There are many great dining establishments in Philadelphia. We all know that. Many wonderful experiences have blossomed from the resurgence of the fabulous restaurant explosion during Mayor Ed Rendell’s tenure there, and continues today. But it’s not the gastro haughtiness that savvy restaurateurs are now after.
As proof, look at a sampling of those early places that were iconic: Gone is the Old Original Bookbinders, which stood the test of many generations. Gone is Le Bec-Fin, representing one of the best French restaurants in all of America, serving very finicky diners for over 40 years. Even Striped Bass took a nose dive. No, today’s diners want incredibly unique flavors that seem to easily jump from the plate to the palate, enhanced by pairings of incredible wines, providing a levitation that some define as heavenly.
Local chefs have learned from the best in the world, and have now arrived, wide-eyed, young, talented and eager, to show off that talent right here in Philly. Many are also owners, who have opened some of the most interesting and delectable Philadelphia eateries with award-winning showcases to rival the best in the world. So, what differentiates one from the next awesome Philly establishment? One such very unique and different place like no other in the City of Brotherly Love is Gran Caffe L’Aquila.
Originally, the Gran Caffe L’Aquila was an established landmark in Italy for many years in the city of L’Aquila, the capital of the Abruzzo region. During its Italian run, Gran Caffe L’Aquila received many accolades, capturing Café of the Year in 2007. However, in 2009 the restaurant, very well-known for its local fare, wines, gelato and coffees, was destroyed by a devastating earthquake that nearly took down the entire city. Fast forward to 2012, when Riccardo Longo visited the capital where the city and café stood in ruins. It was there he met the renowned owners of Gran Caffé L’Aquila, Stefano Biasini the gelato king of Italy, and Michele Morelli, master coffee roaster. Longo learned about the restaurant through this special bond between these men, which they quickly all came to embrace. At the time, Longo, an Italian born citizen, had spent his last 20 years studying cultural issues surrounding cuisine and wines throughout his homeland country. As such, an everlasting partnership was born.
Recognizing that the city and the café would take many years to rebuild, Longo, Biasini and Morelli left the Old World country for a new beginning, but always remembering how important their Italian roots were. The three men immediately gravitated to Philadelphia, and set off to duplicate “to a tee” what Gran Caffe L’Aquila represented in the Piazza Duomo back home. There was an incessant desire to replicate their old café, and so the decision was made to design and build in Italy the café to the same meticulous, rigorous standards that existed prior to the earthquake, and then have it all shipped and assembled where it stands today at 1716 Chestnut Street. And so, on December 24th, 2014, this incredible establishment was reopened on U.S. soil.
What impresses diners the most, however, isn’t necessarily the physical grandness of this establishment, but the particular care the partners take in focusing on featuring menus based on the local cuisine and wines paired from a different city in Italy each and every week. For 50 weeks, Longo displays his handpicked wines and local Italian fare, weaving these together masterfully. Combined with Biasini’s award-winning gelato, and Morelli’s roasted world coffees, there is no better dining experience in Philadelphia. When you add the collaborative efforts between Longo and the America-Italy Society of Philadelphia to bring an Italian cultural and language school to the café, it’s simply poetry in motion. Unlike some of the iconic restaurants which are now just fond memories, this very special place at 17th and Chestnut is a place for the ages with the warm, “Old World” charm it exudes.