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.
D’Angelo’s has been busy from its very first night. Within 30 minutes of doors opening, all three floors of the restaurant were packed. This is despite the fact that in 1990, the location (on 20th Street between Spruce and Locust) was considered somewhat out of the way, and that sibling co-owners Sal and Tony D’Angelo had done no advertising, save for a small, handwritten sign posted in the dining room window.
Part of the immediate success was thanks to the loyal following Tony had won during his long tenure as chef at Jimmy’s Milan, which he’d helped turn into a Philadelphia institution. Another part can be attributed to the welcoming attitude of the D’Angelo family — always ready to make new friends, quick to recognize old ones — an approach that continues to keep the restaurant busy to this day.
On the eve of their official 25th anniversary (Feb. 5), the D’Angelo brothers took a moment before their regular late-afternoon lunch to convene in the Rittenhouse dining room and look back at the past quarter-century.
With Tony adding colorful details, Sal recounted how devoid of restaurants the area used to be, how many deals have been sealed in his upstairs dining rooms (including, apparently, the purchases of both the Eagles and the Sixers) and how he once mistook Jennifer Lawrence for Robert De Niro’s lowly assistant.
You’re originally from Italy?
Yes. We were born in Sicily. Then we went to Milano, where Tony learned Florentine cooking. Then my mother decided that Milano was getting too small for us. Her brothers were here, in Philadelphia, so she sent us over. This was around 1967.
How old were you?
We were teenagers — Tony was 17 and I was around 13. Then Tony met Jimmy DiBattista, who owned Jimmy’s Milan, and started working for him. He actually gave him all the recipes that got famous, like the salad with shrimp.
What did you do?
I started out working for my uncle’s construction business, and went to school to learn English. Then I went to work with my brother in the kitchen, for around 10 years. He taught me everything I know. At one point, I decided the kitchen was too small for me, and I started my singing career — I was going to New York a lot and singing in nightclubs. Eventually, I opened a small Italian goods store here in Philly and created a marble business.
How did this restaurant come about?
My construction and manufacturing business was doing well, so I was making a few dollars. I heard that Jimmy’s Milan wasn’t doing so well, that the boss wasn’t really taking care of his customers. So I started looking for places to open on our own. I first found a place on 22nd and South, but the architecture was crumbling. Then I found this place, and I kind of liked it right away.
What was here at the time?
It was Marco Polo, a Chinese-Italian restaurant. They wanted to sell, so I put down a $1,000 deposit. Then I went to try to convince my brother. I said, “I put down a deposit on this place, I hope you like it. If you don’t, I’d lose a bunch of money.” He came and took a look, and said, “It’ll never work.”
Well, the kitchen didn’t have a broiler; it wasn’t very well-equipped. And the dining room was spread over three floors. But I told him I was going to buy it anyway, and asked if he would just help me out. He said, “Well, ok. Give me six months.”
So you bought it?
Well, in the meantime, the people who were here were having money problems. They lost their liquor license, and the bank foreclosed. I would have bought it directly from the bank, if it was up to me, but my brother said no. He said, “I’m not gonna open up a business on somebody’s blood.” He didn’t realize how much money we could have saved. But you know what, he was right. I think it brought us luck. We went through with the deal and paid all the taxes and got the liquor license back, too. This was August of 1989.
And you opened six months later?
We did. We did a lot of renovations, and I went to bartending school, I thought I was going to work the bar. Little did I know.
Why didn’t you?
It was too busy! On opening night, I came in all dressed up, in a jacket and tie. But within half an hour of opening the doors at five o’clock, I was in the kitchen. That’s how much business we had. Every table on every floor was taken.
How did people hear about you?
I have no idea. We didn’t take out any ads, nothing in the paper. We just had a little hand-written sign in the window. But my brother had a huge name.
What else was on this street back then?
Hardly anything. A pharmacy on the corner. A paint store. A fish market. ... All these restaurants came after us, little by little. It was not a restaurant row. Everyone told me I was nuts to open here. “You’re going on a back street?” they’d say. “Stay in construction, you’re going to lose your shirt!”
Now there are a lot of restaurants around here. Has that affected your business?
No, not really. I like competition. The more people coming to town, the better. When we first came over, Philadelphia was a little village. Now it’s becoming a real city. A lot of restaurants, a lot of big buildings. It’s going in the right direction. Although I do think we need more of a late-night scene, they should make it easier for places to stay open late. Not all night, maybe, but later than they do now.
You have dancing here on the weekends?
Yes, right here in the first-floor dining room. From 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday this becomes a huge dance floor. It’s amazing. I started it when we expanded into this building next door, which was around four or five years after we first opened. I wanted to get back into performing, I got a little trio together and figured I’d play the guitar and sing. But I also put in a DJ booth, and I used to pull together clips from cassettes, 8-tracks and LPs, and mix it all up, and people liked that better than the live music! They would dance like crazy.
Has business fluctuated over the years?
Not really. It’s stayed steady. We have a loyal clientele. We try to give 100 percent to all our customers. Some people come here five nights a week. Also, people come here to talk business. The guy who owns the Sixers, he bought the team here, upstairs. They guy who bought the Eagles, he did it here, too. He said to us, “We want to eat, but don’t let anyone bother us, no one knows we’re here.”
You also get a lot of celebrities?
Sure. Mark Wahlberg, when he comes to town, he swears by us. He also knows we go hunting and bring back our own meat sometimes — not to sell, just for us to eat — and he always asks me, “Sal, you got any fresh meat back there?” Sylvester Stallone, he loves the veal chop here, eats it off the bone. Michelle Pfeiffer practically lived here for a while. She was in for lunch and dinner every day.
How do they hear about you?
I think it’s word of mouth. But sometimes I make mistakes. When Denzel Washington came in I thought he was the guy from the Phillies, Gary Maddox. I mean, he came in with his whole family, no reservations, so I thought it was Gary. I said to him, “You want to say hi to Tony in the kitchen?” and he goes, “I don’t know Tony.” Wow.
Another time Jennifer Lawrence came in and I didn’t know who she was. She was here with a whole group of actors, like Robert De Niro, and so after we got them all settled upstairs, I tried to get her away from the group. I thought she was just an assistant, and I wanted to let the actors eat in peace. I took her on a whole tour of the place, into the kitchen. The only way I found out who she was is the waitress came over and said, “Sal, her order is ready upstairs, she’s got to eat.” She never for a second let on who she was. Such a sweetheart. She came back one time by herself, and asked for me. She was like, “Where’s that guy who talks a lot?”
D’Angelo’s Ristorante Italiano
256 S. 20th St., 215-546-3935
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Monday to Friday; 5 p.m. to midnight, Saturday