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Meet Bilena Settepani, Appetito’s At-Large Correspondent

In early 2020, 24-year old Bilena Settepani was working in fashion and had just moved from the Harlem home of her upbringing into her very first apartment in the West Village. By March, the daughter of an Italian father and an Ethiopian mother, owners of Settepani Bakery in Brooklyn and Settepani Ristorante in Harlem, found herself and her family in a maelstrom of major crises. The result was an accidental restaurateur who found her calling and helped save a family business. Appetito welcomes Bilena where she will, through regular contributions, share her adventures as an Italian lover at-large, but we wanted to first introduce her to our readers.

Ciao, Bilena! Welcome to Appetito!

Thanks so much for having me!

You never intended on going into the family business. What happened?

So much happened! The week before New York was shut down because of the pandemic, my mom, who operates our restaurant, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The chef at Settepani Restaurant, because of Covid, dropped everything and went back to Italy; the manager did the same. At the same time, the bakery in Brooklyn, where my dad works, a wholesale operation for the most part, lost 90% of its business overnight. Gone. My dad’s face was heartbroken. My mom was going in and out of chemo. My grandmother was sick, too. I knew I had to do whatever I needed to do to help my family. 

What did you do?

The first thing I did was move back home to help take care of my mom and to help with the restaurant. We had a skeleton crew going for the donation orders, which was easy enough to  manage, but when restaurants could open for outdoor and takeout, mom asked if I could handle reopening the restaurant. I said, “Sure.” She handed me the keys. It was a little scary but also exciting. I grew up at Settepani as long as I could remember, as a kid I took the school bus every morning from Settepani, came here after school every day and did my homework, ate my dinner, was a hostess, waitress, busboy, in and out of high school and college. I know the place. I know the food. Still, we didn’t have a chef; we didn’t have a manager. At home with my mother during quarantine, I practiced some of our signature dishes, so I knew how to make about five pasta dishes, and I knew how to make some of our popular paninis. So, we went for it.

Clearly, it worked. How’d you do it?

I had fun with it! People take themselves super seriously in this industry, and I believe in taking oneself seriously, of course, but you need to have fun in everything you do. Listen: We’re not performing heart surgery. My outlook, and what I shared with the team, was, ‘Let’s make the best out of every situation; let’s put a smile on our faces, even if we're wearing masks.’ We simplified the menu and brought back some things that were popular in the past. We added an outdoor patio. We had the coolest looking drinks! Like cocktails of Limoncello with tequila in scooped out lemons. We did a Negroni in an orange. We had a lot of fun, and it worked! My feeling was, like, ‘Life hands you lemons, make Limoncello sorbetto!’

The challenges in Brooklyn were different though, right?

Oh, yeah. One day, towards the end of summer, I went to Brooklyn with my dad, and, as soon as I got there, I broke down crying. The storefront looked like we gave up. Like Covid got the best of us. The showcase was empty. I understood that the storefront wasn’t so important as it had become a wholesale business, for the most part, over the years, but I remember when I was a kid, when my grandmother and her sister were up front, the glimmer and the light and the sparkle. I wanted to bring that back, to make the storefront active again, so I had people come in to fix things or remove things, to paint the storefront which was covered in graffiti. We put in flowers and tables out front. We added the same greenery facade we had in Harlem. Once we got the front up and running, I started getting my hands wet in the kitchen. I love creating, and I learned that I love creating with food.

What are some of those creations?

Well, we were one of the only places in America that makes panettone year round because my mother loves it so much, so I suggested some different variations, like chocolate chips and gianduja, basically a Nutella panettone. We came up with a different variety for each month, and it was a huge success. I've also come up with the rainbottone, and the rainbow cookie panettone. We added “Flavor Fridays” where we would run pop-ups with savory items, like porchetta or fried chicken, stuffed into our croissants, and this brought a lot of younger people in the neighborhood and from around the city into our storefront. 

What other ways were you able to contribute?

I studied communications and marketing in college. I’m really good at brand establishment, and that’s what I wanted to do at Settepani. We established a consistency for both locations with our logo and facade. I took over all of our social media accounts, which were, you know, basically followed by me, my dad, my mom, my brother, my friends, a few others. I love to eat, and I follow tons of food accounts on Instagram. People love things that look good, and I’m always attracted to the things that look the most intriguing. If I see something that I like, I’m going to go there and I’m going to check it out. And that’s how I wanted our social media presence to be. Now, the bakery alone has almost 10,000 followers.

What’s been the biggest surprise for you?

I didn’t realize how much fun it could be! I grew up in these places. They were in many ways more home than my own home, but my parents encouraged me to do other things, to pursue my creative side. I didn't realize that my passion for creativity could be pursued here, and how amazing it can feel to be part of a community. 

Are you going to stick with the family biz?

Absolutely! I’ve enrolled in culinary school, studying pastry, my love, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m home. This is where I belong. I'm geared towards growing my family's business. I also love trying to find some ways to spend more and more time exploring and learning about the stories behind the food, which is something I can hopefully bring to Appetito!  

We are ready!

So am I!

Finally, how’s your mom?

My mom is doing great - thank God. She is done with chemotherapy and still needs to constantly be careful, but I am so so grateful that she's back and continuing to grow our Harlem location. 

You can follow Bilena on Instagram at @bilenasettepani.

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