WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
This story could be made into a movie. Riccardo Longo, 46, who was born in Rome but moved to South Philly with his family when he was just 5 (while living in South Philly, Longo says, “I never even realized I had left Italy”), grew up breathing, eating and virtually bleeding Italian food. His father, Mario, owned the Italian Bistro chain and various Toscana 52 restaurants. Riccardo went on to graduate from college in Rome as part of a Boston University program and then earned an MBA from Drexel University.
Riccardo told me that after college, “My personal passion was to go to Italy four times a year for two weeks at a time. I would meet with chefs to get ideas and recipes. What many Americans do not know is that there is not just one ‘Italian cuisine.’ Every city developed its own culture, food, etc., independently. I’d stop in several cities during each two-week stay and ask questions about their own specific foods.”
In 2011, while in Rome, Riccardo looked on a map and noticed the picturesque city of L’Aquila, the capital city of the Abruzzo region, laid out within medieval walls, about one hour from Rome. “So I drove to the city blind, but there were military men all around the road who would not let me drive into town, so I parked the car and walked into town. Buildings were almost all rubble. It looked like pictures I had seen of WWII cities bombed out.”
The reason for the road closing was that on April 6, 2009, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake lasting just 20 seconds destroyed most of the city’s buildings, killed more than 300 inhabitants, injured more than 1,600 and caused most residents to leave their homes.
“Only about 20 percent of the rebuilding had been done,” said Longo. “I was told it would take 20 years to get back to normal. The damage was on a par with Hurricane Katrina. There was just one bar open, mostly giving drinks to soldiers. Only one restaurant was open. The people there told me about two guys who had run a place called Gran Caffe L’Aquila. They were celebrities in the entire country. They had won ‘Cafe of the Year’ for all of Italy and had won international gelato competitions. People came from all over the country to eat there. But it was destroyed.”
Riccardo arranged to meet the two men, Stefano Biasini, now 36, and Michele Morelli, now 45, who had set up a temporary outpost outside of town. “They showed me all around,” Longo said, “and they served me the best coffee and gelato I ever had in my life. I invited them to come to Philly. It just so happens that 80 to 90 percent of the Italians in South Philly are from families who originally came from Abbruzzo. Stefano and Michele found people here just like back home.”
With his financial connections, Longo helped to get substantial loans from both Italian banks and U.S. banks to recreate a Gran Caffe L’Aquila in Philadelphia. The entire restaurant was designed and built in Italy and shipped to Philadelphia for installation. After three years of designing and building, Gran Caffe L’Aquila opened at 1716 Chestnut St. on Dec. 24, 2014. (Longo calls it “the most authentic Italian cafe in America.”) The first floor is an Italian bar with a glass case featuring a couple dozen flavors of freshly churned gelato, and the second floor features the restaurant, wine bar, cultural and language school (they offer Italian language lessons and classes every other week) as well as coffee and gelato labs. (Over the restaurant are apartments.)
Considering the spectacular ambience, polished marble and pedigree of the chefs, the prices on the extensive menu, plus specials from a different part of Italy each week, are really quite reasonable. For example, an ambrosial ‘Bucatini All’ Amatriciana,’ my favorite dish, was a substantial portion of tender pasta rods in a rich sauce vibrating with pancetta, onion and cheeses for just $15.90.
Other dishes that caused body parts to tingle were the Carbonara — spaghetti tossed with cheeses, egg, guanciale (a cured meat that comes from pork jowl or cheeks) and cloaked with bacon gelato (that is not a typo) for a very reasonable $15.90; and the pan-seared Branzino (Mediterranean sea bass), which was flaky, tender and suffused with herbal flavor ($27.90). An entree of Linguine al Granchio ($18.90) was slightly disappointing because the promised crabmeat flavor was less than prominent ($18.90)
Two cocktails — Aperol spritz ($10.90) and Amaretto sour ($10.90) — were the best we have had anywhere in recent memory, while a Sangria ($9.50) was nothing special. There are wines from all 20 regions of Italy. We tried a sampling of different flavors of gelato ($4.90 small, $6.90 medium and $8.50 large), and they were as advertised, heavenly. Ditto for the cappuccino.
Our server, Nicholas Shankin, definitely made the experience extra special.
For more information or reservations, call 215-568-5600 or visit www.grancaffelaquila.com.