We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
In 1990, when Panorama opened on a quiet stretch of Front Street, Old City's dining scene - which included celebrated restaurants like Bookbinder’s, La Truffe and H.A. Winston & Co. - had not yet spilled north of Market Street.
But Luca Sena was determined to make good on his investment in a former maritime boarding house. He renovated the building, converting the upstairs into a boutique hotel and the downstairs into a restaurant - one with a special draw. Inspired by a spot he frequented in NYC’s SoHo, he commissioned the largest cruvinet system in the world, and opened a wine bar with an unparalleled by-the-glass selection.
The idea worked. From the very first day, people packed the small space, which offered live jazz and a then-unusual menu of Northern Italian small plates. It helped that Sena’s wine play was more than a gimmick - it was grounded in his decades of experience helping build the extensive wine cellar at his family’s more formal La Famiglia, located a block south on Front.
Penn’s View Hotel launched just a few weeks later, but took a bit more time to catch on. Sena learned the hard way that those decades of restaurant experience did not necessarily translate to the hotel business. He wasn’t shy about asking for help, however, and once set up with a salesperson and proper marketing plan, the rooms began to book.
In 1995 and 1997, respectively, he bought the two adjacent properties and expanded both hotel and restaurant, keeping the historic facade intact while modernizing the interior. Since then, the bar and dining room have undergone some cosmetic upgrades, but nothing like the major revamp that Sena is now in the midst of planning with interior designer Marguerite Rodgers. He recently hired a new chef, too, so the menu has just undergone a similar rejuvenation. (He is now also co-owner of the nearby Revolution House, where his younger son, Luca Sena Jr., is chef.)
Along with his elder son Carlo, who acts as the Penn’s View Hotel’s general manager, and fueled by several cups of strong coffee, Luca Sena, 65, recently sat to recount the ups and downs of the past quarter-century.
With your brothers and father, you owned La Famiglia. Why did you decide to open a separate place?
They were involved at first, but we needed a second business because the family was just growing so much. Imagine, at La Famiglia, it was my mother, my father, my sister, all my brothers, my sons, my nephew - too much family in one room. So then we decided to split it up. It was the best decision we made, to happily divide everything. I would recommend it to any family. Don't wait until it's too late - do it before you start fighting. It's like giving away all your money only when you die. What a stupid idea. Give it away before that, so you get to see smiles on people's faces. Same thing. Now we are all friends, and still love each other.
Opening Panorama was your idea?
Yes, but we actually had another place before this, called Happy Pizza. It was a pizzeria that was also a playland for children, like a Chuck E. Cheese kind of place, before those were everywhere. It was down on Delaware Avenue, in the Snyder Plaza. We had pizza, ice cream and the toys. They were very modern - we had the giant piano that was in the movie Big.
Was it successful?
The money was good, but I realized after a couple of years that it was not what I wanted. Too many kids. Counting pennies. Delivery. So we sold it. Then, with those funds, we opened up this place.
What was here before Panorama and Penn’s View?
Nothing. These were all abandoned buildings. There were homeless people living in them - we used to feed them, actually, during construction. I would tell them, “Just don’t start a fire, please.” Originally, when they were built, these were boarding houses for people who worked on ships. The first house at the front of the street was always the captain’s, so he could watch the ship, and get sunlight. Then behind him there were little trinities for the crew.
Did you work with the original construction, or tear everything down?
The facade is still original. The rest was beyond repairs.
Were you worried that Panorama was too close to La Famiglia?
We had a different concept in mind. La Famiglia was always very expensive: high-end, suit and tie. This was going to be a wine bar with food. More casual. We knew we needed to have an anchor, something to bring people to this side of Market, so we got the biggest cruvinet system in the world. It was custom-made for us by a company in California. And people came! They came to see this big monster of a wine dispenser. I call it an octopus with no brain. Because you've gotta babysit it, constantly clean it. But it worked for us and it still works.
You still use the same machine?
This is the second one, actually, we revised it. Because the first one was made in California, and California has so many safety regulations that it was much more complex than it really needed to be. I talked to a couple of engineers in New Jersey, at a company that builds displays for Godiva, and they were able to simplify the design. We put the new one in around 10 years ago.
When you opened the restaurant, it was busy?
Oh, yeah. We had a three-piece jazz band in the hallway, too. I don't know how we did it. It was crazy, it was packed every night. But there were not that many restaurants back then. And the wine bar concept, it was very new to Philadelphia. You had to go to New York to get anything like it. That’s where I got the idea, from a place in SoHo. I used to go up there all the time, me and one of my very first managers.
