By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — When Settepani opened in 2001, it was a pioneer in the Central Harlem neighborhood at Lenox Avenue and West 120th Street. Over time, the casual cafe and bakery became a mainstay and then, last year, transformed into a more formal Italian restaurant, Ristoranti Settepani.
But co-owner Leah Abraham thinks she may have lost some of her casual appeal in the transition.
"It was a neighborhood place," Abraham said of the previous iteration of Settepani. "A lot of people are intimidated by the look of the new restaurant so we really need to bring back what made us Settepani."
To win back some casual diners and draw more family-oriented crowds, Abraham is opening Settepani Brick Oven a block away at West 119th and Lenox Avenue. She recently received unanimous support for her liquor license from Community Board 10.
"It's going to be what the old Settepani was," said Abraham who co-owns the restaurant with husband Nino Settepani. They will bake breads on the premises and make their own gelato.
Abraham said the new pizza restaurant is part of an effort to continue the growth on Lenox Avenue. Back when she opened in 2001, Abraham said she thought Lenox Avenue would become what Frederick Douglass Boulevard has developed into over the past year, a restaurant row.
"Lenox Avenue is so special. We have the wide sidewalks, the park, the historic brownstones," Abraham said. "We went to the extreme to be the base but it hasn't happened yet."
Abraham says the recession has been a factor but Nikoa Evans-Hendricks of N Boutique and a founder of Harlem Park to Park, a business alliance, said the physical spaces on Lenox Avenue require a greater capital investment.
"The developments on Eighth Avenue are new developments so you have a fresh landscape. Lenox Avenue is challenging because of the landmarked buildings, churches and schools. You are working with physical structures that are in bad condition and you have to spend a lot of money just getting it to a vanilla box," said Evans-Hendricks.
Abraham said getting the money to combine the two storefronts was one of the reasons her plan to open Settepani Brick Oven was delayed.
Still, when she moved her N Boutique to Lenox Avenue and West 119th street across from Settepani, Evans-Hendricks says one of the reasons was that the space was already finished and only required cosmetic changes. The wide boulevards and historic buildings would be a draw for retail shoppers looking for a unique experience, she thought.
But no other boutiques followed her into the area. Evans-Hendricks recently closed the space despite decent sales to focus on creating her own label and Internet sales.
"It would have been great to see Lenox Avenue as the retail development corridor and Eighth Avenue as the restaurant corridor. But you've got to have your own capital or a reputation for someone to give you the money to develop space on Lenox Avenue," Evans-Hendricks said.
A few blocks up on Lenox Avenue, Marcus Samuelson's Red Rooster restaurant is helping to create a small restaurant area with soul food restaurant Sylvia's and French restaurant Chez Luciene's.
Les Ambassades, which has a restaurant on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, also plans to open a smaller outpost on Lenox Avennue between West 126th and 127th streets. Red Rooster recently won Community Board endorsement to open a sidewalk cafe.
But Abraham said she's not ready to give up on her section of Lenox Avenue.
"We are moving forward even though business is tough," Abraham said. "I have to, even though it feels suicidal."