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The Spot: La Famiglia

Giuseppe Sena on his Italian destination in Old City: Why they overpaid for the building, why he would never offer a wine list on an iPad, and why certain bottles are like his kids.

We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.

In 1976, when chef Carlo Sena and his family opened La Famiglia, they had to lay down a piece of plywood so customers could get to the door. Front Street between Market and Chestnut was a mess of dirt and construction, down to the on-ramp to a still-incomplete I-95.

Rough terrain notwithstanding, the Senas liked the location. The water view reminded them of Naples, Italy — from where they had emigrated just a few years earlier — and they realized the neighborhood had the potential to improve. Plus, they had faith that Papa Sena's food would be good enough to draw the dining public, despite the lack of sidewalk out front.

Thirty-eight years followed, proving those initial intuitions right.

Before La Famiglia, eating Italian in Philadelphia came with expectations of spaghetti with gravy served on red-checkered tablecloths. The Senas introduced the city to the concept of Italian fine dining. From the build-out and renovation of the formerly abandoned building to the execution of the restaurant that took over the inside, it was a family effort.

Patriarch Carlo himself worked in the kitchen until the mid-1990s (he died in 2011), at which point son Gino stepped into the chef position. Daughter Rosa handled the books, and sons Giuseppe and Luca took the lead in the front of the house, fine-tuning service and overseeing what would grow to be a 13,000-bottle wine cellar.

In 1990, the family bought a building on the other side of Market Street and opened Penn's View Hotel and Ristorante Panorama. Luca Sena ran the new properties, leaving Gino and Giuseppe to handle the original.

Gino is now semiretired, but Giuseppe is still at the restaurant nearly every single day. Over a lunch of housemade ravioli with fresh black truffle shavings, we discussed why he doesn't use iPad wine lists, why his family bought the building for $300,000 more than its appraised value, and how much the Philly restaurant scene has changed over the past four decades.

What brought you to the United States?

It was my mother's brother who came over first. He used to come back to visit and talk about it, and one time he said to my father, "I might have found you a job in America." My father says, "Nah, I don't know about America."

My father was a chef at Zi Teresa, one of the best restaurants in Napoli. He had started as a pot washer, after World War II. He was a prisoner of war, and when he got out he went to work in a hotel. He started polishing brass pots. Then he moved up to peeling potatoes, and then worked his way up. He learned the real way. My dad knew how to cook Italian, cook French, he was a baker, he was a butcher, he learned the whole complete job.

So my uncle had met a restaurateur in New Jersey and told him about my father. The restaurant owner was interested in hiring a new chef, so he came to Italy and tried my father's food. He loved it, so he made such a great offer that my dad said, "Wow, I can't refuse."

My dad signed a contract for the position, and came over with my brother Luca in the fall of 1967. Well, after five or six months, the restaurant owner decided he couldn't afford my father anymore. My dad saw it as an opportunity for us to do something of our own. So my mother packed up the whole family and we came here. That's where our story begins.

Why Philadelphia?

It's what my dad knew. He was working in New Jersey, and this was the closest big city. It was more lively, a better place to open a restaurant.

How did you find this building [at 8 S. Front St.]?

Me and my brother found it. Originally, we wanted a location at Front and South, but the guy backed out of the deal. Our attorney said, "Look, I have a friend with a building a little further down Front Street." We liked the water, because in Naples, whenever you open your balcony, you see the water. We thought, we don't have the ocean here, let's go with the river!

It wasn't like it is now. It was terrible around here. It was just dirt [because of the highway and subway construction] and there was no place to park, no sidewalk.

But we said, let's do it. If people like our food, they will come. [Snaps fingers.] My father knew what he was doing.

The building was a former warehouse?

It was a dump. It had been a warehouse — like anything along the water — but it had been abandoned for 100 years. There was nothing in here, zero. No doors, just plywood at the door. We had to build a kitchen, everything.

We had to dig out the basement, and that's how we found the wells. We were digging to make it high enough to walk down there, and we found at three old, stone wells. One of them was completely full of water — drinkable water! We covered that one with a steel plate, but you know, if there's an atomic war or something, we could come down here and maybe have uncontaminated water to drink.

One well we filled in, but another one, which has water around 30 feet down, we left open, with a grate across the top. It actually provides moisture for our wine cellar, it's good for the labels.

How long did the renovation take? There's a lot of marble in here.

It took us eight months to remake the interior. We had a beautiful ceramic tile floor, marble walls. When Elaine Tait first wrote about us in the Inquirer, she said we had "more marble than a bank."

