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April 2, 2009

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The Chestnut Hill Local
8434 Germantown Ave.
Phila. PA 19118
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Hill diners enjoy the prosciutto of happiness for one year at Bocelli-2

A chef named Hernan may not be setting the world on fire, but he is certainly blazing a trail for other young chefs to follow at the first Bocelli restaurant in the Gwynedd Valley train station. (Photo by Ron Schock)

After Stella Notte in the Chestnut Hill Hotel went out of business a few years ago, Chestnut Hill diners had to go cold turkey — or should I say cold ravioli — without a serious Italian restaurant on the Hill. (Of course we do have Cosimo’s, but that’s more of a pizza/sandwich place.)

Now, however, we can have our chicken cacciatore and eat it, too, ever since Feb. 1, 2008, when the 50-seat Bocelli-2 opened at 8630 Germantown Ave., formerly home to Al Dana, a Middle Eastern BYOB. “A big property owner in Chestnut Hill told me about this vacancy,” said Roberto Lakhoua, 50, who also owns another Bocelli at 521 Plymouth Rd. in the Gwynedd Valley Train Station.

The Chestnut Hill property, across the street from Borders, turned out to be a horse that Roberto wanted to ride. “I wasn’t really looking for a second restaurant at the time,’ he explained, “but I thought I might as well check it out. So I came to Chestnut Hill and ate at every restaurant here. I concluded that a good Italian restaurant would do well here, so my partner (Raphael Habib) and I decided to do it. We actually did better than I thought we would do here until the economy collapsed.”

Roberto, a no-nonsense, handsome pinâta of energy with an accent that makes every dish sound irresistible, came to the U.S. in 1999, not from Italy but from Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean Sea about 105 miles from southern France and 50 miles from Italy. (For centuries, however, Corsica has been more closely allied culturally and politically to France than to Italy.)

Roberto’s family ran restaurants, nightclubs and small hotels in Mediterranean resort towns that catered primarily to European tourists. He studied hospitality management for three years at a college in northern France and later earned a degree in it at City University of New York. Roberto first applied to come to the U.S. in 1985 and then won a ‘green card’ in a lottery in 1988.

Roberto Lakhoua, owner of Bocelli, holds an entree special, pappardelle pasta and flat-iron steak with roasted peppers, spinach and gorgonzola cheese, while another entree special, a whole bronzino (Italian sea bass), waits to be filleted tableside for a customer. (Photo by Len Lear)

He spoke no English when he arrived here 20 years ago, but he studied English, accounting and math at Bucks County Community College and St. Joseph’s University. He worked as a server and room service manager for the Hyatt and Marriott Hotel chains, but like so many other immigrants, Roberto came to the U.S. to be his own boss, not to work for someone else.

“Many of the workers I was supervising,” said the native Corsican, “would not learn English to improve themselves, although they were making almost as much money as I was, so I knew I had to go out on my own.”

Roberto’s brother, Mario Chelby, called him in 2002 and told him about a vacancy in the Gwynedd Valley Train Station. Eventually, the brothers took over the property, renovated it and opened Bocelli, a 40-seat BYOB, in December of that year. (The name Bocelli has no personal significance for the owners other than the fact that “it’s Italian, and it’s simple.”) The managing partner of the romantic Hill restaurant is Tunisian native Anis Kharroubi, who brings a smile to every table.

What are the main differences between the restaurant business in Europe and in the U.S.? “For one thing,” said Roberto, “the profit margin here (in good times) is about 10 percent, and in Europe it’s about 30 percent. In Europe people eat out more, and the food is cheaper. And American tastes are somewhat different. For example, Americans do not want anchovies in their Caesar salads, and Europeans do. Or Americans do not want eggs in any dish at night because they are considered strictly breakfast food here; in Europe diners do not have any problem with eggs in dishes at night.”

Also, in Europe one has to go to school to become a server; here, anyone who can fog up a mirror can get a job somewhere as a server. “And in Europe chefs do not leave all the time,” said the Hill restaurateur. “In some places here, chefs will ask for a raise and will quit if they don’t get it. In our first four months we had four different chefs, but thankfully we’ve had the same one since last May, and he’s excellent. And I can honestly say that now we really do have a wonderful group of workers who are all dedicated to teamwork.”

The menu at Bocelli-2 has a modern twist on many Italian classics as well as seven specials every night — one pasta dish, two appetizers, two meat entrees and two seafood entrees. The food is not drowning in red gravy, as in some South Philly restaurants. It’s light; it removes the starch from fine dining, and the portions are substantial but not ridiculously large. They have a rustic authenticity and are presented like still-life paintings in a high-class gallery.

An arugula salad was flat-out sensational with gorgonzola cheese and walnuts kissed by a subtle raspberry vinaigrette ($7.50). Cooked dishes were clearly sauteed to order. An entree of malleable ravioli harbored a warm crab meat heart along with a delicate, tasty pink nectar ($16.95), and a daily special of flounder Francaise ($18.95) was zephyr-light with transcendent taste and was accompanied by broccoli and scalloped potatoes. Among several drool-worthy choices, a warm apple tart with pistachio ice cream ($6) was a refreshing way to end the meal.

Our server, Mary Ellen, a student at Chestnut Hill College who said she hopes to have a career in police work, hopefully as a detective, definitely earned her badge if we have anything to say about it. As far as we could tell, all diners and customers behaved themselves, and no laws were broken.

Thanks to the current economic recession/depression, business is now as serious as a kidney transplant. “Customers who used to come in once a week are now coming in once or twice a month,” said Roberto. “People who used to come in twice a month now come in on an occasional weekend. I had to cut back on the hours (of employees) in January. We will have to do whatever it takes to survive.”

During our recent early March dinner visit, we spotted Chestnut Hill artist Barbara Rosin at a nearby table. “We thoroughly like this place,” she said. “The food is very good, and it’s just a good thing that we now have a fine Italian restaurant in Chestnut Hill.”

Unlike some BYOBs, Bocelli-2 does not charge a corkage fee. Every day they also offer complete lunches for $9.95 per person. On Friday and Saturday nights, there are always two seatings, 6 and 8 p.m for parties of four or more.

For dinner Bocelli also offers four takeout specials for $26 apiece, including tax. Each includes two complete entrees, e.g., two orders of penne pasta alla vodka with chicken, roasted peppers and portabello mushrooms in a pink sauce as well as a house salad. On Thursday and Friday nights from opening to closing, there is live music from singer/songwriter Sal Anthony — jazz, pop, r & b, classic rock and country standards. Anthony has been performing professionally for more than 40 years and in 1969 even appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

For more information, call 215-248-1980 or visit www.bocellidining.com.

 


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