and Andrea Merlino of La Grotta, which closes this week after 42 years (Photo: Mark Taylor) | Mark Taylor
The Italian restaurant on Union Street shuts this weekend

The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the owners of La Grotta announced that it serves its final meals this Saturday (June 3).

After 42 years, the Merlino family has decided to sell the legendary Bristol restaurant at the top of Union Street and reservations for the final tables are harder to secure than Glastonbury Festival tickets.

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“We just had to come for one final meal,” said one customer, shaking hands with staff, some of whom have worked at this popular Italian restaurant for more than 30 years.

There are ‘thank you’ cards behind the bar, lots of hugs and even a few tears as customers enjoy their last meals at La Grotto.

After the recent closure of Vincenzo’s on Park Street after 52 years, the end of La Grotto is another heavy blow for Bristolians who love old-school Italian cooking at affordable prices.

And the sad thing is that once these long-running family-owned Italian restaurants go, they won’t be replaced.

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Although La Grotto opened in 1981, long before the Galleries shopping centre opposite was built, it was the Bali restaurant before that in the 1960s.

Many of the customers have been eating on the site for more than 50 years. They’ve had birthday meals, wedding celebrations, Christmas office parties and even wakes.

It’s a restaurant that has created thousands of memories for generations of Bristolians.

In short, La Grotta is a proper Bristol dining institution and it’s almost impossible to imagine any current city restaurant being around for four decades.

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I’ve been eating at La Grotta for at least 25 years and it has never let me down. The pizzas and pasta classics have stood the test of time and it was one of those central Bristol restaurants that was always there when you needed it.

My daughter turned 16 this week and she has been going there since she was a baby. I still blush at the occasion when I left her pushchair there after one family meal when an extra bottle of red wine may have been ordered. Thankfully, I didn’t forget to take my daughter home that day.

La Grotta has been a Bristol dining institution since it opened in 1981La Grotta has been a Bristol dining institution since it opened in 1981
La Grotta has been a Bristol dining institution since it opened in 1981 | Mark Taylor

When I visited this week for a final supper - the usual polpette di Alessia meatballs followed by Penne Alfonso (and the go-to Rustica pizza for my daughter), co-owner Andrea Merlino was still in the kitchen working as hard as ever.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to sell the business,” he told me, between preparing pizzas for the fully booked restaurant and answering the phone as more people tried to book.

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“But to be honest, we never really recovered from Covid and daytime trade really dropped off since. We’ve been lucky to have two or three tables most lunchtimes since the pandemic, and all the costs have risen too.”

For these final few days, Andrea has been joined in the kitchen by his septuagenarian father Alfonso, who started the business with his wife Anita all those years ago.

The timeless interior of the Union Street restaurant which closes this weekend The timeless interior of the Union Street restaurant which closes this weekend
The timeless interior of the Union Street restaurant which closes this weekend | Mark Taylor

Alfonso told me the past 50 years had flown by but revealed that he only got into the restaurant business ‘by mistake’.

He trained to be a mechanic in a garage on Queen Square when he came to Bristol in the 1970s and says he fell into hospitality by accident, starting as a waiter before running the place.

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It certainly turned out to be a happy accident as La Grotta became one of Bristol’s most popular and long-running restaurants.

After the customary glass of ice-cold limoncello at the end of our meal, I said my farewells to Andrea, Alfonso and other members of staff.

It marked the end of an era and I for one will be sad to see another great Bristol dining institution close.

I’m told an Indian restaurant will be opening on the site in the coming months and let’s hope it enjoys a similarly loyal following.

In the meantime, if you are able to bag a final table for La Grotta before Saturday, do. We may never see a restaurant like it again.

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