The work was done by Cava Marble, on Washington Avenue. The guy's father had worked for the Vatican, done all the restoration there. And then he built this for us.

How much did this building cost, when you bought it?

We didn't buy it until 1980, after four years in business. We had done all the improvements, paid for everything. When the landlord bought this place, in 1970, it was $24,000. We paid him $650,000. And this was 1980! I could have bought a skyscraper in Center City for that much.

We had had the building appraised, it came in at $350,000. So we had to decide, should we move, or should we buy it for $300,000 above market value? We decided that by the time we closed this place, found another one, bought it, and fixed it up, we'd lose a lot of business — the landlord got us.

At the end of the day, it worked out OK.

How did you bring customers here, once you opened? Did you do advertising?

At the beginning we did, but we always knew that the best advertising is you, the customer. I could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising, but if you don't live up to it with your performance, if the kitchen doesn't do what it's supposed to do...

Also, right next door, there was La Truffe, so the block was a destination. There were only five or six restaurants like this in all of Philadelphia back then.

La Truffe opened six months before us, and we had the best relationship with Jeannine [Mermet] and Les [Smith]. The kitchen doors were right across from each other, and if their chef needed something, they'd come to us, if we needed something, we'd go to them. We shared customers, too. It was like a perfect marriage.

When did your father stop being the chef?

Let's see, mid-'90s, maybe? My brother, Gino, was the second in command, so when my dad felt it was time for him to step aside, my brother was able to take over. Now he is semiretired, but even though he's not here, he's still in charge. He was here yesterday morning, actually, making gnocchi just like my dad used to do. The same identical way.

But I have people who have been working here for 35 years. They know exactly what my brother wants, what he expects them to do. Very rarely do they miss a beat. They're like family. You work together 10, 12, 15 hours a day. You see them more than your wife, if you have one.

So if your father and Gino were handling the kitchen, was wine your specialty?

Well, before me, it was my brother Luca. When Luca moved to Panorama, then I took over here. That was in 1990, 24 years ago.

Right, your family opened Penn's View Hotel and Ristorante Panorama. What led to that?

We decided we needed to expand, because the family was getting bigger. We didn't want to have fighting and arguing — there was a new generation and what were you going to tell them - no, you cannot work with us? You cannot be a part of it? No! Open up something new. It was the best thing we ever did.

Right now, my nephew is working here, Gino's son. He'll be the next one to take over.  He's 39, and he's stepping up and becoming responsible. Learning how to manage a restaurant, be the leader. He's doing a hell of a good job.

Hopefully, when we're all gone, our name and tradition will carry on for another 100 years. That's all I wish. My father wanted that. He always said that if you put your name on something, people will recognize you for it, and you have to stand behind it. That's what we do here. We stand behind everything we do.

The wine cellar is impressive. How many bottles do you have?

Around 12,000 or 13,000. I don't know. It goes up and down.

It took us 25 years to get a cellar like that. You don't get this overnight. I'm one of the most particular buyers, my salespeople tell me. My philosophy is I will only buy the best year, because with such a wide range, you're not going to sell everything. You want wine that's good if you sell it right away, but you also want it to get better if it doesn't sell for five or 10 years. So I only buy the best year. Reds from Italy, California, France, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, I have wine from all over the world.

How do you keep track of the wine? Do you have a database?

I have it all in my head. I switch bottles' places sometimes, because I want to be the only one who knows where everything is. If someone wants it, they can call me anywhere in the world, and I'll tell them where it is. I remember where everything is, because I put it there.

And we have our book, our wine list. Have you seen it? [Waiter delivers a tome six inches high, filled with wine labels.] This is only the Italian wines, and a little Californian. We have a separate book for French.

Around 10 or 15 years ago, I thought, oh, maybe I should get an iPad wine list. But then I watch my guests look through this book, and the expression on their faces, and I said, no. This book, it fits the restaurant.

But I do believe in technology. I was one of the first to start using OpenTable, in 1999. It's great, because I look and see how many times customers came in since then  — one gentleman, you know how many times he's been here since we've had OpenTable? 409 times. I'm not lying. Another woman, 327 times.

Has business fluctuated over the years?

Actually, we started feeling a little bit of a pinch in 2008, with the recession.

Do you think it's coming back, now?

I'll be honest with you, I hope so, but I think now, because the restaurant scene here is becoming so huge, won't. I think there's going to be even more restaurants opening up, but I don't know what the profits will be. Before, I knew you should get a return on your investment in a restaurant around 25%. I don't know if you get that now. Because there's one on every corner! Anyone is able to go to a restaurant school, and learn how to cook.

