End of the line for La Buca and Moonstruck, two landmark Italian restaurants in Philadelphia
La Buca closed its subterranean dining room last week. Moonstruck, and the adjacent Joseph's Pizza, will close in about a month.
You missed your chance for a farewell meal at Ristorante La Buca, one of Center City’s oldest Italian restaurants, but you can still try to snag a table at another classic Philadelphia Italian restaurant, Moonstruck, which is in its final weeks in Fox Chase.
Ristorante La Buca
La Buca, which opened in 1980 in the basement of 711 Locust St., just off Washington Square, on Monday took to Instagram and Facebook to announce its permanent closing.
Pisa-born chef Giuseppe Giuliani founded La Buca, whose name translates as “the hole” or “the basement,” with the help of famed defense attorney A. Charles Peruto Sr.
Giuliani, a gracious host, came to the United States in 1958 not speaking English. He and his wife, Mary, settled in Philadelphia, where he found work at a collection of long-ago restaurants, including Arthur’s Steak House and Gaetano’s. In 1976, he and then-partner Enzo Fusaro opened Il Gallo Nero, a destination Italian, on 15th Street at Latimer, where a Buca di Beppo later stood and where Howl at the Moon is now. Peruto helped Giuliani to navigate a three-year zoning battle to get approval for their formal yet rustic hideaway, known for grilled meats and seafood, as well as pastas.
That year, the two had been told that Luciano Pavarotti would be visiting Philadelphia to judge a competition at the Academy of Music, so they rushed the opening to host the tenor. They named a room after him, which featured an autographed photo of Pavarotti and Giuseppe Giuliani.
Giuliani’s death at age 83 in 2017 put the restaurant’s future in doubt, and the space went on the market. But family members, including Giuliani’s son Anthony, kept it going, even through the pandemic. Though overshadowed in more recent years by newer establishments, La Buca still had a devoted audience.
Son Richard said: “It was a tough decision because we had great staff and wonderful customers, but my brother decided he wanted to take a break. He’s had multiple offers to go elsewhere, but he just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
(If you’re wondering about the oldest Italian restaurant in Center City, that would be the Sena family’s La Famiglia at 8 S. Front St. in Old City, which debuted in 1976. South Philadelphia is home to two Italian restaurants that are much, much older, Ralph’s and Dante & Luigi’s.)
Moonstruck, on Oxford Avenue near Rhawn Street, for years has been, arguably, Northeast Philadelphia’s best-known destination Italian restaurant. A sale is pending for Moonstruck and its adjacent Joseph’s Pizza, both of which will be open at least into early September, said owner Antonio “Toto” Schiavone.
“We’re not getting any younger,” Schiavone said, explaining the decision to sell.
The story began in 1966 when Joseph DiLullo, a hardworking, street-smart high school student at Cardinal Dougherty, bought a pizzeria in Rockledge Borough with the help of an elderly man he had met in a nursing home while visiting his ailing mother. The man, whom DiLullo knew only as “Mr. Simpson,” showed up at Joseph’s Pizza’s opening in a black, chauffeur-driven limo. DiLullo told interviewers he never heard from him again.
He later moved the pizzeria to 7947 Oxford Ave. in Fox Chase.
In 1979, DiLullo, his childhood sweetheart, Claire, and Schiavone went fancier next door to Joseph’s, opening Ristorante DiLullo, a white-tablecloth restaurant with a greenhouse, glass-enclosed pasta room, wine cellar, and — now we’re really dating ourselves — a disco upstairs called Ciao.
In 1985, the DiLullos and Schiavone opened the luxe DiLullo Centro in the former Locust Street Theater at 1407 Locust St., across from the Academy of Music. (It was renamed Toto in 1998 and closed for good New Year’s Eve 2004; it’s now Estia.)
Then the story takes a surreal, almost Hollywood twist. Joe DiLullo died of a heart attack at age 45 in 1994, and Claire and Toto fell in love. They were married three years later in front of 300 people in their Montgomery County backyard.
In 2010, the Schiavones opened Radice, a more casual Italian restaurant, in Blue Bell. That’s where they hope to entertain their Moonstruck clientele after the sale goes through. “You have no idea the number of people we’ve become friends with, even outside of the restaurant,” Toto Schiavone said. “This is the most beautiful thing that we’ll take with us.”
The prospective buyers, choosing to remain anonymous pending the filing of licensing paperwork, are restaurateurs with ties to Fox Chase. They intend to run an upscale restaurant at Moonstruck and an upscale pizzeria at Joseph’s, Schiavone said.