Outside the Kitchen with Porta Napoli
We catch up with chef and owners Sandra and Roger Cappucci for a glimpse into their lives away from the wood-fired oven
Chef speak: "I need to be with people, to please them. I was fortunate enough to... have traveled the world and be accustomed to good food, good service, fine atmosphere. Running a restaurant felt natural to me." - Roger Cappucci
Photo by Kristen Guastalla
Chef/Owners: Sandra and Roger Cappucci
Food Business: Porta Napoli, Harrison
Growing up in Harrison, Roger Cappucci had several passions: pasta, meatballs, ragù, bread. And Sandra Manzella. The food, he adored from his grandmother’s kitchen. Sandra he adored from afar. Acquainted through their large Italian American community, he was a frequent guest at Sandra’s family’s elaborate Sunday feasts. “I worshipped her,” he says. “I thought she was gorgeous.” But she was also older, by 16 years. He kept his ardor to himself, through her first marriage and two children, until she was single again and relied on him for friendship and healing. “He was there for me,” she says. “He was my confidant.” A year later, he was her boyfriend and, in May 2015, her husband. Hollywood ending, Westchester location.
Today their partnership has extended to business. They debuted Porta Napoli last September, four months after marrying, three months after signing the lease. Their honeymoon was spent plastering, tiling, sawing. Sandra, petite and blond, had opened the West Village’s celebrated pizzeria/wine bar Kesté years before and wanted to bring that same Neapolitan authenticity north. Her ex-husband was from central Naples, and she knew her pizza. “Fashion comes from Milan, food from Naples,” she asserts. “Kesté means ‘This is it’”—“it” being a wood-fired oven, Neapolitan flour, tomatoes, and cheese. And “it” is now at Porta Napoli—pizza in all its puffed charred crust, lusty tomato, buttery mozzarella, basil-leafed Margherita glory (one of 30 pizzas available).
Sandra knew more than pizza, however. She knew real estate and construction, thanks to immersion in her father’s home-building firm, and restaurant administration thanks to years with Citigroup’s corporate credit-card-sales division. “I worked with restaurant owners; that was my entrée into the business,” she explains.
“My entrée was her,” Roger, now 27, quips in that easy way happy couples banter. He’s now Porta Napoli’s pizzaiolo, having expanded upon his grandmother’s teachings with a stint at Kesté. But he brings much more than his pizzaiolo’s wooden peel: there’s a Fordham University business degree, five summers as a paralegal with his father’s Park Avenue law firm, and six months at a hedge fund. “I always figured I’d work in law or finance, but a desk job just wasn’t for me,” he says. “I need to be with people, to please them. I was fortunate to be raised wealthy, to have traveled the world and be accustomed to good food, good service, fine atmosphere. Running a restaurant felt natural to me.”
Okay, but constructing one didn’t. “My family just hired people to do the work,” he admits, shrugging, I didn’t have to do anything.” And again, that easy banter:
Sandra: “He didn’t even know how to hang a picture.”
Roger: “But once I was with her, I learned I had an affinity for building.”
Sandra: “He also learned how to clean and vacuum.”
Roger: “And paint, tile, and sheetrock.”
Sandra: “I taught him well.”
Pause, then exchange of adoring smiles. Such a romantic past and present. There’s just one contention: the future. Sandra dreams of Fiji, draped on a chaise in her open-air lagoon bungalow. But Roger is sipping Sangiovese in his Tuscan villa, surveying his vineyards, making pizza. Sandra considers, then makes a concession: She’ll switch out the South Pacific for the Amalfi Coast. “We’ll meet in the middle,” she says. Roger beams at her, and once again, there are those smiles.