The Italian Restaurant That Succeeded SARS

La Risata in Persiaran Ampang is a crowd favourite – testament to its more-than-two-decade run.

In the fickle industry that is the F&B industry, making it past the one year mark is an achievement, let alone sticking through it for more than 20 years. And yet that is exactly what Italian restaurant La Risata has done – in fact it chalks down its 22nd anniversary this year – a mammoth task for a homegrown eatery.

Meaning “the laughter” in Italian, the original La Risata resides in the quiet neighbourhood of Persiaran Ampang, flanked by Indian diner Restoran Namasthe and Italian-Spanish-Mediterranean offering that is Sapore. Opened in 1996, it was quickly followed by a branch in Medan Damansara four years later, and together these two restaurants have been serving comforting Italian fare for almost two generations.

Meeting one of the co-owners, Lissa Yeoh, it was easy to understand the name of the restaurant. Quick to crack a smile or burst into laughter, the self-professed ‘foodie’ is also passionate when it comes to food, hailing from when you express your love for a meal verbally and not merely via a ‘flatlay’ of colourful plates.

Having run La Risata for more than 20 years now, it may come as a surprise to some to find out that it was never in Lissa’s radar to be a proprietor of a restaurant, let alone one of the Italian kind.

“It was just that we had some friends who were starting an Italian restaurant and they needed partners, so my high school friend and I got roped in. That’s really how it started; all by chance. But in a way I was already interested in going into the food industry because I was working in an advertising agency and I was already making stuff from home and supplying them to some cafes. So when this opportunity came up, I just took it,” explains Lissa.

However, as fate would have it, from four partners it became two in three months, leaving Lissa and her partner Yuen Sze To to fully take over the operations of the restaurant.

“It worked out for the best as I was more involved with the menu while my partner who is a chartered accountant did the books. So I began going to Italy for holidays with my partner to try the food there and come back with fresh ideas for the restaurant,” clarifies Lissa.

Speaking of food, surely it would have been hard to maintain the menu that everybody loves for more than 20 years?

“Well, when we started, we had a chef from a seaside town near Rome called Nettuno who cooked really rustic food. We still keep it rustic but over the years we have expanded the pizza menu as well as the main courses’. But we still keep it simple and traditional, just the way our patrons like it,” says Lissa.

Nonetheless, sometimes just good food and a great team is not enough to ensure the sustainability of a restaurant – you do need luck to make it through what the universe throws at you.

“We have been through so many economic downturns. In fact, shortly after we opened, the 1997 ringgit crash happened and a lot of expats just left so we lost our very core customers. So after that, we started building new customers. Then there was SARS and after that we were very badly hit by haze,” Lissa explains.

Now knowing the history of the neighbourhood gem, apart from the amazingly delicious Italian food at captivating price point, moving forward I shall always remember La Risata as the restaurant that outlasted SARS.

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Vimal Palasekaran

Vimal Palasekaran

Loud laugher. TV buff. Hispanophone.
Vimal Palasekaran

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