Caffè Aquila

I emigrated from Rome to Philadelphia when I was a young boy, but it was a while before I realized I had truly left il bel paese. The South Philadelphia of my childhood was full of natives and first generation Italian-Americans who spoke the language of home. Nonnas sat on their porches peeling garlic and gossiping, men heatedly discussed soccer, and the smell of simmering sugo di pomodoro floated out of many an open window. I remember walking to Termini Brothers Bakery each morning with my father where a kind Mr. Termini always had a sfogliatella waiting for me. It was all so familiar and genuine that it just felt like another Italian neighborhood.
Like many other Italian families, we eventually moved away from that neighborhood and across the bridge to South Jersey. It was far less reminiscent of the old country but, thanks to my hard working parents, I was able to spend my summers in Italy and maintain my grasp of the language and culture of home. We spent the majority of our time in Italy traveling between Tuscany, Lazio and Campania. My nonno had a vineyard and olive groves next to the Parco Nazionale del Cilento, located just south of the Amalfi Coast. When we did travel to other regions, from Sicily to Val D’Aosta, I noticed that there really was no such thing as “Italian food.” Rather, the cuisine and wines of the peninsula change dramatically from region to region, even from town to town within a given region. My early curiosity in these regional differences would shape my destiny later.
From an early age I worked in my father’s restaurants in the evenings. As I grew older, my penchant for mathematics emerged and started to direct me away from the dining room. I obtained a degree in finance from NYU followed by an MBA. A career in finance lay before me, but I balked at the very prospect of that life. It felt boring because it wasn’t my passion. So I went back to the family business and, along with my brilliant father, grew both our restaurant holdings and my own beautiful family. Life was sweet.
Monday, April 6th, 2009. I sat on my sofa that morning and watched the destruction that befell L’Aquila, the capital of Abruzzo. An earthquake demolished the city, and as I watched the footage of wreckage and rubble, the devastation resonated within me. I was in the midst of my own personal earthquake: My wife of 10 years had just told me that she no longer wanted to be married. Our marriage buckled under the weight of those words, and one year later I was officially divorced.
With prayer & support from family & church I focused my efforts on rediscovering myself in a new project: a book that would explore the various styles of Italian cuisine. I made a list of what I thought were the 50 most important culinary cities and towns of the republic, and every few months I would set out to experience and study as many as I could properly fit into my trips. My itinerary for each expedition included meetings with chefs (both renowned and humble), winemakers, cultural historians, and the true keepers of the craft: the Nonnas.
From the beginning of this journey, I felt a sense of duty to Italian-Americans to illustrate that their roots are most deeply grounded in the regions of their ancestors. Each of the twenty regions boasts a cultural tapestry woven from distinct dialects, art forms, recipes and wines. From Arab, Greek and North African influences in Sicily, to Etruscan and French influences in Tuscany, to Austro-Hungarian and Slovenian influences in Friuli and Alto Adige, the richness of the “Italian” experience changes with each city.
During my second year of research, I had an accidental opening in my schedule. I made a mistake booking my returning plane ticket and wound up with an extra day. From my family’s apartment in Rome, I headed due east about an hour to L’Aquila with no appointments to keep.
Piazza Duomo. At the gates of this historical center, I was shocked to see two Italian soldiers shouldering machine guns. Some Roman friends had just told me that L’Aquila was nearly restored to normalcy since the earthquake two years prior (a testament to how out of touch Italians can be from their neighboring regions). In reality, the city was closed under martial law. I parked my car 100 meters away and entered L’Aquila through a back alley. This once beautiful and refined city had been brought to its knees by what looked like the after effects of a relentless bombing. The earthquake left countless images of life interrupted: a renaissance apartment complex ripped in half to reveal still furnished bedrooms, blankets strewn over bricks, or a toothbrush on a bathroom counter awaiting its next use. I thought again and again of Pompeii, another Italian city ravaged by nature. In the Piazza Duomo, in the center of the square, I saw a damaged building that looked like it had once been an elegant & beautiful caffè. As I got closer, I saw a dusty shield outside of the damaged building that read “Gran Caffè L’Aquila.” It left an impression.
