Words that many found tough to swallow

"This is America," Joey Vento's sign said. But was his challenge to immigrants in the true spirit of America?

Rene Kobeitri, owner of Rim Cafe at the Italian Market, delivers a memorial photo of Joey Vento to Geno's Steaks. (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)

Cheesesteak virgins find out the hard way when they order wrong at the take-out windows of South Philly. The protocol is to order "Whiz wit," meaning, of course, Cheez Whiz with onions.

Or, say, "American wit-out," meaning, well, you can figure it out.

Mess up, and you're in trouble. At Pat's Steaks below the Italian Market, stern instructions are posted, warning that violators will be sent to the end of the line for screwing up.

It's part of the late-night street ritual where Passyunk Avenue angles into Federal Street; like the curbside chants - fading nowadays - of the fishmongers and produce hucksters north on Ninth.

Call it vintage South Philly attitude. You got a problem with that?

As Mexican and Vietnamese immigrants - the former driven by sagging restaurant economies in New York after 9/11, the latter by the fall of Saigon - became more of a presence in the Italian neighborhood (which wasn't too excited about Italians moving in a couple of generations ago), a sign of a different stripe went up five years ago at Geno's Steaks, across from its blood rival, Pat's.

"This is America," said the sticker on Geno's window; "when ordering speak English."

It lacked the charm of the old ordering protocol. It had an edge of unwelcome and menace.

That venomous little sign - still mounted proudly next to the window at Geno's - got a lot of ink this week in the obituaries for Joey Vento, the mouthy founder of the neon-plated place, whose fame (infamy?) went global when he posted it in 2006 as anti-immigrant fervor was cresting.

And if Vento, who died at 71 from a heart attack Tuesday, could also be bighearted, funding a snow plow at a Catholic school that once kicked him out, giving $100,000 to help underwrite an AIDS benefit, and donating to police charity, he no less deserves the blot on his legacy that came with that stunt: He gloried in the celebrity and exposure it won him (even as it lost points for the rest of us in the City of Brotherly Love).

He refused, as former mayor Frank Rizzo did before him, to acknowledge the divisiveness he was sowing.

And he was quick to play the picked-upon victim when advocates overreached to get it removed. (They didn't win, and rightly so. It's a free country. Vento had every right to be wrongheaded.)

In precincts where bravado is the norm, he wanted to have his steak and eat it too. He flew Confederate flags on his Harley, and tattooed one on his arm. Then complained about "whiners" who suggested he was racist.

He minimized the hostility of his English-only gambit, then posted more stickers on the window - again still there this week - one a little nastier: "Joey says, Press 1 for English. Press 2 for Deportation."

Words matter: "Irish need not apply" was common more than a century ago, about the same time that Know-Nothings rioted in Philadelphia, torching Catholic churches. And let's not get into "Whites Only," and the rest of it: I patronized a rural grocery in Hillsborough, N.C., for a time in the 1960s, belatedly realizing that the TWAK sign on the screen door stood for "Trade With A Klansman."

Like language and food, politics and food are intimately bound up. Judy Wicks used her White Dog Cafe in West Philadelphia as a salon for lefty causes. Starbucks now promotes fair-trade coffee. Farm subsidies tilt to mega-farms with massive lobbying budgets.

But a constant in the American experience has been pressure to open - not close - more doors, to invite more people to sit at the table, to land a seat at the Woolworth's lunch counter even if it means, at first, getting roughed up and spat on.

Vento might have made himself the darling of right-wing radio, and landed a photo-op with Rudy Giuliani, but his own cheesesteak brethren and nearby merchants never endorsed his rhetoric of exclusion.

"He made his [bed]," an aproned cheesemonger on Ninth Street said, shrugging.

It was a peaceable kingdom in the Italian Market the day after Vento died last week, a bouquet of flowers left on the sidewalk outside Geno's, the old red-gravy cafes and pork butchers coexisting cheek by guanciale with newer banh mi shops and Mexican bakeries, pho soup parlors and no-frills taquerias.

At one of them, La Lupe, just a few yards from Geno's orange tables, the special was jotted on the sandwich sign: "Cheesesteak burrito w fries, $6.95."

American wit.

In plain English.


Rick Nichols is a former Inquirer Food columnist.