Who's the oldest?

A couple readers e-mailed to say I got it wrong after reading my column Thursday about Ralph's Italian Restaurant, on S. 9th St. I wrote that Ralph's, founded in 1900, can now claim to be the oldest Italian restaurant in the country, because Fior d'Italia of San Francisco, which once held that honor, went belly-up this week.

Not so fast, protests a reader named Nathan.

Dante's

"Another old Philadelphia Italian Restaurant" - Dante & Luigi's, on S. 10th St - "claims to have been founded in 1899, AND to being the oldest Italian Restaurant in Philadelphia."

If that's true, then Dante & Luigi's would be 113 years old - one year older than Ralph's 112.

Not so fast, says Bob Larive, owner of  newly defunct Foir d'Italia. When he bought the place over two decades ago, he was told it was the oldest Italian restaurant in America. But he didn't want to claim those bragging rights without being certain. So he hired an independent research company to trace the lineage of Fior d'Italia.

"I paid a lot of money for the research, and it took them about six or seven months to track everything down," said Larive (who accepted my condolences on the closing of his restaurant. "Thanks," he sighed. "It's been an ugly week.").

The rock-solid conclusion of the researchers, he said, was that Fior d'Italia was, for sure, the country's oldest italian restaurant. Ralph's was second oldest. Period.  

Not so fast, says Dante & Luigi's manager, Carla Esposito. She told me yeterday that her place opened in 1899.

"We stand by that," she said. "Ralph's is the oldest family-owned Italian restaurant in America, but we're older than Ralph's by one year."

Ryan Rubino, fifth-generation family member of the Ralph's clan and a current manager, offered no comment on the allegation, except for a smile.

"There's a lot of great Italian restaurants in South Philly, and enough customers for all of us," he told me. "We wish everyone well."