Tag Archives: South Philadelphia

A Modest Place of Distinction Continues to Survive

26 Sep
2018-09-26 14.13.55

Near Broad and Wolf

 

Circumstances brought me to South Philadelphia this week.

 

For those unfamiliar with this legendary locale, it is a crowded little sub-town of look-alike row homes. South Philly probably is best known as the birthplace of the Philly Cheesesteak and as the home of 50s teen idols like Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell.

 

Traditionally, it is considered an Italian neighborhood, and although it has had its ups and down, with people moving in and people moving out, it remains intact. Its vibrancy is illustrated by the thriving Italian market that has been in existence since the early 1900s. In the movies, Rocky runs through it as part of his training.

 

The area is broken up into many neighborhoods. I was at Wolf and Broad streets, a humble section without landmarks. One day at around 1:30, I decided to find a restaurant for lunch. I knew the big name South Philly restaurants were elsewhere, but whatever place I chose had to meet at least baseline standards in order to exist here.

The_South_9th_Street_Italian_Market_Festival

The Italian Market

 

I came upon a small corner joint named Johnnie’s at 12th and Wolf. My plan was to takeout, a good idea since the place was empty save for a waitress sitting at a table. Didn’t matter. Johnnie’s was clean and decorated with wine bottles, plastic flowers and garland. There were several religious icons, including a statue of the Sacred Heart, which is Jesus exposing his bulging heart through an open robe.

 

I ordered some pasta and sandwiches, including a Cheesesteak with sauce and onions.

 

“Sauce?” the waitress said with a puzzled face.

 

“Yes, sauce and onions.”

 

“You mean red gravy?” she asked.

 

“Yes, red gravy,” I said, remembering where I was.

 

After she put in my order we chatted. Having walked down Wolf Street, I noticed a good number of the 3-story homes had been gentrified, with beautiful wooden doors and fancy nameplates displaying address numbers. I hadn’t been in one of these homes for decades, but I recollect at least two common interior features. First, all couches and chairs were protected with clear plastic slipcovers. Second, one interior wall – the whole thing — was faced with mirrors to give the narrow homes a feeling of depth. The mirrors may still be there. I’m guessing the plastic slip covers are gone.

1959_Fabian_Forte

Singer Fabian Forte, from South Philly

“How’s the neighborhood doing?” I asked the waitress.

 

“Well,” she said, “I’m not from here. I’m from the other side of Broad Street (three blocks away). But I’d say it’s doing OK. Things have picked up. For a while, I was thinking about moving. Not now. It’s pretty good.”

 

South Philly has been targeted by an army of millennials looking for a small town feel in the big city. They have made South Philly one of the hottest Philadelphia neighborhoods for rentals.

 

“What do these homes sell for?” I asked. “A good one, not a great one.”

 

She thought about it. “Maybe the low 300s. That’s what they go for on my street. Maybe the high or mid-200s.”

 

“It’s nice when a neighborhood comes back,” I said, thinking about the Chambersburg section of Trenton, which has not come back.

 

Trenton, New Jersey, was where my father was born. Our family lived there for a few years. I think we moved out when I was seven. We didn’t live in Chambersburg, but as children we’d hear talk about this very ethnic Italian neighborhood. Occasionally we’d eat at a restaurant there, but mostly we bought bread and pastries from its bakeries.

 

As an adult, while living in suburban Philadelphia, I joined my father’s Trenton-based lodge, The Roman Society. In its day it was a remarkably successful organization, and I’ve written about it here. Without repeating too much, I’ll just say the lodge owned a beautiful restaurant and banquet facility called the Roman Hall. It outlived its usefulness after the unmistakable truth became known: Chambersburg was no longer and never again would be Italian. Also, walking the streets was getting dangerous.

 

No surprise. The restaurant went under.

 

An entrepreneur wanted to turn the place into an Hispanic-style nightclub. He asked that the lodge to hold the mortgage, which it did, and our signs were taken down. For me, this was like Rome falling all over again.

 

But back to the better-fated South Philly.

 

Not far from Johnnies, a young man I know (non-Italian) lives happily with his new wife in a South Philly row home. The couple, both of whom work in Center City, got married at an old but stately South Philly high school that had been converted in a bar/banquet hall. It’s a large, slightly Greek-style building on a small, cramped side street. Hardly any parking. I’m told the wedding attendees stayed at a riverfront hotel and Ubered over.

 

South Philadelphia is an indication that things can change for the better. The defining question is how much better and for how much longer. Either way, I hope Johnnies’ dinner trade is better than its lunch trade. It’s not Dante and Luigi’s or Ralph’s or Marra’s, but it’s a nice place for quick, simple food. If you, like I, are near 12th and Wolf due to circumstances, I can recommend it. Be sure to remember it’s “red gravy,” not sauce.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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