Leah Abraham Shares On Opening Settepani, Harlem’s Flagship Italian Restaurant Part 2

July 2, 2024

By Harlem World Magazine Executive Editor Eartha Watts Hicks

Leah Settepani is a luminary, the epitome of kindness, and has become Harlem’s pioneer of hospitality. Leah is the wife of Chef Antonino Settepani, as well as the devoted mother to Bilena and Seyoum Settepani. They are the owners of Settepani Harlem, their esteemed authentic Italian restaurant along Malcolm X Boulevard was launched in December 1998. 

So, are your responsibilities on the business side or on the cooking end? 

I’m not on the cooking end. I’m more on the business end. My husband is the chef. We had the gift of COVID. I was fine during COVID. My daughter came to the house and decided to get into the business. She went to culinary school and decided to go into the business. She works very closely with her father because we have a bakery. She bakes. Even though we have had the bakery for over twenty-two years, she’s opened up sales nationwide. As for me, I am an accidental restaurateur. 

In college, did you study business?

No, I actually studied chemistry. My daughter studied marketing before she went to culinary school. My son completed his undergraduate study in Political Science and earned his Master’s in Human Resources. And he was here last year. My son helped manage the restaurant. They like the business, and they plan to join in a meaningful way. I never wanted to push my kids into this industry. I wanted them to do whatever they wanted to do. And when I talk about the gift of Harlem for my son, as I mentioned, he was robbed here. After my son was robbed, I didn’t know what to do with him. It seemed that I tried every sport. But one day, we were out walking, and I saw another parent with her son in a uniform. I asked him, “What do you play?”

And he said, “Football.”

We didn’t know about football because we didn’t grow up here. But after that day, my son ended up playing for the Harlem Jets. He later went to boarding school and played football there, as well. For college, he got a full-ride scholarship to an NCAA Division 1 college and played football. So, out of a robbery came this opportunity. I would have never thought of football. Football also became our connection to the community. And even now, anytime he comes, he gives back and tries to be a role model for the kids.

Wow, that’s amazing. What is your favorite dish that your daughter prepares now that she’s a chef?

 My daughter is a pastry chef. I like panettone, a holiday bread that is only made for Christmas because it takes 36 hours to make.

36 hours?

Yes. Traditionally, panettone is only made through Christmas because the process takes 36 hours. So, it is a labor-intensive product. Nationwide, only a handful of bakeries make panettone. I told my husband I fell in love with him because he makes great panettone, which is funny. I have an exciting story about panettone. My grandfather was one of the first importers of Italian products, so we always had panettone in our home growing up. Probably everyone has seen bad panettone, the holiday fruitcake. But if you ever had good panettone, you’d love it. We make really good panettone. When we make panettone, everybody buys it and hides it. They try to hide it because we don’t mass produce it, and it is so labor intensive. So, my daughter came into the business, and the first thing she did was make Panettone 40 years younger. And by 40 years younger, I mean, she created these very hip flavors of panettone, panettone with Nutella, Chocolate panettone, panettone with rainbow cookies, all of these interesting varieties, and it took off. Italians like things traditional. But we’ve had so much success with this panettone that it got her recognition from Moscow from one of the top panettone bakers in the world. And from Italy, she received an award for all the different flavors of panettone. So, we make it all year round and ship it nationwide.

Now for other menu options, what’s your favorite dish here and why?

We make all of our pasta in-house. And we make Lasagna Bolognese with a classic Bolognese sauce year-round. Not only is it with the fresh pasta, but the sauce is magnificent. My sisters have asked me to ship it to them.

I have to ask. Can you explain to me what Bolognese sauce is?

Bolognese is a sauce made with root vegetables. It’s a traditional tomato sauce made with fresh tomatoes, root vegetables, onions, carrots, celery, and meat, and we simmer them together in a meat ragu. It’s a classic. We also have a lot of vegetarian dishes and a lot of vegan dishes. My husband is actually from Sicily. At one point, we used to say our food was Mediterranean because people predictably only think of a tomato sauce menu when considering Italian cuisine. Sicily is actually located in the Mediterranean; there’s a lot of seafood and vegetables. So here, we have our seafood dishes and vegetarian options. When we created our first menu, we included a rabbit dish. But then, we took it off the menu. Our customers weren’t used to seeing rabbit entrees on the menu. We also have a seasonal menu, so we source in season. We take pride in sourcing the best ingredients, but you don’t find the best ingredients when they’re off-season. 

