From Albania to Philadelphia, with a tasty stop in Italy
"It's everybody's dream to get to America."
We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
Raffael Kupa and his family left Albania during the political turmoil after the 1985 death of communist strongman Enver Hoxha. They settled first in Greece, returned to Albania as the nation began its transition to capitalism, and then moved to Italy, where they lived for five years until joining relatives in the United States.
"It's everybody's dream to get to America," Kupa, 38, said in the ornate dining room of La Fontana Della Citta at 17th and Spruce Streets, which he and partners opened a decade ago, six years after he arrived in the States.
Where did you settle?
All my family was in Philly and worked in the food industry here, so, as a young guy, I followed my family's steps. Then I started working as a waiter with my cousins at a restaurant at the Shore called La Fontana Del Mare [in Strathmere]. All the customers were from Philadelphia, so I asked my cousins that if the opportunity comes on, to open up a restaurant in Philadelphia.
Tell me about the restaurant.
It was an empty corner, a beautiful, historical building. A few restaurants had failed there. It took us one year to get the place together. Late last year, an opportunity came in Somers Point, N.J. Same thing: failed restaurants. I saw an opportunity. I grabbed it, and opened a restaurant in February 2016 called Buona Vita. This was our first season, and it has been extremely busy. That's the second restaurant I opened on my own. My cousins have others.
Both restaurants are BYOB. Have you ever considered a liquor license?
No. Once you get the liquor, then you will target more on making money on the booze versus the making [of] great food. We try to get our products strictly imported from Italy, and we deal directly with small companies. Our success is because of the quality of food, consistency, and also reasonable pricing.
In terms of business, how does a BYOB compare with restaurants that have liquor licenses?
This one [La Fontana] was the big hit because when we first opened, the economy was falling. A lot of customers wanted to save every dollar they could. We don't charge any corkage fees or any of that. They save a lot of money on the bottle of wines, and they have their own selection that they like.
Who are your customers?
Local people. We also have a big following in the 610 area, too.
What are your most popular dishes?
The pasta and the veal dishes are the most traditional that people love.
Speaking of love, anyone ever get engaged here?
There was a couple, they had been coming to the restaurant for five years straight. They came here one night, they dined, the guy proposed. She accepted. The restaurant was packed. He says, "I chose this restaurant because I love the food and it has never failed me for five years. I hope that my wife will continue to be same as the food over here," and everybody was clapping and laughing. It was really, really funny.
Why do so many Albanians own Italian restaurants in Rittenhouse - counting the La Viola restaurants a block away, Bellini Grill, and the now-shuttered Branzino?
The younger generation, we really feel like we are Italians in a way. When communism collapsed, the most loving neighbor country was Italy. The Italian culture merged into Albania very fast. Since 1990, the schools all teach Italian. They all speak Italian. They all start cooking Italian. In Albania, for some reason, we have three types of cuisines. We have a Mediterranean, then we have in some parts Greek, but, mostly, it's Italian. When you move to a different country, you don't think of opening an Albanian restaurant, you really think opening [an] Italian restaurant because we feel like we are Italians.