Saint Peter Celestine. I walked for hours through the city until I came to the only open bar. I went in and asked if there was anywhere left in the area where I could get a typical L’Aquilan meal. I was directed to a place at the edge of the city: La Grotta di Aligi, owned by a local chef named Enrico Ferrauto. He and his mother shared their considerable knowledge about local cuisine and, by the time I’d finished my dinner, I had invited Enrico to come visit me in Philadelphia. Freshly sated, I walked over to the famous Collemaggio church of Saint Peter Celestine. In hindsight, I think this was a moment where I realized L’Aquila was a city of destiny for me. My home church in Cherry Hill, just outside of Philadelphia was formerly known as Saint Peter Celestine. It certainly felt serendipitous that this was the mother church of the place where I’d gone most of my life and the place where I had recently prayed for direction in my life.
Outside there was a kiosk peddling some lovely locally crafted dolls. I went to buy one for each of my daughters, when a man stopped me and asked from which part of Italy was I visiting. I told him that I was from Rome, but lived in Philadelphia. He told me, “The world has forgotten about L’Aquila, the Italians have forgotten about L’Aquila. Even the Abruzzese have forgotten about L’Aquila.” He continued, “Come here tomorrow and I’ll show you everything.”I was amazed by how direct he was speaking to me, considering we had just met. Upon considering my fateful discovery of the Collemaggio, I felt like I had to find out more and told him it would be my honor. I postponed my flight one more day and returned the following morning to see what the stranger wanted to show me. He took me places no one was permitted to go and showed me destruction beyond imagination, including the remnants of his own ravaged home. When I left him he said to me, “You need to let people know about L’Aquila. We have been forsaken.”
Stefano and Michele. For my next trip to Italy, returning to L’Aquila was top priority. The previous month, Chef Enrico visited me in Philadelphia and told me that he was a friend of Stefano Biasini, a co-owner of Gran Caffè L’Aquila. The caffè was famous for excellent coffee and gelato so I told Enrico that I wanted to meet him. Enrico obliged and introduced me to Stefano and his partner Michele Morelli. Since the destruction of their landmark caffè, they had opened an outpost location on the periphery of town. While it was a mere shadow of the original, I was shocked to have tasted the best coffee and gelato of my life, including those found in vaunted caffes from Torino to Palermo.
The three of us became fast friends, bonded by our passion for gastronomy. Stefano, who had trained under the previous gelato champion of Italy, Sergio Colalucci, shared with me how he made gelato. His process was all at once meticulously scientific, yet undeniably artful. Michele had equal fervor for roasting exceptional coffee. He had represented Italy at the G8 Summit for coffee culture and made espresso for all the heads of state. He also had won Gambero Rosso’s highest award for coffee torrefaction. In short, he was one of Italy’s most esteemed micro-coffee roasters.
Together we took a ride to the ruins of their original location. As we walked through, I saw and felt the pain of their loss. The three of us, with lives shaken in different ways, left the damaged building and headed back out into open air. A large sign in the main piazza read in Italian, “WE WILL REBUILD!” I invited my new friends to come visit me in Philadelphia in a few weeks, from where we would begin to rebuild ourselves.
The Gelato Champion. We had a great time visiting the sites of Philadelphia and New York together. One of the more memorable moments was watching Michele berate a barista of a national coffee shop for calling ‘a cup of burnt water with milk a cappuccino.’ I eventually stepped in to remind him that it was not the young barista’s fault & apologized vehemently on his behalf. She, like most Americans, doesn’t know that a true cappuccino is two ounces of coffee, two ounces of milk and two ounces of foam. That exact recipe is strictly maintained in the 100,000+ caffès that dot the Italian peninsula. Stefano was similarly, if slightly less vocally, disappointed with the gelato. I already had been crusading for some years seeking authenticity in Italian food and wine. In Stefano and Michele, I found friends with the same passion.
