Ralph's Italian Restaurant is embroiled in a family food feud

Ralph Dispigno Jr., 87, in the kitchen of Ralph's Italian Restaurant in August 2016.

In the latest Philadelphia food dynasty winding up in court, the family that owns Ralph's Italian Restaurant - at age 116, one of the oldest Italian restaurants in the United States - is battling over the use of the name.

In a complaint filed last month in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, Karen Castagna, representing her father, Ralph J. Dispigno Jr., accuses her cousins James and Edward Rubino and their mother, Elaine Dodaro, of using the Ralph's name without the permission of Dispigno and two other relatives who own shares of the original business on Ninth Street in Bella Vista.

The suit also claims that "circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that James Rubino Jr. overcompensates himself." The 87-year-old Ralph Dispigno, meanwhile, goes to work each day to "in part to compensate for the absence" of the Rubinos, who own a separate Ralph's restaurant in King of Prussia. 

The Rubinos and James' son, Ryan, who is also named in the suit, opened Ralph's of South Philly restaurant at the Sheraton Valley Forge nearly four years ago. 

The brothers briefly operated Jimmy Rubino's Ralph's of South Philadelphia restaurant in Ambler more than 10 years ago.

The plaintiffs also said the defendants are trying to sell Ralph's franchises. The suit points out that the large photo on the franchising landing page shows the 1949 engagement party of Ralph Dispigno Jr. and fiancee Mildred Fanelli.

"Upon information and belief," the suit says, the King of Prussia restaurant is "essentially acting as a de facto franchise."

The defendants are accused of using the South Philadelphia restaurant's website and Facebook page to promote their own interests without permission, including Ryan Rubino's new Bar One, opening this month across the street

The suit also claims that the Rubinos have not shared financial information with the plaintiffs, who say they seek greater transparency.

The Rubinos have tried to buy out the Dispigno faction over the years, but nothing ever came of it.

The suit effectively splits the original restaurant's ownership. Ralph Dispigno owns 25 percent. Two other plaintiffs - members of his brother Michael's family, Michele Anastasi and Frank Spadea - each own 12.5 percent, for a total of 50 percent. The Rubino brothers and Elaine Dodaro, who is Dispigno's sister, own the remaining half.  

Theodore H. Jobes of Fox Rothschild represents the plaintiffs. Ryan Rubino said he would ask his attorney to return my call seeking comment. The suit was first noted by PennRecord.com.

Earlier this year, the families behind the Tony Luke's sandwiches and Tacconelli's pizza wound up in court as well.

In the Tony Luke's case, Tony Luke Jr. and a business partner are accused of shutting out the father and a brother.

In the Tacconelli's case, a grandson of the founders, Vince Tacconelli, is accused of obtaining the Tacconelli's trademark under his father's nose and using it at his New Jersey restaurant.