The mind can play tricks when you first walk into Gran Caffè L'Aquila.
One moment, you're on Chestnut Street in Center City. The next, you've stepped into a sleek hideaway off Piazza Duomo at the heart of L'Aquila in Abruzzo, a modern caffè gleaming with polished Carrara marble, heady with the dark scent of house-roasted espresso steaming from tiny cups at the stand-up bar, and illuminated by a glass case lined with fresh-churned gelati made from, among other delights, dark Torino chocolate that melts like bittersweet silk on your tongue.
If the blinking-steel Faema espresso machines, high-design lighting, assorted salumi, and 30-plus Italian wines by the glass that flank this downstairs caffè look convincingly like somewhere in Italia, that's because they are.
Stefano Biasini, 34, and Michele Morelli, 43, were celebrated gelato and coffee artisans in Italy when their first Gran Caffè L'Aquila was destroyed by a calamitous earthquake in 2009. For this trans-Atlantic reprise, they've teamed up with a Philadelphia benefactor in Riccardo Longo, 44, who has taken his replication and relocation task to an extreme, hiring the original Italian designer, fabricating the wood walls and iron fixtures in Italy, and then shipping it all over in 12 giant containers for installation near Rittenhouse Square.
But Longo, the Roman-born scion of the family that owned the Italian Bistro chain and various Toscana 52s, was hardly finished. He added a rambling second-floor dining room and bar that looks like a library, where servers in goofy straw fedoras help diners navigate a sprawling 80-plus-item menu (with some palate-bending surprises) plus an entire page of specials inspired by a different Italian city every week.
There are frequent cultural events. The wine list touching every Italian region has rocketed past 130 labels on its way to 200. A language school is planned for spring. If Longo said there were gondola rides and a garage for Ferrari repairs out back, I might even believe him. Because there is a bit of a theme park approach to this enthusiastic big gulp of Italian culture. And the menu's quality suffers for the overambitious reach of its mission.
It simply isn't easy to bop from Bologna to Bolzano and beyond without some bumps in the bowl. That's a charitable description for the densely doughy bread balls of Tyrolean canederli dumplings that bobbed next to chewy bits of speck in a broth that was inedibly salty. It arrived, much later in our meal than expected, to a table full of disappointments: over-pounded slices of veal are wrapped as braciole over tagliatelle in an oily orange tomato sauce; a steel bowl of zuppa di pesce brimming with overcooked seafood and barely any soup; ricotta gnocchi that had inflated into puffy blobs with sticky cream sauce was so bland, we couldn't detect any of the touted Taleggio.
I don't doubt the sincerity of anyone's enthusiasm here, or even the various partners' well-defined skills. Biasini's sweet gelati are classic and outstanding. Morelli's multi-bean espresso blends, roasted deeply to different shades inspired by three cities, from nutty Torino to chocolaty L'Aquila and pitch-black Napoli jet fuel, are robust and balanced antidotes to the more acidic shots favored by today's Third Wave coffee movement.
And Longo's passion for wine has given the city its latest - and perhaps biggest - new Italian wine list. These are the genuine virtues of Gran Caffè L'Aquila. And as a casual cantina to drink a glass of Pignoletto and nibble platters of generously sliced salumi (loved the speck), sip a Napoli-tinted macchiato, and spoon through a dish of sweet gelato, I really like this place.
As a more in-depth dinner experience, however, it has problems. The enthusiastic service does an adequate job of presenting the vast menu, but stumbles over secondary tasks such as pacing and tending the table. The staff dropped off so many fresh napkins without removing the old ones that the linen grew like a pile of dirty laundry on our banquette.
But execution of this enormous menu has been the biggest hitch. One of Longo's culinary creations here is the invention of "salumi sushi," wrapping tubes of risotto rice and cheese with mortadella or prosciutto instead of seaweed. It's a potentially fun idea, but too much added fruity sweetness, fig marmalade in one and strawberry puree in the other, cheapens the concept.
Biasini is also guilty of some misguided creativity. Just because he can make gelato from taste bud-twisting savories like pancetta (Italian bacon) or long hot peppers doesn't mean that he should. The hot-cold prospect of what are essentially dairy ice cubes melting atop a pile of pasta is not as thrilling as it might sound. And a subtle but present sweetness underlying the gelati was a persistent distraction. The carbonara was the most satisfying of the attempts. But even a truffled gelato could not mask the poor craftsmanship of agnolotti served with half-ripped skins filled with crumbles of dry veal.
There were a handful of highlights. The arancini, cleverly molded into orange and pear shapes, were filled with a classic Sicilian ragu. The tender duck breast was one of the better entrées, with a nice Italian blood orange sauce twist on duck a l'orange. A pan-seared branzino was delicate beneath a tart sauce of Amalfi Coast yellow tomatoes. The spaghetti alle vongole was filled with fresh little cockles in garlicky broth. An Umbrian lentil soup with sausage had a soulfulness that many of the other regional specials lacked.
The "gamberi alla grappa" brought a plate of big, plump shrimp that were undeniably tasty - even if their Tabasco-spiced tomato sauce was an oddball wink to buffalo wings (complete with celery stick garnish).
The rest of the menu, though, was the epitome of hit-or-miss. Tiny shrimp came with a fritto misto, draped in limp batons of fried zucchini. Diced raw tuna was sauced in so much sweet citrus and blueberries that it tasted more tiki cocktail than crudo. The head-on octopus was grilled to the texture of a leather purse. The cheese-stuffed meatballs were strangely dry. The mixed-meat ragu from hometown L'Aquila unexpectedly lacked depth, and was mostly filled with dry shreds of chicken. The arrosticini Abruzzese lamb skewers are, by tradition, plainly seasoned - but these tiny beads of gristly meat needed something more to enhance their naked flavor.
Even a simple panini mission at lunch went awry. The prefab cured meat-and-cheese sandwiches behind the bar took a bizarrely long time to reemerge from the kitchen, only vaguely warmed, and clearly not by the usual panini press.
What Gran Caffè L'Aquila lacks in finesse on its menu, I suspect, will likely be overlooked by the decor-dazzled crowds transported to Italy by its ambience, the vivid Sicilian nuttiness of its Bronte pistachio gelato, the roasty pop of its espresso. Come to think of it, I'm swayed by those virtues, too. Just not enough to commit to dinner.