BOCELLI’S EXECUTIVE CHEF HAS BEEN IN THE BUSINESS FOR MORE THAN 40 YEARS, AND TRADITIONAL ITALIAN CUISINE IS STILL HIS BREAD AND BUTTER

BY JESSICA JONES-GORMAN • PHOTOS BY ROBERT NUZZIE

It’s Thursday afternoon at Bocelli Ristorante in Grasmere, and Chef Renato Sena is busily prepping a special order of stuffed calamari.

“He’s cooking the dish for a group of 18 gentlemen who meet here every month,” noted Vincent DeMonte, Bocelli’s general manager. “It’s an authentic, traditional recipe that is one of Chef
Renato’s specialties.”

For Sena, who has been in the restaurant business since 1966, the calamari is an example of an uncommon style of preparation— one he likes best.

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“I love preparing classic, traditional dishes,” he said. “I’ve been a chef for 40 years, and while I love creating new and modern meals, I also love spending time in the kitchen making tripe and baccala—all of those hard-to-find specialties that you never see in your typical Italian restaurant any longer. I love when the customers say ‘This is the type of food my grandmother used to make!’”

Born in Naples, Sena learned his way around the kitchen by watching his grandfather.

“I was always right next to him, watching, learning,” he said. “The way he made the fish and the pasta; they were all techniques you couldn’t learn in culinary school. Plus, my entire family was in the restaurant business, so it was only natural for me to also become a chef.”

After coming to America, Sena started working at the landmark red sauce restaurant New Corner in Brooklyn. “I started at the bottom, making salads, and eventually worked my way up,” he said. “From there I moved on to Manhattan, where I worked at several restaurants and learned from a variety of chefs.” He then branched out and opened his own, Michelangelo, on Avenue U in Brooklyn, which he operated for 12 years, then opened Portofino in Staten Island, where he found success for another 22 years.

“I wanted to retire, but they asked me to cook here,” he joked, gesturing to Bocelli’s kitchen, where he has served as executive chef for the past 10 years. “I still love cooking, so it’s a perfect fit.”

Some of Sena’s most popular dishes here include the Pappardelle al Champagne (fettuccine with lobster tail, scallops, and shrimp in a light cream and champagne sauce) and Chicken Valdostana (prosciutto-wrapped chicken breast stuffed with fontina cheese and basil topped with a Marsala wine and mushroom sauce). The Calamari Agrodolce, a sweet-and-sour battered fish served with raisins and pine nuts, is still the restaurant’s most popular appetizer.

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For the summer, Sena injects fresh fruit into the proceedings, like pineapple, mango, and strawberries.

“One of last week’s specials was a halibut with dried plums in a Grand Marnier sauce,” he said. “I love blending fresh ingredients into the menu. It’s my way of offering a modern take to some
traditional Italian dishes,” adding that, after four decades in the business, the best part of the job is still a diner’s reaction.

“I love to see one of my dishes make someone truly happy,” he concluded. “Food has a powerful way of bringing back memories; people remember through taste. It is so satisfying when one of my dishes has that type of impact.”

Bocelli Ristorante
1250 Hylan Boulevard
718.420.6150 / bocellirest.com