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.
As a kid growing up in South Philadelphia, Epiphany “Pip” De Luca spent his afternoons and weekends working at his father’s four Italian Market fruit stands. He helped unload and load the produce, and dealt with the customers who came to buy vegetables. It wasn’t easy work, and during the winter of 1969, the elements got to him — he got frostbite in both his fingers and toes.
Luckily, his father had expanded the family’s holdings a few years prior. In 1963, De Luca had partnered with a friend to buy a neighborhood bar at 934 S. Ninth St. and an eatery called Villa di Roma at 936 S. Ninth St. He combined the two into one business, which has been around for more than 50 years.
At age 19, in order to get in from the cold, Pip took up his first full-time job at the restaurant. He was in charge of bartending on Mondays, when the bar opened at 7 a.m. and served as a gathering place for the merchants of the Italian Market on their day off.
He’s been there since, and is now officially sole proprietor of Villa di Roma. His many brothers and sisters also all work there, as do a good number of his nieces and nephews. If you stop in for a drink or to try the famous gravy and meatballs, there’s a very good chance you’ll be greeted by a De Luca as you walk in.
Seated at a table in the cozy dining room, Pip and I discussed the history of the restaurant and the neighborhood. We talked about how his early mornings behind the bar were educational, how Ninth Street has changed over the past half-century and why organic carrots might not be the best thing to sell at an Italian Market stand. He also elaborated on Villa di Roma’s plans for continued expansion, which include a bigger kitchen, a new dining room and a new retail shop on the corner, selling gravy and meatball sandwiches to go.
Where did the name Villa di Roma come from?
That was the name of the restaurant when my father bought it. Before it came to Ninth St., Villa di Roma was located on Eighth and Salter, one street south of Christian. It was owned by the family that also had Phillip’s Restaurant on South Broad. I’m not sure why they were selling.
First, my father and his partner purchased the bar at 934 S. Ninth St, which used to be called Fatty Charlie’s, and then Dutchie’s (Dutchie was a gentleman who lived across the street and also had a bakery). Then, a couple of months later, they bought the restaurant, and combined the two.
Had your father owned restaurants before?
No. His family had fruit stands on Ninth and Kimball. Four stands. So we were always in the food business. Before, we sold it fresh. Now, we sell it cooked.
Were you around when he bought the restaurant?
Yes, I was always at the fruit stand as a kid, selling produce. Then I started helping at the restaurant, too, loading in the beer at night. But I wound up getting frostbite in my fingertips and toes, so I came inside and started working at the bar full time.
At the time we had a cook; everyone called him Cuz. I was one year out of high school, and he told me, “Either go to school and learn a trade, or work here, this is an opportunity.” I’ve been here ever since.
What was your job?
The first actual job I had at the Villa was opening up the bar at 7 a.m. on Monday mornings. Mondays are the day of rest on Ninth Street, so all the merchants would gather here around 7:30 in the morning and talk about the business they’d done during the week. The deals they made that turned out to be good, the deals they made that turned out to be lousy. They’d come in and drink their shots and beers, their coffee and anisette. And smoke, and play their numbers with the number writers. (Before before the government took over the lottery, you played your numbers with the local number writers.) They’d talk about business, and talk about life.
That was the biggest learning experience for me. I was 19 years old, and I would just listen to all their stories, soak up their language. I’d wait on them until around noon or 12:30, and then they’d all disappear and go over the bridge to Cherry Hill, N.J., to the Garden State racetrack, and bet the ponies.
Being young, all I wanted on Monday morning was coffee and doughnuts, and these guys were drinking shots and beers and smoking cigarettes and cursing and playing numbers! But it was a good job, because it gave me street smarts.
Did the bar open at 7 a.m. other days of the week?
It did, but there wasn’t the kind of activity we had on Mondays.
How did it look in here back then; did it look different?
A little different; not much. There was a trough in the bottom of the bar. At the back of the room was the bar kitchen, which was just a slicing machine, a sink, and a little four-burner range and oven. We sold roast beef and pork sandwiches from there.
Where did you get the bread for the sandwiches?
Probably from Sarcone’s; we’ve always dealt with Sarcone’s. We’ve always kept it in the neighborhood, and we still deal with the same people.
