Philadelphia’s home for authentic Italian food
Riccardo Longo, an Italian-born restaurateur, brought the award-winning Gran Caffe L’Aquila to Philadelphia in 2014.
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What do you do if your friend’s restaurant is destroyed in an earthquake? This question faced restaurateur, Riccardo Longo when the original Gran Caffe L’Aquila, owned by his friend Chef Stephano Biasini, was damaged in the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.
“So at that time we talked about it, and he realized that it would take probably 20 years to rebuild L’Aquila because things move very slowly in Italy,” explained Longo in a recent interview with AL DÍA News.
He suggested that Biasini partner with him and rebuild the Gran Caffe in Philadelphia with expanded offerings, like a full restaurant and culture/language school.
The original architect designed the new cafe’s interior, which was built in Italy and shipped over in 18 containers. All of the decor, such as the bar and furniture, were also built there. Biasini’s original gelato and coffee roasting equipment were also brought over. It took 3 years to build the new cafe, which opened on Christmas Eve 2014.
“The idea is that our customers start their experience by walking into a Made in Italy project and that’s the beginning of it. From there, we offer the authentic food, the authentic wine, the cocktails… So there’s all kinds of experiences that a guest can have here that will really sort of make them feel as if they are in Italy,” Longo said.
Longo was born in Rome, Italy, moving to Philadelphia when he was 5 years old. He grew up in both countries — living in America during the school year and Italy during the summer. By the time he was an adult, he had traveled to all 20 regions of Italy and saw the diversity in the culture and food.
“I also realized that in America, the Italian cuisine is not really represented in an authentic way. So this restaurant was really a mission to basically bring authentic cuisine here, to Philadelphia, that represents the way we make food in Italy,” he explained.
The 20 regions of Italy are represented in the food that is prepared, as well as the selected wines. Longo explained that the cuisine of many regions is influenced by their surrounding countries, leading to foods one might not necessarily associate with Italy.
One example of this is goulash and wienerschnitzel in the Trentino-Alto Adige region, which came from Austro-Hungarian influences.
“When we feature a city every week, we also feature the wines, the historic wines of that area, to give our customers a chance to try some really unique things,” he said.
Longo explained that Italy has the largest amount of different grapes in the world. Like with the food, this is due to outside influences. When Italy was invaded by different groups in the past — like the French and Greeks — they brought their grapes and other plants to the country.
The restaurant has a Wine Spectator Award for its extensive wine list.
In addition to the foods prepared in the restaurant, Gran Caffe L’Aquila also has an online Italian market, where people can order products from all over Italy.
“We try to pick products that are essential and iconic to every region. For example, Calabria is very well known for chili peppers so we have all kinds of different products with Calabrian chili peppers because that’s what they’re famous for. The Piedmont has incredible chocolates. The history of chocolate really goes through Turin. The first hot chocolate shops were there in the world,” he said.
The drink came to Europe from Mexico in the 1500s, with the first hot chocolate shop in Turin opening in 1678.
“So for every region we sort of highlight the best products and so if you were to go to these places in Italy, the things you find in our shelves are what’s on the shelves in those stores in those regions,” he added.
Gran Caffe L’Aquila has participated in Center City Restaurant Week for the past few years. This year they offered three courses for lunch and four for dinner with wine pairings.