The new generation, they're not into fine dining. Maybe it's coming back a little bit, but not like it was in the '70s and '80s. Our closet used to fill up with millions of dollars in furs every night. The dining room would be sparkling with all the diamonds. People really used to look their best for dinner; it was like an event.

Cocktails at the bar, then go to the table and eat, then back to the bar after dinner. It was enjoyment of life. It was a different world. People really knew how to make a night out of it. They'd sit at tables for two or three hours.

That change started happening before 2008, no?

Yes, I think it really began in 2004 or 2005, that we started getting the new wave of no-tablecloth restaurants. I think mostly kids didn't want to go eat the same place their parents, the baby boomers, went. Just wanting something different.

I love the restaurants here now. Philadelphia has nothing to be embarrassed about, compared to New York. Boston — we're way better than Boston. Or Washington, D.C. We have restaurants that cover all the globe's cuisines. I think it's beautiful.

But sometimes I wonder, why does nobody write about my restaurant anymore, or mention our wine list? People forget sometimes, a certain special place, just because it's been around for so long. I think about this a lot, I say, "Perché, perché perché means why — why is everything always about these new modern restaurants?" What's wrong with restaurants like mine?

You do get customers who come here specifically for your wine list, though?

Yes. When that happens, we have fun. I say, "How did you hear about my wine list?" And they say, "Well, you posted it on your website." I say, "Oh, I did? Let's take it off!" [Laughs.] Only joking.

But sometimes, if somebody buys an old bottle I get upset. Even if I'm making money. Even if it's $700 or $800. Who cares! It's money, you spend it. But how are you going to replace these old bottles? You can't. These are like my kids.

What's the oldest bottle of wine you have?

I have a Brunello from 1945. I have a 1947 Barolo. But the oldest is the Madeira from 1875. From Portugal.

See? [Points to wine list.] It's listed here. How much do I sell that for? $9,500? That's cheap! Take it off. I don't want to sell it anymore. I mean, it's the only bottle in the world, who else is going to have that. I prefer to give it to a museum or something.

And the Madeira from 1900 is "only" $4,500?

It was a better year, 1875 was. Really. You can look it up.

You're the only one who's ever taken a picture of these bottles. Really. It's not good for them to be exposed to light. Nobody is crazy like I am. I have 15 different refrigerator and air conditioning systems down in the cellar. More than light, the worst enemy to red wine is heat.

In 2012, you opened La Spiga with a partner. What led to that?

My partner owned the building at 1305 Locust. So he says, let's do something there. I said OK, so we did it. I designed the whole thing myself. I wanted something rustic, like a bar. A bistro-style restaurant.

But it was too much for me. I thought to myself, "What am I doing? I should be retiring, not opening new businesses." Because look at me, I wear a blue suit every day. Not even lawyers and doctors dress like this anymore. Today, people don't want fine dining. They want casual.

You also used to be a partner in Le Castagne. Why did you leave that restaurant?

That I opened in 2001. It opened one month before 9/11. I was one of the first to open on that block, and it's now one of the hottest in the city. I had fun with it. I love that restaurant, it's gorgeous.

But it was time for me to get out. Time to withdraw. I was going here, there, here, there. I said no, this is not for me. I can see if I was 25, 30 years old. But in our industry, every day there's an issue. If it's not the kitchen, it's the staff. If it's not the staff, it's some appliance. If not appliance, the vendors...every day there's something.

How do you deal with it?

Deep breath. You fix one thing at a time.

Are you involved in Revolution House [at Second and Market Streets]?

No, that is my brother Luca with someone else. They're doing very well over there. It's one of those modern places, a bar, noisy. The deck is gorgeous. And my nephew, Luca Jr., he's like my father - a great chef. He's there every morning, preparing everything from scratch: the pizza dough, the burger that he grinds himself. He really takes pride in what he does.

Who are some of the special guests you've hosted here?

The vice president was here just a few months ago, Biden. We get all the politicians when they come from Washington. Michael Nutter and his wife come all the time. A lot of football players, the Eagles quarterback. Shane Victorino used to come all the time. Sir Ferguson, when Manchester United was here. Flyers players. All these personalities.

But the most important people are the Philadelphia people. The people of Philadelphia. New Jersey. Bucks County. Villanova. These are our clients, our friends. These are the VIPs. These are the people who make my restaurant successful. I give these people a hand. Thank you for supporting us for 38 years.

La Famiglia

8 S. Front St., 215-922-2803


Dinner: 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Lunch: noon to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday