Tasting Cena: Fine Italian dining in the heart of Tampa’s Channel District

Cena, in Italian, means dinner or the evening meal, which is an appropriate name for a restaurant that features the creatively prepared cuisine of Italy and is open only for dinner. 

Located in the Grand Central at Kennedy complex in the hip Channel District of Tampa, Cena, led by its Executive Chef-Owner Michael Buttacavoli has developed a reputation as the place to go for everything from “better than Bobby Flay” meatballs, more about that later, to award-winning entrees such as Truffle Mushroom Risotto, Braised Oxtail, and Rustic Bolognese.
Inspired by his Italian grandmother who Buttacavoli says was always in the kitchen, he began his culinary adventures as a kid by whipping up from-scratch mac and cheese. He says he learned the importance of good ingredients watching her turn the contents of her pantry into a feast.
After graduating from Ridgewood High School in Port Richey, Buttacavoli went to junior college with the thought of becoming a chiropractor. His very smart, successful sister had set a high family bar, and he wanted to make his mother proud, but the college-level science courses “were a disaster.” The chiropractic plan was scrapped.
Some of his friends worked at Chili’s so he signed on as a dishwasher while he figured out what was next. One night, a line cook didn’t show up and Buttacavoli volunteered to step in to make the nachos and quesadillas. He never went back to dishwashing. 

Learning the basics

Timing is everything and just as Buttacavoli was realizing cooking could be a career path, a culinary school opened in Lakeland. “They taught the basics which were good for me,” says Buttacavoli. When it came time to find an externship, one of the instructors pointed him toward BOCA in Ybor City, where well-known Executive Chef Jeannie Pierola recognized his talent.
Upon graduation, Pierola hired Buttacavoli and mentored him for three years at BOCA (now closed). When she left to assume the helm at the then-new Side Berns (now Haven), she took Buttacavoli with her. “I saw how a real restaurant, not a chain, is run. We did everything there. The menu was eclectic … foods from around the world … especially Cuba and Spain. For eight years I honed my skills.”
When it came time to move on, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa became Buttacavoli’s next stop, starting as Banquet Chef, eventually moving through each of the casino’s restaurants including the award-winning Council Oaks Steaks and Seafood.
Through mutual friends in the business, Buttacavoli heard about a group of investors putting together a restaurant in what was then the very early development stages. They had heard about him, too, which led to a partnership and the creation of Cena.
Buttacavoli admits the early years were tough while the Channel District was being developed. “We were kind of in 'nowhereville',” he says, “but the other investors and I had a vision and we stuck with it.” 

There’s a saying in the restaurant business, “People will go anywhere for good food.” In the case of Cena, that quote proved to be very true. The restaurant has no direct street access. Parking for customers arriving by car is located in the Grand Central at Kennedy Garage West, off East Kennedy Boulevard. Patrons take an elevator to the first, not ground level, floor. Specific parking and location information is available on the Cena restaurant website.

Inside Cena’s muted gray walls, you’ll find a sleek, sophisticated vibe, including a bar bathed in soft blue light. Outside in the courtyard, dining has a more casual feel centered around a large bar, lots of seating, and an inviting fire pit.
Overcoming adversity

Speaking about the ups and downs of a business that can be volatile in the best of times, Buttacavoli admits that making it through the COVID pandemic has been the most challenging.
The restaurant did get a mid-pandemic boost in February of 2021 when an episode of “Beat Bobby Flay,” featuring Chef Michael Buttacavoli, aired on the Food Network just before the NFL Super Bowl was played in Tampa. Turns out all the time spent in his Italian grandmother’s kitchen paid off: Buttacavoli’s meatballs sent the famous TV chef back to the cutting board.
National exposure on the Food Network was not only good for Buttacavoli and Cena, but it also helped to raise Tampa’s national profile as a destination. 

“We have a lot of great new chefs,” says Buttacavoli. “We’re headed toward being a real foodie town. This is a very exciting time for Tampa.”
Sounding simultaneously proud and contemplative, Buttacavoli says, “We’re a destination restaurant. We’re only open for dinner. We use the best ingredients to offer a classic element to Italian food combined with innovative preparation.” 

Even the libations at Cena are unique offerings. Buttacavoli says, “Our bar is stocked with high-end spirits, we like to expose our guests to something different.” Cena does have a small cocktail list that is curated by the bartender with influence from the Chef. All of Cena’s wine list is carefully curated from Italy.
After nine years at Cena’s helm, Buttacavoli is thinking about what’s next. Happily married for 16 years, he met his wife at Side Berns, and now the father of three, he’s hoping to be able to step back from being quite so hands-on. “There have been lots of times during the past few years I’ve had to spend all night on the line. I’m looking to ease into more of an oversight role.” 

Funding for this story was provided by Cena investor Ken Stoltenberg of KD Keller Development LCC, a Tampa-based real estate development partner that transforms  urban properties into legacy assets. 
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Read more articles by Pamela Varkony.

Pamela Varkony’s non-fiction topics range from politics to economic development to women's empowerment. A feature writer and former columnist for Tribune Publishing, Pamela's work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and in PBS and NPR on-air commentaries. Her poetry has been published in the New York Times. Recognized by the Pennsylvania Women's Press Association with an "Excellence in Journalism" award, Pamela often uses her writing to advocate for women's rights and empowerment both at home and abroad. She has twice traveled to Afghanistan on fact-finding missions. Pamela was named the 2017 Pearl S. Buck International Woman of Influence for her humanitarian work. Born and raised in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Pamela often weaves the lessons learned on those backcountry roads throughout her stories.