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Antica Pesa Brooklyn: From Rome with Love

Chef Mauro Campanale.

Chef Maura Campanale at work.

Note: A previous version of this article appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It has been edited and reprinted with permission from the publisher.

In the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn is an Italian restaurant glowing with the ageless ambiance of the Eternal City. Adjacent to the decorated dining pavilion curbside is a portal to a spacious room of dark wood, white brick, modern fixtures, adorned shelves, high ceilings, amber touches, a fireplace fronted by a couch and chairs, and the conviviality generated by a passion that is uniquely Italian: trumpeted greetings; exaggerated gestures; handshakes and hugs; kisses on both cheeks; bursts of laughter; strains of music; the fragrance from a busy kitchen. The staff at Antica Pesa is almost entirely from Italy, as are many of the regular customers, and this provides the ethos behind the establishment opened a decade ago by the Panella brothers from Rome, whose family has been in the restaurant business there for a century.

Lorenzo Panella is a frontman extraordinaire. A dashing, mustachioed host in stylish casual wear, his elegance is complimented by a physical energy that smacks of a vaudeville performer. He is an aperitivo to the spirit, a stimulus to the sense of well being that can contribute to the best restaurant experiences. And he is a man, along with his two brothers, drawn to the bright lights of New York City to share four generations of experience. “For us as brothers, we always loved to come to NYC where the biggest companies in our industry are — the best of the best!” Lorenzo says. “Antica Pesa Brooklyn was a way for us to honor our past, a way for our generation to continue this legacy outside of Italy.”

Within Italy, though, the original Antica Pesa in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood is an institution born from benevolence in 1922. Within a customs post of the Panella family, where wheat was weighed on scales (“pesa”), a tavern was opened to feed the less fortunate who lacked such basic foods. An authentic Roman cuisine emerged, recognized city-wide and maintained for four generations. Among the latest generation is Francesco Panella, a cooler customer than his animated brother, with the nonchalance of a movie star on vacation, who occupies, often literally and always figuratively, the space between the front of the house and the open kitchen in back. He is a hybrid of hospitality and cuisine, his expertise with the latter the impetus for his wildly popular show on Italian TV, Big Little Italy, where Francesco seeks true Italian food in New York. Don’t get him started on eggplant parm... 

The true Italian food at Antica Pesa is not just standard trattoria fare. Yes, there’s a cacio e pepe that will transport you to Trastevere. And roast pork. A whole branzino. Roasted eggplant (not buried in mozzarella!). But there’s also a chicken cutlet with chamomile-infused breadcrumbs; a nest of shredded phyllo dough hosting fava beans, a poached egg, pecorino romano and black truffles. Duck breast prosciutto with sun-dried fig crumble and mustard gelato. The menu, seasonal and sustainable, is under the auspices of brother Simone, the executive chef who returned to Rome once the Brooklyn location was established. Simone comes to New York often and is in constant contact with his young head chef, Mauro Campanale, whose large and luminous figure is present in the open kitchen window as he runs orders and greets passersby. 

“I come to Antica Pesa because there are many Italians here,” says makeup artist Angie Valentino of Ridgewood, Queens via Milan. “But also to meet Americans as everyone is so friendly and outgoing. I love the jazz on Thursday nights, too. Of course, the food is incredible. Otherwise, I don’t come.”

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