by Len Lear
Foodies all over the Delaware Valley know the neon names Stephen Starr, Marc Vetri, Jose Garces and Georges Perrier, but one name that is not so well known despite being every bit as deserving of superstar status is that of Luca Sena. A modest, self-effacing entrepreneur who has not sought the spotlight and who routinely deflects praise onto those around him, Luca, 61, nevertheless has an immigrant success story that’s as inspirational as any in the Delaware Valley restaurant industry.
Sena was born in Naples, Italy, as the son and grandson of restaurant owners. When he was nine years old, his first job was delivering coffee and espresso to neighborhood offices in Naples. As he got older, Luca moved up the ladder to washing pots and chopping vegetables. All seven Sena sons and daughters helped out in the family restaurant, and Luca insists that “I did not mind doing any of the chores except for chopping onions. That was the job you got if you had done something wrong.”
When he was 21, Luca came to the U.S. with his father, Carlo. After two years here, the father and son had earned enough money to bring their mother and a brother and sister here from Italy. Luca’s dad worked as a chef at Geno’s Italian Restaurant, which at the time was one of the city’s best. Meanwhile, Luca tried a succession of other jobs — photographer’s assistant at the Bernard Aronson Photo Shop, teenage party producer in South Philly, signage maker, construction worker and air conditioning installer and repairman.
“When I came here, I did not speak a word of English,” said Luca. “I just thank God for the United Way because they offered very good classes in English. I also took English classes at Temple University and Southern High School. And fortunately, I love to read, so eventually I was able to learn English.”
In 1973 Luca’s parents informed him that they were planning to move back to Italy. “My dad always worked for himself in Italy, and he just could not get used to working for other people here. He was very independent. So he told us that the only way he would stay in this country would be if we opened a family restaurant here. As a result, we did decide to open a restaurant to keep dad and mom here. That was La Famiglia, which we opened at 8 S. Front St.” (La Famiglia, which is still in business after 38 years, “is still the best Italian restaurant in the city,” according to a recent editorial by Philadelphia Magazine publisher Herb Lipson.)
In 1990, the young man who could not speak a word of English when he came here opened the Penn’s View Hotel and Panorama Ristorante at Front and Market Streets. “I felt that the only thing center city was missing,” Luca explained, “was a small European-style hotel with a great casual restaurant — the kind of place you find when you get lost in a town in Italy. This was an abandoned building at the time, and I had to borrow a lot of money to turn it into a hotel. Everybody thought I was crazy.” The boutique hotel started out with 27 rooms but now has 51.
Another Sena family jewel that stays under the radar is Le Castagne, which serves contemporary Northern Italian cuisine at 1920 Chestnut St. (“Delicious food on a par with…La Famiglia,” according to the Zagat Dining Guide.) But in June of this year, Luca opened what might be his most ambitious project to date. He partnered with John Poulos, whose family owned the Snow White Diner at the southwest corner of 2nd and Market Streets for 60 years, spending 18 months and millions of dollars on a massive transformation of the diner property into Revolution House. The new restaurant can seat about 144 in several rooms, including a gorgeous second floor outdoor patio with a great view of the Ben Franklin Bridge and Old Christ Church.
Unlike the other Sena restaurants, which offer strictly Italian menus, Revolution House has a mid-scale combination of Mediterranean dishes, comfort food, traditional American favorites, salads, sandwiches, Neopolitan pizzas, even some Asian fusion choices. The executive chef is Luca Sena, Jr., the owner’s handsome son who learned his craft at the family’s restaurants as well as at Franco’s in East Falls and on City Line Avenue.
During our visit last week to Revolution House, the dishes that stood out the most for us were one of the better versions we’ve tasted of babaganoush, a traditional Middle Eastern dish of roasted smoked eggplant mashed with garlic, lemon and olive oil ($6); lasagna “cupcake,” a really innovative combination of mozzarella lasagna topped with a warm ricotta “icing” and very fresh-tasting marinara sauce ($7), and a sublime “4 Seasons” pizza topped with pristine San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, cooked prosciutto, mushrooms, zesty Calabrian salami and artichokes ($15).
Revolution House is open seven days a week for lunch (brunch on weekends) and dinner. For more information, call 215-625-4566.