By Tanya Tecce, told by Riccardo Longo
My family is originally from Paestum, Cilento, and, like many southern Italians, moved up to Rome for better work opportunities. I was born in Rome and am the oldest of three boys. We came to the United States when I was about 4 years old. South Philadelphia was our first stop and with all the native Italians living there at the time, I honestly felt like I was still in Italy.
Around age 5, I moved to Cherry Hill with my family and that’s when I realized I was definitely not in Italy anymore. We laugh about it now, but my classmates didn’t understand me and most of my teachers weren’t equipped to handle a boy from Italy who did not speak English. Thankfully my English teacher, Mrs. Marcus, would spend extra time with me after school and by the time I was 6 years old I was bilingual.
Growing up I spent my scholastic year here in America, where my parents kept all of our Italian traditions alive; and summers traveling through Italy with family. Those childhood summers were the genesis of my fascination and love of Italian regional diversity. My parents, Mario and Monica, would take me and my brothers, Roberto and Gigio, on trips to explore the 20 regions. I would spend part of the summer with my Nonno Arsenio in his vineyards helping make wine and olive oil. He introduced me to the culture of enjoying wine with dinner at a young age and my aunts taught me the health benefits of a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil a day.
I started working with my father at his restaurants as a young boy and enjoyed working all the different positions on weekends, from busboy to waiter to cooking on the line. As a teenager I developed an interest in finance and got a degree from New York University. While there, I was selected to represent NYU in Milano’s Università Luigi Bocconi for an incredible year-long experience. Then I frequented Boston University in Rome for my MBA. Eventually I would work in international finance for companies such as Citibank, but found that I did not have a passion for working in the corporate office space.
So I went back to our family restaurant business, which we grew to 18 units from Florida to New York. The time came, however, that we were competing with chains at a lower price point, and we didn’t want to sacrifice the quality and authenticity of our food. So we divested and opened higher-end restaurants such as Toscana 52 to feature quality food that would be appreciated.
Since 2009 I’ve been conducting four to five eno-gastronomic culinary tours through Italy each year covering all 20 regions and over 100 cities to study the diversity of each’s cuisine, wine, and culture. During the 2011 tour I met Italian gelato champion Stefano Biasini, whose award winning café, Gran Caffe l’Aquila, was destroyed in the 2009 earthquake.
The good possibility being it would take 20 years to rebuild the city of l’Aquila, we decided to rebuild the landmark caffe in Philadelphia instead as an Italian cultural immersion project, completely designed and built in Italy and shipped over to Philadelphia for installation. Not only would it feature the award-winning gelato and coffee of the Italian original, we added an authentic Italian bar, wine program based on all 20 regions, an in-person and online market that sells products of excellence from all 20 regions and a rotating weekly menu featuring the food and wine of 52 Italian cities to educate Americans on what authentic Italian food and wine truly is. In addition, a cultural school was born in association with the America Italy Society to further educate on the history and culture of each weekly city featured, as well as multiple levels of Italian language.
Our mission is to educate our guests on the uniqueness of our 20 regions through the Italian products we feature, how each terrain produces unmatched agricultural results from wine to cheese to all kinds of fruits, vegetables, olive oils and much more. Globalization puts us at risk now of losing our identities, diversity and all these flavorful nuances. With the flooding of fake foods such as non- Italian parmesan, chemical based truffle oils, Moscato from California and low-quality salumi marked as “Italian style,” it is more important than ever to educate consumers on what true quality and authenticity in Italian excellence is.
We are proud of the recognition received for all our hard work, such as Philadelphia Concierge Association’s “Best Restaurant” in Philadelphia, Eccelenze Italiane (given by Italian journalists for promoting Italian excellence in the world), Tre Cicchi (Italy’s highest award for coffee roasting), Italian-American Business Council’s International project of the year, Wine Spectator’s award of excellence and most recently Gambero Rosso’s recognition as one of the top Italian experiences in the world.
My passion and greatest joy is sharing my love of Italian culture, food and wine with our guests. I am so happy that my three beautiful daughters Antonella, Liliana and Marina also share this passion. As native Italians, we have a responsibility to educate the next generation on why this peninsula known as Italy is the most special and endowed territory in the world.
Italian-born restaurateur Riccardo Longo is co-founder and culinary & wine director of the award winning Gran Caffe L’Aquila.
OUR IMMIGRANT STORIES ARE PROUDLY SPONSORED BY STAMPONE O’BRIEN DILSHEIMER LAW