Who else do you deal with here?
Esposito’s, Isgro’s, George Wells Meats, and all the merchants on the street.
Did your family sell the fruit stands, or do you still have them?
We still have them. A gentleman by the name of Mario Gerardo operates them.
The market has changed a bit over the years. When did you first notice changes?
The major change happened mostly in the '80s, I would say. The market used to stretch from Wharton to Catharine, Eighth to Tenth. But then the children of the original owners less and less wanted to do the job. It’s a tough job.
You start at 4 a.m., go down to the wholesale market, take in your product, bring it here, put it on the stands, vend all day and close around 5:30 or 6 p.m. And the next generation wanted to do a little bit less, and the next generation a little bit less than that. In grade school, when we got done, we had to work the stands. On Saturdays, we didn’t watch cartoons; we had to open the stands at 7 o’clock in the morning. It was part of our growing up. We were needed behind the stands.
Do you think kids today have a different attitude?
Well, it’s not really the kids that have a different attitude; it’s the parents. Parents always want better for their children, but better for us was making us work. It made us realize that there's no free ride. Also, when I was growing up, all the merchants in the market lived in the neighborhood. You worked here and you lived here. After a while, people started to move to Jersey and places like that. It sort of deteriorated the market a bit, I felt.
But you still live in the neighborhood?
I live right around the corner. I was born at 808 Kimball St., now I live at 825 Kimball St.
Are there other business owners who still live around here, do you know?
Let me think. The sister at Sarcone's lives across the street from the bakery. The Isgros, one of the brothers still lives above the store. For Esposito's, now the daughter's live close by. Fante's — one of the brothers lives above the store with this family. Who else? One of the Cannuli's sisters lives above the store. Cappuccio's, the son Dominick lives on Kimball Street. Sonny D'Angelo still lives above his store. Sonny and I went to grade school together.
Do you have siblings?
Three sisters and two brothers. We all work here. My sister Anna, the oldest, is here four days a week. My sister Marion is next, and she’s behind the bar on Fridays and Saturdays. Then comes me, then my brother Basil, who does the gravy and meatballs on the corner six or seven days a week. My brother Frank is here during the days mostly; he cooks and does everything else. And my sister Camille, who's the youngest and has some special needs, plays several roles. Shes greets people, folds napkins.
My nephews Basil and Dylan are behind the bar tonight. My nephew John was here for lunch.
My niece Dana was here for lunch and will be back tonight. Somebody from the family is always here.
Do you own the restaurant in conjunction with your brothers and sisters?
On paper, I'm the sole owner. But we all share. You have two options if you're part of the family. You can work here, and get a check every week, or you can not work here, and still share in profits from the business.
When did you expand to this third dining room?
Very soon after my father bought the original bar and restaurant. We expanded this direction and built the upstairs dining room, which we use mostly for groups and private parties.
And you also own the space on the corner [of Ninth and Hall St.]?
Yes, it’s used as a prep kitchen. We bought that because gravy and meatballs take hours, and sometimes my brother would still be in the restaurant kitchen when lunchtime came around, so it would interfere with serving the public. So we built the prep kitchen at the corner.
We’re actually going to start doing a little retail out of there soon. We do sell the gravy and meatballs here already, to go, but we want to do a little bit more. Meatballs sandwiches, maybe lasagnas, things like that. For takeout.
We’ve just begun a process with labeling and packaging, down in Maryland. We’re going to start packaging the gravy in jars.
How do you make the gravy; is it a secret?
No, there's no secret. You can come in any day and my brother will show you exactly what he does. Each day we make around 13 gallons of gravy and 13 gallons of marinara, along with 10 or 20 pounds of meatballs. The gravy takes the longest. It simmers for hours.
Will you also sell the jars of gravy online?
Probably not. We’re going to keep it small.
Right...you don’t even have a website.
Not yet, but we’re working on that, too! Me, I’m from the old school, a paper and pencil guy. I just got my first cellphone three months ago. My brothers and sisters, and my sister-in-law, they take care of the Internet. We’ll launch a website before the year’s over, probably. It’ll be done very soon.
