Chiarella’s Before Kitchen Nightmares
South Philadelphia boasts some of the most authentic Italian restaurants in the country. It is also home to Chiarella’s Italian Restaurant. In 2007, Tommy and Dina Defino opened the restaurant after Dina’s parents closed the original Chiarella’s, which was located in Wildwood, New Jersey. Her parents owned the original restaurant, which did phenomenal business – it was packed every night. They figured once they opened in Philadelphia, they would just be as successful there as the business was in Wildwood. When they first opened Chiarella’s, Tommy was having fun and was happy. But as business went down, he became a different person.
Parties started skipping out on the restaurant, and Tommy soon could not hide his frustration. The success in Wildwood did not follow them to Philadelphia. The restaurant is great and quaint, the menu is fantastic, they have good food, and nobody can figure out what the problem is. Customers often complain that the food sucks and is greasy, and frequently finds itself being sent back to the kitchen. Chiarella’s has to give the people what they want, but they cannot. When there are problems in the kitchen, Tommy just goes “I’m not dealing with this” and then he leaves. He goes down into the basement to lift weights and work out, or even just practice his golf swing.
The staff knows that truthfully, Tommy is mentally breaking down. A clip is shown of him having lost a customer’s check, and he jokes “Is it down my ass? It’s down my ass” followed by him picking at his crack for a check (very sanitary!). Still, Tommy and Dina have no idea why the restaurant is doing poorly. When they see an empty restaurant, it’s the worst feeling you can ever imagine. Tommy and Dina are insistent that they have to pick themselves up, but Tommy feels that he is not destined for the business. Over the last couple years, Tommy has become drained from the stress. Dina wants Tommy to be happy since he deserves that.
Tommy admits that he is not making enough money in the restaurant to pay his own rent, let alone keep the electricity and gas utilities on at the restaurant. He cannot lose the restaurant, or else he’s dead in the water. Tommy and Dina have agreed to bust open the books, pull back the doors, and make a call to help from Gordon Ramsay.
Chiarella’s on Kitchen Nightmares
Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. However, South Philadelphia is known to the locals as the “red sauce neighborhood,” according to Gordon Ramsay. The place is surrounded by great Italian restaurants, and Gordon is looking forward to checking out Chiarella’s. His first observation is that the restaurant is small and quaint. He steps in the front door and immediately meets Dina, where they exchange introductions. Gordon asks where the name came from, and Dina explains that her parents had a restaurant by the same name in Wildwood for 36 years. She spent her entire life there.
Dina says that they need Gordon’s help because Tommy needs to take control of his business and himself to make things work. Gordon then asks if there is a Mr. Chiarella’s, but that is Dina’s father, who is retired. Tommy is the one who oversees things, and Gordon asks to meet Tommy right away. Of course, Tommy is downstairs in the basement lifting weights. Gordon then asks if Tommy is in the kitchen, but Dina explains that Tommy doesn’t cook.
Tommy finally emerges from his lair in the basement and introduces himself to Gordon Ramsay. Gordon points out that he looks rather fit, but then asks to sit down, catch up, and try to see what’s going on. However, Tommy notes as an aside that if he knew what he needed help with, he wouldn’t have to call Chef Ramsay. Gordon and the husband and wife duo sit down, and Dina explains that her father retired and they needed to figure out their next step. All they have known is the restaurant business in their entire life.
Gordon starts by asking what’s wrong with the restaurant, and Dina simply explains that there is no consistency. Tommy, however, feels that their food is better than the other restaurants because it’s “quality and fresh.” Dina means that the customers are inconsistent. The food is consistent, not the customers. Tommy then says that he thinks the customers don’t like good food, and Dina agrees with this. Gordon probes them to think further, and asks what they think is missing. Dina and Tommy’s answer? Customers, of course! They don’t actually know what’s missing.
Gordon then asks who runs the business, and Tommy owns up to that responsibility. Gordon then asks Tommy how many days he is present to run the business, which is only two or three according to Dina. Dina does not always agree with what Tommy is doing, mainly with the way he runs the kitchen. He assumes that he is taking things seriously, the issue is that there isn’t enough business. Tommy and Dina erupt into a fight right in front of Gordon, who attempts to interrupt them to explain that he doesn’t know what the real issue is.
However, Dina says that Tommy does not know what the real issue is. Gordon asks to have a word alone with Tommy for a couple minutes. Tommy admits that he loves Dina, but the restaurant has absolutely killed their relationship. The reality is that he is embarrassed. Dina thinks he doesn’t care, but everything is his fault. He’s the man in the relationship, and he’s afraid. He’s afraid to get out of bed and take things seriously. He knows that he needs help, and the business has been absolutely horrendous. Tommy explains that it is the absolute worst feeling you can imagine.
When Gordon comes back later in the day to order food, it’s no surprise that all the food is nasty and disgusting. The menu has only 11 chicken dishes and more than 30 veal dishes. Gordon orders the Veal Sinatra, the Steak Sarah Ann, and the Land and Sea Sheree (which they do not have fish for, so he just orders a New York Strip). Gordon can only manage a few bites of the food before sending it all back. Dina was mostly responsible for the food coming out, and she shows progressive signs of stress as Gordon sends item after item back to the kitchen.
Chiarella’s After Kitchen Nightmares – 2023 Update
Chiarella’s on Kitchen Nightmares showcased a restaurant in dire straits. The food was subpar, the service was slow, and the management was in disarray. The owners, Tommy and Dina DeFino, were at their wits’ end.
They were deep in debt and on the brink of losing their beloved restaurant. But all wasn’t lost. With Chef Ramsay’s help, they were able to transform Chiarella’s. Not only did he revamp the menu, but he also retrained the staff, and even gave the restaurant a much-needed facelift.
So, what has happened to Chiarella’s after their appearance on Kitchen Nightmares? Well, initially, things seemed to be looking up for the DeFino family. They embraced many of Ramsay’s changes and the restaurant saw an improvement in both food quality and customer satisfaction.
However, as time went on, some of the old habits began to creep back in. The food quality dipped again, and some customers complained about the service.
Unfortunately, despite their best efforts and the exposure that they received from being on the show, Chiarella’s eventually had to close its doors in 2015.
The DeFino family expressed their heartfelt thanks to their loyal customers for supporting them throughout their journey. Their cooking legacy continues though as Dina DeFino used her experience at Chiarella’s to launch her own catering company.
As of 2023, there is a coffee store called Rival Bros Coffee at their old Philadelphia location.
The story of Chiarella’s serves as a stark reminder that running a successful restaurant involves more than just good food. It requires strong management, consistent quality control, and excellent customer service. Despite the sad ending of Chiarella’s restaurant journey, their episode on Kitchen Nightmares will forever remain one of the most captivating in the series’ history.