At Ristorante Pesto in South Philly, 'it's like coming home'

John and Concetta Varallo of Ristorante Pesto, 1915 S. Broad St.

We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them. 

Giovanni Varallo, one of 20 children, trained in Italy to cook. In 1970, he came to America as a teenager -- to Philadelphia, specifically -- and tried to find work.

He said he could find nothing. His brother Michael got him a job at Termini Bros., the landmark bakery and pasticceria across the street from the Varallos' house on Eighth Street in South Philadelphia. 

Nine years later, Varallo left Termini to work as a baker for a restaurateur.  After two years, in 1981, he and Michael opened their own bakery at 10th and Morris Streets. One day, a girl who lived next door, Concetta Feudale, stopped into Varallo Bros., looking for a job.  

Thirty-five years, several restaurants, and four children later, John and Connie Varallo run Ristorante Pesto on South Broad Street, across from the old St. Agnes Hospital, as well as a pizzeria a few doors away.  He turns 60 on Jan. 31, and she turned 51 on New Year's Day.

Pesto is a family affair, as daughter Maria is the chef with her father and daughter Christina helps in the dining room with Connie. Brother-in-law Claudio Conigliaro runs the pizzeria. 

 

You were baking, John. What finally got you into the restaurant business?

I developed an allergy to flour.

Connie, you haven't been in the food business all your life, right?

Connie: I went to work at the bakery when I was 15, then at 17 I left to work for my uncle. I was the manager of a cardiologist's office. I also went to Temple University. Then John approached me in 1990 and he said, 'Do you want to open up a restaurant?' And I said, 'OK. Why not?' We weren't even married yet. So we bought a building -- which became Io E Tu -- at Ninth and Dickinson. And we started fixing it up and Oct. 15, 1992, we opened up the doors. (The restaurant seated 95.) When we opened up, we did 42 to 45 people that night. I remember sitting on his lap and saying to him, 'I think we're going to do good.' I'll never forget that. It was a Thursday. That was almost 25 years ago. I was still working at the office. He was working at the restaurant. We got married in 1994. Then our daughter [Gianna] was born.

John: Then I said to her, 'Listen. You've got to come here. I need you here.' People needed to see her face. They kept asking, 'Where's your wife? Where's your wife?'  

What happened with Io E Tu?

John: It was open over 10 years. I said to her, 'I'm so tired. I want a small, little place.' And [in 2003] we bought the building, 1915 S. Broad. We opened up Pesto with 40 seats. I was still dealing with two restaurants, though. But then the building next door became available, so we made it bigger. So it was too much to have both restaurants, so after three years we closed Io E Tu, sold the building, and just all moved here.

Connie: We closed there July 31, 2006. The last day, we did  191 people.

John: We used to do good in both places. It was because of the parking. 

As much as you wanted to scale back, you ended up expanding and you still had a restaurant at the Jersey Shore for a few years?

John: That was because of my son [Bernie, who is in construction]. He said to me, 'I love Wildwood. Let's open one down here.'  I ended up working six days a week, myself, down there.

Connie: We needed him here.

John: It was hard for me. I have to make the gelato here, make the pasta, bring it down. It was too much for me because I'm very neat.  I don't like nothing a mess. Nothing dirty. Everything bothers me. And I make everything. I do all the prep every morning. I come here early.  When [the cooks] come, everything is prepped. Even the bread. 

 

Tell me about your customers.

Connie: We love them. We have such a relationship. ... I have all the calls forwarded to my cell, so I pick up every phone call, no matter when it is, even the holidays. People know me, and we're friendly with them. We know who they are, we go up to every table, we get everybody a free appetizer, we're just like family. And then we let them bring their own wine and we don't charge. People go nuts for that. Everybody says, 'It's like coming home.' We don't want to be a restaurant to just make money and go home. We want to establish a type of relationship with everybody who comes here.  

What are your best sellers?

Connie: The cavatelli pasta. We were on the Rachael Ray Show on Oct. 26, 2015. We were approached to represent Philadelphia against New York and San Francisco, and we brought out ... his idea ... the cavatelli pasta and we won.

John: She wanted a black-ink pasta.

Connie: I wanted something different, but I didn't know what to bring.

John: I said, 'No. Cavatelli is different because nobody makes this homemade.' I said, 'Please let me bring the cavatelli.'

 

In 2008 during the recession, so many restaurants took a hit. What happened here?

Connie: We had moved the liquor license [from Io E Tu] here, but we decided to let them bring their own wine. A lot of people would call and say, 'How long is the promotion for?' I'm like, 'No, it's always going to be like this.' So people felt, hmm, they saved money, the prices were good, we never changed the prices. So when people came here, they couldn't believe the portions were huge, the prices were good, they could bring their own wine, they got a free appetizer. I mean, better than that we can't do, and the food is all top quality. 

Where do you get bread from?

John: I make it. I make everything here -- I cut all the meats, I cut all the fish. It's a lot of work. 

Connie: He has a passion for food, I have a passion for people.