In 2012, Francesco Panella left his native Rome at the age of 40. He had already reached the pinnacle of success in the restaurant business as the head of Italy’s massively successful Antica Pesa brand. However, the native Roman was not satisfied with the status quo. Determined to make his mark on the United States restaurant scene, Panella packed his bags and headed to New York City. He chose to open the first American Antica Pesa in the relatively unknown underdog neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
A decade later, Williamsburg has become one of the hottest neighborhoods and restaurant scenes in New York, and Panella himself has become arguably one of the most successful and well-known Italian restaurateurs in America. He has opened several restaurant locations, partnered with the largest and most powerful restaurant brands in the world, and appeared on television as an example of a true Italian entrepreneurial success story.
America Domani sat down with Panella to discuss his roots, vision, and advice for young entrepreneurs looking to follow in his footsteps. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
America Domani: As one of the most well-known and respected restaurant owners in Italy, many people might have thought you were crazy to give up that stability. What drove you to start this new venture in America?
Francesco Panella: There are two types of people, those who follow others and those who follow you. I always wanted to be one of the people who others followed. I was 40 years old and felt it was a pivotal moment in my career to prove to everyone that I could succeed in the most competitive market in the world for our profession. I believe entrepreneurs are driven by challenges and this represented the greatest challenge I could ever take on.
AD: What was your vision and what was your strategy for standing out in the competitive New York City restaurant scene?
FP: I had a clear vision that I wanted to honor my family roots and traditions, however I wanted to do it in a completely unique way that nobody else was doing in the Italian restaurant scene in America. The first decision I made was to open our restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Although Williamsburg is now booming, it was completely empty back then. Ours was the first restaurant in the neighborhood. Through the years, we brought a lot of excitement and buzz to the neighborhood. Nowadays, major brands like Whole Food are there, but back then it was empty. That was incredibly gratifying for me, to see that we made a bet on an unknown neighborhood that now has become an important part of the fabric of New York City culture.
AD: How do you compare catering Italian cuisine to American customers to the clientele you were accustomed to in Italy?
FP: At the end of the day, the customer wants high-quality food and a memorable experience. These are the guiding principles that we have never strayed from. Of course, there are some nuances to the ingredients and the size of portions that vary from what I was accustomed to in Italy, but we have never compromised on our core values of authenticity and genuineness. Our customers in both Italy and America have appreciated this.
AD: What advice would you give young entrepreneurs who aspire to follow in your footsteps?
FP: Gather as much data as you possibly can. The restaurant business is equally as much about science as it is about art. You can never collect enough data. You need to be a constant student of the restaurant business, studying your customers’ patterns and how they are evolving. I would encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to be leaders and not followers. Do something different and unique that will make you stand out from the others. The restaurant business is too competitive and there are too many high-quality alternatives for you not to be original. Also, humility is essential. If you want to be successful in this business, you need to put ego and arrogance aside.