The Spot: Dante & Luigi's

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Connie LaRussa in a dining room at Dante & Luigi's in South Philadelphia.

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.

 

More than 100 years ago, an Italian-born Philadelphian named Michael DiRocco decided to turn a Victorian home in Bella Vista into a restaurant. Named Corona di Ferro (“iron crown”), his establishment quickly became the go-to destination for Italian immigrants, who would get off the boat and go directly to the corner of 10th and Catherine, where they’d find a job in the kitchen and a room to sleep in the boarding house upstairs.

Some time around the late 1930s, DiRocco passed on the restaurant to his sons, who added their own first names to the title and created its current common appellation: Dante & Luigi’s.

The DiRocco family continued to run the business for many more decades, during which time it became a popular hangout for members of the Philadelphia Mafia. An attempted hit took place there as recently as 1989, when a masked man on Halloween night - who may or may not have been Joey Merlino - shot up Nicodemo “Nicky” Scarfo Jr. (he survived, but soon left town).

Everything changed in 1996, when Michael and Connie LaRussa bought the building. A builder by trade, Michael was most interested in the building’s structure, which he realized had great potential, despite its being run down. He’d also owned several restaurants in the past, so the LaRussas decided that they’d take over the restaurant, too — class it up and try to bring it back to glory.

As the last 18 years of business attest, the LaRussas’ plan worked. A total renovation of the ground floor was completed in 2013, restoring the interior’s original beauty and paving the way for another several decades of success.

Last Friday, by the light of candles flickering along the dining room mantlepiece, Connie and I sat down to talk about the restaurant’s past, the customers who come from around the world and the future outpost of Dante & Luigi’s opening on the Main Line.

This restaurant had a colorful history before you took it over. Did you know about it?

Oh yes, we did. Michael and I used to eat here. But we hadn’t been planning to get into the restaurant business; what we really wanted was this building. However, Michael had restaurant experience (he ran Quincy’s on South Street and Mangia at 15th and Walnut), so we decided that as long as we could keep the name, we’d try to keep it going. With a lot of changes.

What did you change?

Everything.

I had people calling me on the phone, literally yelling at me not to change anything. “We hear someone bought this restaurant; you better not make changes; it’s an institution!” But there was no business when we took it over. Really, they were just short of locking the front door. It was deplorable.

And when those complaining customers came in to the new place, did they enjoy it?

Absolutely. One of the things we were adamant about was not turning it into some other kind of restaurant. It had to stay Dante & Luigi’s, or else I would have made four more apartments here instead. But the idea that we could turn it back into something great, that was an inspiring challenge. Without changing it into some fancy Italian restaurant.

It looks kind of fancy in here.

Well, it’s not, really. What we did was take what was left of the building and restore it. Around the rooms there were these gorgeous moldings, but they were falling out of the ceiling, literally falling onto the tables. I took a piece of what fell, made a rubber mold, and poured plaster of Paris into it to make new pieces just like the old ones. Then we spattered it with paint and put it all back up.

In some rooms, we tore away drywall and found square imprints where molding had been on the walls, so we re-created those. We put in appropriate wallpaper and new wainscoting, and I found original 1850s mantels. We didn’t do it to make it a fancy restaurant. This is what the house would have looked like when it was originally built.

It’s gorgeous. How long did the renovations take?

They took a while, because we didn’t want to close. We did one room at a time, during the summer, when it’s quieter. And we didn’t start until we were sure the restaurant was going to survive. At the beginning, we said to ourselves, “We’ll give it a year.” If we could start to turn it around, we’d give it another year, and another year and eventually business was steady.

Then it got to the point where the building was just screaming for the facelift, and we were busy enough that we thought it was warranted. And you know something, after we did it, business got much better.

Where do most of your customers come from?

It’s a mix, a lot of tourists, but also a lot of people from South Jersey, the Main Line. Also Center City. Not so much South Philly, anymore, but we do have a regular clientele who’ve been coming here for 50, 60 years. They’ll say “You know, I used to come here 60 years ago...” and come in for dinner with their grandchildren.

Joe Biden’s family has had a house account here for many years. He’s a lovely man. It was fun when he became vice president, because when he came in they had to close down the street, and the Secret Service came in ahead of time to scout, and then they had to have someone in the kitchen while you’re cooking. It was a big to do, but the other customers absolutely loved it.

How do out-of-towners hear about you?

We advertise a little bit with the Convention Bureau, but it’s mostly word of mouth. I have people who walk in and say, “We just flew in from California, and the guy I was sitting next to said we have to come here for dinner.” I had someone from Australia say he just got off the plane and came straight here because people in the airport told him to.

What do they eat? What’s the most popular thing on the menu?

I have 90 items on my menu, so it’s hard to say. Probably a lot of the traditional things. Osso bucco, that’s very popular. Lamb stew, sweetbreads. Of course, the lasagna.

We make everything from scratch here, the stocks we cook with, the breadcrumbs we bread with, the croutons in the salad. There’s nothing we don’t make.

You make all the pasta?

Well, a lot of it. The noodles, the ricotta gnocchi, we make. Certain dishes just don’t lend themselves to homemade pasta, because it’s very soft. So I use DeCecco.

Who is your chef?

I have four chefs.

Four chefs?

Yes. I have a head chef, I have a pasta chef — he’s from Italy, I have a sauté chef, I have an appetizer chef. And I have a salad girl. And we make all our own desserts, so, five chefs, actually.

So who comes up with the menu?

Michael and I do, mostly. All the recipes are my husband’s recipes. Family recipes. He’s from Sicily, he moved here when he was around nine years old. His mother died when he was still a young boy, and he used to do all the cooking, for his entire family.

One of the best recipes is for our real Italian gravy. I don’t know many restaurants that do it like we do, because it’s very expensive. You have to use veal and beef and pork and Cento tomatoes, and then it has to cook for around seven hours in a gigantic pot. It’s a big process. We make it around every other day. We sell it in jars, too, that you can buy to take home.

And you’ll be able to buy those jars in your new shop?

Yes, we’re opening Dante & Luigi's To Go in Ardmore (at 12 W. Lancaster Ave.). You’ll be able to get our gravy there, and other Italian products. Things to take home and reheat, or cook yourself. We’re doing renovations on the building, it’s going to take a few months. We’re hoping to open next spring.

 

Dante & Luigi’s Corona di Ferro

762 S. 10th St., 215-922-9501

danteandluigis.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Tuesday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday; 3 to 10:30 p.m., Saturday; 3 to 9 p.m., Sunday