We used to drink there a lot, actually - because nobody drove. We’d come back on the train. Sometimes we’d miss our stop and wind up in Baltimore. But not often. I was a single parent, because my wife passed, so I needed to get home so I could wake up with the kids in the morning.
Carlo, what’s your first memory of this place?
I remember when they were building the place, my brother and I would help clean up. There used to be an alleyway behind the buildings, and we would toss all the cardboard boxes from the hotel room furniture out the window there, so we could later break them down. Well, there were 27 rooms with six huge boxes per room, so it piled up like snow. I remember my brother and I going up to the third and fifth floor and jumping off, onto the boxes.
Did you know about this, Luca?
Not at first! Someone came to me and said, "Do you see what your sons are doing!" I was like, "What?" I used to do the same thing when I was young in Naples, but it was water I was jumping into, not cardboard.
Who was your opening chef?
He was from outside Milano, a great chef named Stefano Savino. He was wired, he knew what was happening in world cuisine, and he did a menu of Northern Italian small plates. You see these dishes at a lot of restaurants now, but he was a bit before his time, a bit too early here. So we were busy, but then people started saying, "Hey, this is an Italian place - we want some tomato sauce." That's why he left.
Because of tomato sauce?
He would not make marinara. He said, "If people want marinara, they can go to La Famiglia." I'm like, "OK, but what if they don't feel like getting dressed up, just want a little gnocchi with some tomato sauce." He had a very thick accent, and he would say, "I no make tomato sauce!" Come on. The customer rules here. The customer wants tomato sauce, we give them some tomato sauce. So I told him, you know, you need to go back to Milano.
My background was La Famiglia. Anything for the customer. "What do you want? You want to go cook yourself dinner in the back?" Seriously, that's why people came to our place. We knew how to make a customer happy, we did anything and everything to please the customer. And this guy’s fighting against you? I told him, “I like you, you're a great chef, but the customer comes first.”
How long after you opened was that, and who was your second chef?
That was after a year. Then we promoted Rosario Romano - he had been Stefano’s assistant. Self-taught, from South Philadelphia. Just a bull. He stayed here almost 25 years; we just parted ways last year. He was a wonderful chef, but that's a long time. It's just that we stay in touch with what's happening in our industry, and we knew we needed to refresh the way we were doing things. He was good, but you could find the same food many other places.
So who is your current chef?
His name is Matt Gentile. He came from, his background is Lacroix, Ela, and Parc. And he worked in Colorado for a while. He's from Doylestown.
How would you describe his menu?
What he’s doing is reinventing old recipes of ours, making them with new techniques and in new ways. Like the braciole - it’s my father’s recipe, but Matt does it with veal, so it’s more tender, and instead of raw garlic he slow-roasts the garlic overnight. He’ll be changing the menu four times a year, too.
Why do a hotel in the first place; why not just a restaurant?
Well, we were going to put apartments upstairs, at first. But the bank that was giving us the loan - it was called Continental Bank; it’s now PNC - they wanted us to do a hotel. There wasn't that much demand for apartments in Old City then. So the loan officer said, "You know, we'd feel more comfortable if you put in rooms, instead of apartments." So that's it. We did it, and I'm glad we did.
Any famous people stay here?
I can't say. That's the thing. I mean, yes, but there's a lot of people we really can't mention. Of both genders. Because...people don't just go to a hotel to sleep. That's the reality of it. That's why you have to be blind and deaf.
How about to the restaurant?
Sure. Carlo’s favorite is when the Red Hot Chili Peppers dined here, around nine years ago. The drummer is really huge into wine. Sheryl Crow was here once; she had a big party downstairs. Nicole Miller, the clothing designer, used to come all the time. And another person I don't want to mention because he's in trouble these days. Also a lot of sports people. Shane Victorino. Scott Hartnell - he used to come in and eat at the bar; he would always eat double entrees, two dinners.
Do you think Philadelphia is reaching a point where there are too many restaurants?
Yes. Is that being selfish? I don't know. The reality is there are really a lot of restaurants. I know how hard it is to stay in business. I don't want anybody to close. But if you open up here now, scene is at a level where you really have to be good. What the city needs is to bring more out-of-towners. We need more conventions. Not just once a month. It should be every week. We doubled the size of the Convention Center, but for some reason it's not as full as it it should be.
But in general, for success, you've got to be lucky in life. More than smart. Honestly, you could be the smartest guy in the world. If you don't have a little bit of luck... It takes being in the right time, at the right place. And in the right location. You just need to be lucky.
14 N. Front St., 215-922-7800
Hours: noon to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, noon to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.