Lenny Campanelli insists his journey toward becoming executive chef at Petulant Wino in Aquebogue was straightforward.
“There isn’t much to say,” he said recently from the new American restaurant’s charming, sun-drenched dining room on Main Road.
Anyone who has tasted the 41-year-old’s skillful, inventive cooking would almost certainly beg to differ.
Raised in Levittown by Italian-American parents, Campanelli didn’t initially set out to become a chef at all. It wasn’t until he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from SUNY / Old Westbury and was working toward his master’s that he decided to try something different.
“Math just wasn’t for me,” he said.
In fact, Campanelli admitted, it was watching celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse whip up dishes on the Food Network in the early 2000s that made him seriously begin rethinking his career path.
“I know everybody knocks the Food Network, but when I was in my 20s and I knew I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, I enjoyed it,” the Port Jefferson Station resident said. “I don’t want to say it inspired me, but it got me thinking, ‘Why not?’ ”
Campanelli quickly enrolled in a one-year program at Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
Soon after graduating, he met acclaimed Long Island chef and restaurateur Tom Schaudel, who offered him a nine-month kitchen pantry internship at CoolFish in Syosset. Eventually, Campanelli became executive chef there, a position he held until November 2013.
“He was just a nice kid who came to us at Coolfish,” said Schaudel, who sold the restaurant in June 2013. “Just a guy eager to learn and a sweetheart of a person.”
More important, Schaudel instantly recognized that Campanelli possessed a certain something — an indescribable quality that hinted at greatness.
“You can see it in their eyes,” he said. “You can spot these guys a mile away — and they don’t come around that often. Plus, he’s Italian and he likes to eat,” he said with a laugh.
Earlier this year, Schaudel told Campanelli he planned to open Petulant Wino at the site of the former Comtesse Thérèse Bistro, which closed in January 2013. He also owns aMano in Mattituck and A Lure in Southold, plus Jewel and Be-Ju, both in Melville.
Schaudel said he didn’t think twice about asking Campanelli to be not only Petulant Wino’s executive chef but his partner in the venture. Schaudel’s daughter, Courtney, is also a partner.
“It’s great when you can get a partner and a chef in the same package,” Schaudel said. “You have to be very careful when picking partners because it’s a lot like a marriage. I never had any hesitation with Lenny.”
Campanelli, who has two young children with his wife, Kristine, was similarly decisive about accepting the job. Petulant Wino opened shortly after Memorial Day and three months later received an “excellent” rating from The New York Times, the paper’s highest distinction.
“Everybody on Long Island knows — or should know — that a Tom Schaudel restaurant will never disappoint,” novelist Nelson DeMille, a friend of Schaudel’s, wrote in an email to northforker.
“There are times I’ll look back and wish I had spent time in the city or bounced around with different cuisines,”
Campanelli said, “but there are other times I’ll look back and say ‘No, I took the path that was right for me.’ It was more important for me to get into a situation where I knew I’d have a stable environment — where I was working for someone I believed in, who I knew I could learn from and who wasn’t afraid to let me do my own thing.”
That person, Campanelli said, has always been Tom Schaudel.
“People want to do their own thing,” Schaudel said. “I mean, I did. You have to kind of let that happen a little bit — with some guidance and oversight, for sure. But you have to let go a little bit, like a parent. You have to let them fall down sometimes and scrape their knees.”
At Petulant Wino, Campanelli explained, his personality is allowed to shine in popular, innovative dishes like pork belly with an apple cider reduction — “There’s nothing not to like about a slab of bacon,” he said with a hearty laugh — and chipotle braised duck tacos.
“You look at Long Island and it seems there’s an Italian restaurant on every corner,” Campanelli said. “And they’re all doing their own variation of the same dishes. And some are very good, some are excellent, but you’re still ordering a chicken Parmesan here, a chicken hero there. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be a little different.”
Committed to cooking with fresh, local ingredients whenever possible, Campanelli purchases greens from Satur Farms in Cutchogue and herbed goat cheese from Goodale Farms in Aquebogue. And the apple cider used in the aforementioned pork belly dish could be considered hyper-hyperlocal: It’s from Woodside Orchards, located next door to Petulant Wino.
“Tom has always supported the wineries and local farms,” Campanelli said. “I always had exposure to that in my cooking. It was always emphasized that we used those types of ingredients.”
When it comes to cuisine, Campanelli’s philosophy is simple.
“Cook something that you enjoy,” he said. “If you enjoy what you’re eating, there’s a pretty good chance someone else is going to enjoy it, too.”
This story was originally published in the 2015 winter edition of the Long Island Wine Press