And then, hopefully, within another year, we're expanding into the next building, to the south.
We've had that storefront for years, so we’re going to combine it. We'll add a few seats, but most of it will be to expand the kitchen. It'll give us all the conveniences we've been without. Another walk-in box, another sink, a couple more work tables, a bigger cooking area. It's going to double the size of the kitchen we have now. People are amazed we get the amount of food out of this kitchen that we do.
How many seats do you have now?
Oh, I have no idea. I don't know that. I really don't.
How many covers do you do on a busy night?
Saturdays and Sundays are the busiest, and we’ll do two or three hundred dinners. Then, especially this time of year, we also book a lot of groups, parties. But we only do parties when it doesn’t interfere with our regular business. There are times we won’t book one because we have to worry about our regular customers. The twos, the threes, the fours — they keep us going all year round.
Where do those customers come from; where do they hear about you?
A lot of it is word of mouth. That's one reason we do like doing the groups, because it gives us an opportunity to turn on some new people to our place.
We do get some business from the hotels, the concierges send people here. And the only advertising we do is with the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Plus, there's lots of people who've been coming here for years, and they all come back with their families during the holidays, when the kids are home visiting from college.
Has the business gone up and down, through the years?
Not really. One of the best things about this restaurant is that business stays constant. We know that from our numbers, but also from our suppliers. Some of them have computerized records — a couple of years ago, one of the guys from George Wells Meats told us he noticed that we don’t have any waves at Villa di Roma. We just keep on treading water. No real ups or downs in our orders.
Has the menu changed, over the years?
Not really. The only thing that changed is we used to only have lunch on Fridays and Saturdays. Now, as of three years ago, we serve lunch Tuesday through Sunday, every day except Monday. Monday is sort of "put it back together" day, when we do extra cleaning. We're open for dinner every single night, except for family holidays. We don't work any family holidays; they're for our employees and us.
Have your prices changed a lot?
Not that much. This year has actually been the most notable for food cost changes — the worst I can remember for food prices going up. Beef is at its highest, dairy got crazy. They say it's because of the bad weather we had recently. The price of labor is what has really gone up. A lot. Labor, the insurance, utilities, it's just crazy. We're very lucky here. We can keep our prices reasonable because we own our buildings. For some of these restaurants that have to pay rent, Lord knows, it's a tight squeeze.
What about the makeup of the market; when did that start changing?
Within the past 15 years. When I was growing up, the market was at least 90 percent Italians or Jewish people. Now, half of the market is Mexican. And it’s a good thing, because they’ve taken over the southern end of the market, which was desolate for years. Now the storefronts are full and there’s life down there. We’re happy to have them on board.
The 9th Street Business Association is pushing for new vendors to come in and open new stands.
Is that a good thing; do you think?
Yes, I can see the point. It doesn’t cost all that much to own a stand, just the yearly cost, so a lot of times families would just keep them but not use them. So, now the association is taking them over. If you have a stand and you’re not using it a lot, you can let them rent it out for you. It’s helping more stands get open, which is great.
Do you know how many stands there could be, theoretically, if they were all open and operating?
I’d say at least a hundred. That’s how it was when I was young. Always fruit and produce stands, at least 90 percent. That’s changing now. There’s a hot sauce stand.
And wasn’t there one woman doing organic produce?
Yeah, well, now she’s doing more bottled stuff, jars. The organic stuff was not going to go over too well. I said to her, “Listen, I used to be in the business; you’re better off selling preservatives, jams and jellies. I’m not trying to tell you how to run your stand, but there’s no need for organic carrots here.” I mean, we have plenty of carrots. If you want organics, go to Whole Foods. Her carrots were dying on the stand. Forget it. I want to see the stands stay open. You’re not going to make any money selling organic carrots.
Are those the only two new ones, so far?
Yes. They tried one south of Washington, it didn’t work. Listen, it’s a tough business. Who wanted to be outside working, the past couple of days? But it’ll come, it’ll click. There’s a lot of new blood in the association now, a lot of young people, who have a different way of doing things. But they’re getting a lot accomplished.
Villa di Roma
936 S. Ninth St., 215-592-1295
Hours: Noon to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; 4 to 10 p.m., Monday