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.
On April 30, 1980, Giuseppe Giuliani launched of Ristorante La Buca, his subterranean Locust Street restaurant just off Washington Square. It had taken him nearly three years to get the doors open, thanks to a battle with neighborhood and civic associations, who fought hard to keep the basement — formerly storage space for a book-publishing company — from turning into a restaurant with a bar.
But Giuliani had an ace up his sleeve. Legendary defense attorney Chuck Peruto was his business partner, and the lawyer applied his legal prowess to keep the endeavor from being squashed.
Seafood fans should be happy he succeeded, because in the ensuing years Giuliani infused the dining scene with a new level of Mediterranean authenticity that included whole grilled fish. Entirely self-taught, the 80-year-old chef still spends 14-hour days in La Buca’s kitchens, where I caught up with him last week to reminisce.
You were never trained as a chef. How did you end up owning a restaurant?
I’ve always enjoyed eating and drinking. Dining is part of the culture in Italy. When I grew up, in Pisa, we would never start eating unless everyone was at the table. We never sat down to a meal without a tablecloth. Maybe we had only beans for dinner, but we still made sure it was classy.
So I already had the background of how to create a great meal, to serve, to entertain. I didn’t know how to cook, but I knew how to eat.
Then I began working for a wealthy man from Florence. He was a curator of paintings for the Art Museum; I traveled the world with him. Each year we’d spend six months in Philadelphia, four months in Italy and two months in Switzerland. I was his concierge, his butler, and he loved to eat and drink well.
So I was exposed to a lot of great food and wine. It’s very important, that experience, because then if you taste something you know if it’s good or not. Some of these kids that go to restaurant school, they don’t know how to eat. They grew up eating hamburgers and things like that.
When did you settle in Philadelphia?
In 1961, when I met a girl, and married her. I’m so lucky she put up with me, because restaurant life takes serious dedication. You spend 12 or 14 hours and then you’re spent. I’ll be 81 next month and I still come in at 9 a.m. and don’t leave until 11 at night. It keeps you going — if you slow down at my age, that’s when it’s dangerous.
For decades I worked as a waiter. First Arthur’s Steak House on Walnut, which later became Susanna Foo’s restaurant. Then Penthouse, which was on top of the PSFS building. And I finally returned to the flavors of Italy when I started working at Gaetano’s, which was Philadelphia’s first new-style Italian restaurant.
Then you opened your own place.
I did. A friend introduced me to Peruto, who had just bought this building and wanted to put in a restaurant in the basement. Coming from Tuscany, there are many underground restaurants — “la buca” means cave — so I got very excited about it. We renovated it, took away the dusty cinder blocks and built a 250-seat dining with two bars. It was all designed by my partner, Peruto. He was a big criminal lawyer, but also was a builder, he did the whole interior.
We opened two weeks early so we could host Pavarotti, who was in town to judge a young singers competition at the Academy of Music. He was our first customer. And lots of other famous people used to come, though I can’t remember them all. Anthony Quinn, Zorba the Greek, he used to eat here all the time.
How did they find out about you?
For a while we were famous ourselves. We were at the top. It was because of the fish.
Two years after we opened, Samuel Mink of the [Sansom Street] Oyster House opened a seafood restaurant right across the street, and our whole crowd started going there instead. They were so busy they would send me overflow.
I said to my wife, “You know, it doesn’t matter how good we make the fettuccine, people are eating seafood now. We’ve got to get involved in seafood.” But I didn’t know anything about seafood.
So I called my friend who was a chef in Italy and asked if he would come to the States to help me. He said no, because he was busy running his own restaurant right on the water in Pisa. A-ha! I told him to get me an apartment, closed La Buca for the month of August, and spent every day in his kitchen, watching him.
When I came back and started the seafood, within two or three weeks we had a line out the door. Nobody had seen anything like it.
What were you doing that was unique?
We made a fish cart. I found a company in New York that would deliver really good whole fish once a week. Dover sole, things you couldn’t find in Philadelphia. We filled a cart with ice, put the fish in it and rolled it right up to the table. Customers chose their fish, then we took it back, cleaned it, cooked it and brought it back out to be filleted tableside. Some people were afraid to see the fish with its head on. “Take that back to the kitchen!” they’d say. But it was very popular. I even brought over two guys over from Italy, one to run the seafood grill and one to do the filleting.
It just got better and better. In 1997, I won an award from DiRoNa (Distinguished Restaurants of North America) and that same year I got an award from the Italian government. It was for chefs with in foreign countries who served real Italian food, ambassadors for the culture. The president of Italy presented it to me himself.
Has the menu at La Buca changed over the years?
Prices have definitely changed! I think filet mignon was $6 or something when we opened. And ingredients have changed, mostly they’ve gotten better. But for the most part, the dishes on the menu have not changed. I don’t do fusion, I’m not interested in that, something that’s around for six months or a year and then it disappears. I once read that a chef in Italy said: “Let’s stop making new items. Let’s just make better the recipes we already have. Improve them.” I agree with that.
Do you still have the fish cart?
Oh, yes. It’s definitely the most popular thing here. Most of our customers, at least 75% of them, have been coming here for 25 to 30 years. That’s the one problem, actually, we need to get some young customers. Because our regulars, they retire, or lose the ability to walk, or unfortunately, they die. [Peruto himself died in December at age 86.]
We’ve got to find some way to get young people to know about us. We’ve got to go on the...get the clicks, you know? It’s the only way.
Ristorante La Buca
711 Locust St.; 215-928-0556
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday to Friday; Dinner: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monday to Saturday