How easy or difficult has it been to adapt your menu and practices as the food and its constitution have changed over the past 25 years?

We only source the best quality ingredients. Much of the food has changed, like the wheat and the flour. So, we buy from the best sources. Before this location, the family had the Chelsea location. We have five other locations, and we continue to buy from the same vendors. We stick to our trusted vendors. We’ve used the same vendors for decades.

What is unique about the Harlem restaurant, which is unlike the other locations? 

Well, Harlem is a unique location. They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. That is even more true for Harlem. If you can make it in Harlem, you definitely can make it anywhere. We are an authentic Italian Restaurant, so I’m not necessarily competing with the restaurant down the street. Our competition is downtown. The thing about downtown is that those who dine at downtown restaurants will stay downtown. They don’t come to Harlem. This is not a dining destination. All of the restaurants here in Harlem speak to the same clientele. It’s the same people going to all the restaurants. There’s not a lot of walk-in traffic. We can count the number of people that drop in in a day. But still, the same group of people who go to the restaurants in Harlem are supporting all the restaurants. Downtown, you’ll have 500 condominiums. Here, they’ll be 500 brownstones. Brownstones are smaller, so the population here is not as dense, and we’re pulling from a relatively small pool of clientele. We do not have large corporations in the community that are supporting the restaurants. We do not have heavy crowds of walk-in clients. 

Harlem is a tourist destination. People come to Harlem for our churches or maybe a gospel concert, but it seems as if once everyone reaches 125th Street, they don’t go farther south. So, we don’t get a typical rush. We are a neighborhood spot. I’m lucky because I know 90% of my customers by name. We are your predictably good spot. Anyone can come to Settepani and have the same meal prepared the same way. I eat here. My children eat here. My family eats here. My neighbors eat here. It’s a great place, a reliable place. But we are not that restaurant you will see on QVC. We have a full dessert menu and an assortment of coffees and teas. You can count the number of people that walk in. Accidentally, someone will come in and have a cup of coffee or a little something. But for those who don’t know us. We have a full bar, and we have a full-service menu. We are not an elevated Starbucks.

One of the challenges of being in business in Harlem is that we tend to undervalue what we have in our own backyard. We have an expression in Ethiopia, “The gold that we have in our hand we think is copper. Only because it’s in our own hands.” I have had customers come in and say, “Hey, your stuff is almost as good as . . .” I would say, “It’s better because I sell it to them.” I used to sell to Dean and Delucca before they closed. We make it. Specialty shops source from us. It’s unfortunate that we need others to validate what we have. Ours is the best, and we are packaged in Harlem. 

I love the art featured on the walls. What made you decide to incorporate the gallery into the space?

Well, I have a great affinity for the arts. When we had a restaurant in Chelsea. That used to be the photo district, so we used to do local photographers. And when we opened this location, we decided not to, because people don’t typically come to a restaurant to buy art. But later, my sister was instrumental in an opening at the Museum of Modern Art. She curated several pieces there and we decided to feature the artists. These are known artists, and one of them is on the verge of taking off. I don’t like to have anything that costs more than $1,000.00 in this space. It’s all curated work and all of the proceeds go to the artists. I am going to feature one or two artists at a time. It’s our way of showing support, and it’s a means to give them exposure.

Thank you, Ms. Abraham, for all you do here at Settepani Harlem.

Settepani Harlem is located on Lenox Avenue, a few blocks south of 125th Street at 196 Malcolm X Boulevard. With the feel of a neighborhood cafe, it has a fully stocked bar and all the flavors of authentic Italian cuisine. Harlem World Magazine encourages everyone in the area and those passing through 125th Street to stop in for an entree and stay for dessert.

Eartha Watts Hicks is a Harlem World Magazine’s Executive Editor, a member of the acclaimed Harlem Writers Guild, the award-winning author/publisher of Love Changes and A Planner Is a Girls Best Friend, and NYCHA/NAACP ambassador for literacy. For more information, visit www.linktr.ee/Earthatone.

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