Molto Molto: Gran Caffè L’Aquila Reviewed

Gran Caffè L’Aquila wants to take you to Italy. Every last corner of it.

Spaghetti carbonara | Photo by Ryan Scott

Spaghetti carbonara | Photo by Ryan Scott

Pretend you’ve been led into a new restaurant wearing a blindfold. We’re playing a game: When I uncover your eyes, you try to piece together enough clues to guess what sort of place we’re in. Go! The 24-flavor gelato counter would give it away too easily, so I yank the blindfold a few steps beyond it. Your eyes fall on a white wall lined with bottles of Campari and Martini dry vermouth. Fresh espresso hits your nose just as a Serie A soccer rerun steals your gaze. You look around. The place is choked with waiters rocking natty short-brim fedoras of a sort most often found atop comic-strip gangsters (but apparently resurgent in Milan). A montage of touristic photos and factoids loops on a second TV — tidbits about Venice and Rome alternating with Maserati commercials.

You’d think the name alone would be enough, but Gran Caffè L’Aquila leaves nothing to chance when it comes to trumpeting its inspiration. Brothers Riccardo and Gigio Longo have lined one wall with black-and-white eight-by-10s of Italian celebrities. Library shelves in the second-story bar sport random hardbacks recovered with phony titles like Palermo and Naples, and the music is all but piped in from the Eurovision Song Contest. This is a place whose servers refer to the guy who makes the gelato, without irony, as “Maestro.”

Have you figured it out yet?

Gran Caffè L’Aquila screams “Italy!!!” in so many registers at once that you’d have to be a Memento-style amnesiac to miss the message. And what goes for the maximalist decor goes, too, for the menu. The 180-seat sequel to 250-seat Toscana 52, in Feasterville (owned by Riccardo Longo and his father Mario), doesn’t serve pizza, but it takes a stab at virtually everything else with an even slightly Italian accent.

This sprawling morning-to-night eatery is a monument to an establishment destroyed by a 2009 earthquake in the Italian city of L’Aquila. One of that original’s principals, award-winning gelato maker Stefano Biasini, is even on staff, overseeing dishes that typify his native Abruzzo. Another, Michele Morelli, is the full-time coffee roaster, with a knack for balanced blends. Meanwhile, Riccardo, the main culinary director, has curated a menu that’s all over the map. The Gran Caffè also supplements its huge regular menu with a weekly one focusing on a single Italian city at a time.

It’s overwhelming. Exhausting, even. Yet there are details, like Biasini’s “gastronomic gelatos” — savory ice creams that accompany a handful of dishes — that set the restaurant apart from every other Italian Overload, just-like-back-in-the-Old-Country neighborhood trattoria in this city. Phenomenal skewers of grilled lamb, lean portions layered against fatty ones and then interleafed with pancetta, come with a captivating mustard gelato. Spaghetti carbonara is rebooted with pancetta gelato that melts into the tangled pasta, and roasted pepper gelato elevates a soothing mascarpone crab cake. It’s a gimmick, but an easy one to get behind. Setting aside everything else — the hats, the history, the music — the gelati alone are revelatory.

Yet the restaurant buries that distinguishing feature beneath layers of distraction. Want a cedar-planked salmon? A shotgun marriage of raw salmon and tuna with grapefruit and pineapple? Pasty potato gnocchi drowned in mushroom cream? They’re all here.

Consistency, not so much. Pastas were stiff one night, supple another. Here were some over-mixed polpette, sadly reminiscent of meatloaf. There, an exquisitely grilled baby octopus that got all it needed in a simple citrus vinaigrette. I loved the ingenious “salumi sushi” — prosciutto rolled around bits of strawberry and Montasio cheese in a trifecta of sweetness, salt and fat. But a giant seafood stew was long on overcooked fish and mussel beards.

The servers were cheerful — even as one slid new silverware through the crumbs that never seemed to get wiped off my tables. Cocktails disappointed, aside from the frothy lemon-sorbetto Sgroppino. But the value-packed wine list, featuring by-the-glass offerings from each of Italy’s 20 regions, is one of the most consumer-friendly in town.

A weekly menu paying tribute to Bolzano, a mountain town near Austria, produced the most memorable dish of my four visits: a juicy bratwurst pimped out with crispy polenta triangles, a soulful onion and beer sauce, and Moretti la Rossa beer gelato. Riccardo Longo, who drives the single-city supplements (and the focused wines that accompany them), is clearly capable of inspiration. Perhaps editing his affordable but wildly overreaching main menu would let it shine through more clearly.

By the same token, the Longo brothers have done Philadelphia a service by bringing Biasini here. They could complete the job by standing just a little further out of his way.

1.5 Stars – Fair to Good

Gran Caffè L’Aquila [Foobooz]