With their restaurant business at Gran Caffe L’Aquila shuttered by the pandemic, owners Riccardo Longo and Stefano Biasini have converted the first-floor cafe seating into an Italian grocery store.

At the same time, they’ve added an online store and are shipping their signature gelato nationwide. Grocery items are available for in-person shopping as well as by delivery from Mercato.

It’s a bold move right down the block from Di Bruno Bros., which last year added a restaurant and wine bar on its second floor.

Grocery selection in Gran Caffe L'Aquila's cafe on the ground floor at 1716 Chestnut St.
COURTESY GRAN CAFFE L'AQUILA
Grocery selection in Gran Caffe L'Aquila's cafe on the ground floor at 1716 Chestnut St.

“With the future so unclear right now, we had to create something more flexible,” Longo said, adding that the format will remain in place at least until dining rooms are allowed to reopen. He said the groceries would then shift to a warehouse for shipping.

“This is actually a fun project,” he said.

As a boy, Longo shuttled between Italy and the Philadelphia area, where his family owns the Toscana restaurants. Business interests in Abruzzo led Longo to Biasini, the champion gelato maker who co-owned Gran Caffe, which was destroyed with the rest of the city in a 2009 earthquake.

With coffee roaster Michele Morelli, who has since moved back to Italy, Longo and Biasini relocated the business to the United States, opening in December 2014 at 1716 Chestnut St. on two floors: cafe/bar at street level, with restaurant seating and glassed-in rooms for coffee roasting and gelato-making on the second.

Groceries at Gran Caffe L'Aquila.
MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
Groceries at Gran Caffe L'Aquila.

The changes in the restaurant business caused by the coronavirus are just as seismic.

Longo and Biasini have removed the tables that lined Gran Caffe L’Aquila’s wall, across from the gelato counter and bar, making way for shelves stocked with coffee, packaged crackers and cookies, breadsticks, sauces, cheeses, olive oil, pastas, along with basic ingredients such as chickpeas, lentils, polenta, and flour. Cheese and salumi are sliced to order. An Italian wine and beer shop are in the back.

The e-commerce inventory now is about 120 items. Longo expects it to reach 500 within a year.

GCL is still open for walk-in gelato and coffee, as well as cocktails and prepared foods to go. About 85% of the restaurant menu is available — but not the famed carbonara. “It does not travel,” Longo said. “After 15 minutes, you have scrambled eggs.”

Hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Italian beers and wines are sold at Gran Caffe L'Aquila.
MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
Italian beers and wines are sold at Gran Caffe L'Aquila.