On a brutally cold evening 30 years ago, I met members of the Sena family, brothers Ginoa, Luca and Giuseppe. I had just been named food columnist at Applause, the magazine of WHYY-TV. For a number of years, I had contributed numerous stories to The Philadelphia Daily News and The Courier Post. We met at La Famiglia, their restaurant at 8 South Front Street.
The story of the Sena family and their restaurants is one of the American Dream.
La Famiglia opened on May 16, 1976, just in time for the Bicentennial celebrations in Philadelphia. In honor of its 40th birthday, Giuseppe decided to offer the original menu at 1976 prices.
“Papa” Sena and eldest son Gino, who is the chef, came to Philadelphia before the rest of the family. Giuseppe told me they were sponsored by an aunt and uncle. “Mama” Sena and the rest of the family arrived and settled into a house at 12th and Morris streets.
Luca, Giuseppe and I spent more than three hours talking and eating on that cold night. I tasted gnocchi for the first time, dressed with Mama’s carefully reduced fresh tomato sauce. The fried calamari were perfection on a plate with lemon wedges and a silver gravy boat filled with the sauce.
Everything I know about Italian wine I learned from Luca and Giuseppe. I sampled a Gavi di Gavi, a Barolo, and a Brunella for the first time. I shall never forget that evening.
Several weeks ago, I met Giuseppe for lunch in his beautiful restaurant. We talked about how his extraordinary restaurant helped to shape the face of Philadelphia’s ever-expanding dining scene so many years ago.
I helped to organize the first Share Our Strength (SOS) fundraiser in ’89. Luca and Giuseppe were the first people I called. “Count us in,” Giuseppe told me. “I will bring Papa.” Papa, a talented chef in his own right, had a marvelous evening hugging and kissing all the women who sampled Gino’s roast leg of veal with roasted potatoes. In the ensuing years, the Sena family also contributed a huge dolci display and put Papa in charge. I can still see the long table filled with Italian sweets: cookies, biscotti, profiteroles, cream cakes, you name it, it was there.
The Book and the Cook was born in 1985. Philadelphia was the first city to pair cookbook authors with area chefs to create one-of-a-kind dinners. La Famiglia always participated. I wrote The Best of the Book & Cook Cookbook in ’90.
When diners enter La Famiglia, they are transported into a world of Italian beauty. Pale peach marble abounds. High quality linen, china, crystal, and silver flatware grace the tables. Yes, if you order fish, you will receive a fish knife.
The waitstaff no longer wear tuxedos, but their beautifully tailored dark suits could be featured in the pages of GQ.
The building was fashioned from a warehouse built in the early 19th century. The wine cellar, which you MUST visit, is downstairs where the well was located.
We began our visit to ’76 with calamari fritte ($4.95), which consisted of rings of squid deep-fried to a golden brown and served with a spicy tomato sauce in a silver gravy boat. Funghi e Prosciutto ($5.95) was a hot antipasto of wild mushrooms and thinly-sliced Prosciutto di Palma sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil with the right touch of garlic. I had never tasted this dish before. Now I must prepare it at home.
Gnocchi Famiglia ($4.95) took me back in time to the first forkful of these light potato pillows napped with a sauce of carefully reduced Roma tomatoes. Tortellini alla pana ($4.75) was a classic rendition of one of my favorite pastas. The light, delicate cream sauce added flavor to lovingly made little rounds of pasta filled with cheese.
The whole fish of the day ($17.95) was oratta, a delicate fish grilled on the bone, filleted tableside, and topped with a light white wine sauce made with capers and lemon juice. Vitello Papa Sena ($16.95) consisted of three veal medallions. One was classic picatta, fragrant with white wine and lemon juice. Another was topped with sautéed spinach and cheese. The last was simply breaded and fried to a golden brown. The vegetables of the day were haricot verts and a julienne of carrots.
The wine list is more than extensive. Ask Giuseppe to help you make your selection. We sipped an Orvietto throughout dinner.
La Famiglia retains the tiered dessert cart. Profiteroles and layered cream cakes are the stars.
I have so many fond memories spent with the Sena family. I had to ask Giuseppe about a certain patron who has dined at La Famiglia on a number of occasions.
“Where is Vice President Joe Biden’s table?” I asked.
The vice president has been a customer since his days in the Senate. His daughter Ashley graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and his granddaughter graduated last May.
Four tips of the toque to La Famiglia. ■
La Famiglia Ristorante
8 S. Front St.
Photo by Tina Garceau