The next month I flew back out to L’Aquila, and after a fabulous dinner of arrosticini made my Michele’s mother, we began discussing the idea of bringing the Caffè that had previously won the distinction of “Caffè of the Year” to Philadelphia. We believed that it was a project of destiny, and as such, we decided ONLY to move ahead with it if Stefano became the Italian Gelato Champion at the next championship. I went to Rimini in January 2013 for the “Iron Chef” style showdown between gelato makers representing a cross section on the 20 regions of Italy. By the third of six rounds, Stefano and a Sicilian favorite pulled away from the pack. The rest of the competition was a face-off between two masters. He wowed the judges with his structurally perfect gelatos and awe-inspiring gastronomic. I watched as he planned out the mathematics of the structure and consistency of flavor first on paper, and then made it reality. He was able to taste the flavor in his mind before he made it. That night he triumphed and, as we all celebrated, our sights moved from Italy to Philadelphia.
Stefano and Michele began flying to Philadelphia once a month as we considered our venture. I brought our business plan to my father, Mario Longo, and asked for his assessment. He is one of the most successful and respected restaurateurs in the tri-state area. When he told us that he loved our idea and wanted to invest in our dream, it was a beautiful moment that still gives me pause today. His partnership brings with it half a century of international restaurant experience, and it is a gift to have his guidance in so many ways.
The brief thought of going to New York with this project was stifled by the revelation that Philadelphia has the largest Abruzzese population outside of Abruzzo. Stefano and Michele loved hearing their dialect spoken in the streets. As an Italian national who came to Philadelphia as a child, it is a poetic manifest destiny that I could now give back the gift of authentic Italian culture to the city that I love.
1716 Chestnut. We found a multi-level location in the prestigious Rittenhouse Square neighborhood that was reminiscent of the Gran Caffè in L’Aquila located at 1716 Chestnut Street. We hired an Italian design firm to orchestrate an authentic, modern Italian aesthetic. All the details were conceptualized and constructed in Italy. We opted for a taller bar style where the patrons stand rather than sit, something ubiquitous in Italian bars. The caffè is full of Italian marble, wood and ironwork. Both the gelato and coffee laboratories are outfitted with Italian machinery that was customized to function in the USA. Both labs are wrapped in glass so guests can watch Stefano and Michele craft their artisanal products. The entire restaurant arrived via freighter from Italy in 18 containers. A true Made in Italy caffe for Philadelphia.
Besides a fixed menu, we offer a 52 week tour of Italy where each week our chefs prepare homemade specialties of a feature city based on recipes I’ve collected. Stefano has made it his goal to revolutionize the idea of what gelato is. In addition to his acclaimed sweet gelato, our guests have been wowed by his revolutionary idea of pairing gastronomic gelato with authentic Italian dishes ranging from antipasti to pastas to entrees. Our best selling entree being a carbonara with pancetta gelato. Michele has introduced Philadelphia to what a true Italian cappuccino tastes like. I have assembled a comprehensive Italian wine list with rotating wines from all 20 regions of Italy. We have even partnered with the Italy-America Society to offer classes on Italian language and culture.
From the day we began it took almost 3 years to realize the dream project. I kept my promise to the friend I met in L’Aquila: I will not let the world forget about L’Aquila. Gran Caffe L’Aquila stands as a symbol of authenticity of Italian gastronomy and culture. From the Gelato made by the Gelato Champion of Italy, to the award winning coffee made by Michele, to my weekly gastronomic tours of Italian cities, wines from all 20 regions, and a cultural and language school. Within 6 months Stefano won best of Philly for his Gelato, Michele was wowing the city with his award winning coffee & I won the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence . A steady stream of native Italians, American-Italians, and Italophiles pack the place every night. From the ruins of L’Aquila and the ruins of lives interrupted we emerge to expound the gospel of made in Italy to Americans hungry for the true Italianita.
Philadelphia you are our destiny.

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