YOU DON'T look like you're from around here.
Michael Pakradooni keeps getting that, and he finds it kinda funny.
The observation comes, casually sprinkled in amid requests for chicken cutlets or eggs over easy, from the customers at Vincenzo's, the 9th Street luncheonette that Pakradooni recently purchased. It's true he's not Italian - though his surname ends in a vowel, it's Armenian in origin - but it's not like the guy appears to hail from the opposite side of the planet.
Friendly face, well-worn apron, long hair tied back and tucked beneath a beat-up baseball cap with the name of his dad's Chesapeake City marina on it - there's no definitive way to look normal, but Pakradooni, 32, more or less nails it. You wouldn't pull a spit-take if you walked past him on the sidewalk. So why does everyone who pops in for a sandwich immediately identify him as an outlier?
Probably because Vincenzo's - "South Philly's Best-Kept Secret," if the awning is to be believed - is one of those places you only know about if you've been going there for years. And spotting Pakradooni, who's held court behind the tidy, 14-seat counter for all of three weeks, is a definitive sign that things are changing - though not as much as you might think.
Originally from Chester Heights, in Delaware County, Pakradooni was comfortable in kitchens from an early age, working the grill station at Italian restaurants in Sea Isle in his teens. He'd continue this line of work, at Delco joints like Pinocchio's and Iron Hill, while earning a history and poli-sci degree from Drexel.
After undergrad, Pakradooni dabbled in e-commerce before eventually returning to school, earning his secondary-education certification from Villanova and working as a substitute teacher for four years. He'd eventually get into web development and design, creating and maintaining sites for clients on a freelance basis.
An avid home cook, Pakradooni more recently got the itch to get back into food on a professional level. "Purchasing an old-school South Philly deli" doesn't fit naturally on his career timeline, but that's how it worked out. "I was looking at buying something," he said, "and this was available."
'How about this?'
The space had been up for sale for a minute, but not all of Susan Tavella's customers actually believed she'd sell it.
A native of the neighborhood who still lives there - her husband, Gary, grew up two doors down from the shop, at Ninth and Mountain - Tavella founded Vincenzo's in 1989, taking over a space that had always been a corner grocery. Like Pakradooni, she left behind a far different career (she was a medical secretary) to get into cooking full-time.
Vincenzo's, named after the son of a former partner in the business, did not operate like the average restaurant. For starters, there wasn't really a menu. "People would come in and say, 'I don't know what I feel like eating today,'" said Tavella of her homespun system. "I would say, 'How about this?' "
"This" could be anything - scrambled eggs and asparagus, secret-recipe meatballs, steak Italiano, lentil soup, pasta and peas. Years before the emergence of nearby East Passyunk Avenue as a dining destination, Tavella built up a neighborhood following cooking for people the same way she'd cook for her kids. ("Lunchtime at Vincenzo's feels like lunchtime with your family," read a 2006 RowHome Magazine feature on the place.) And her people would reciprocate - they'd bring in their own coffee mugs to use every morning, leaving them for breakfast the next day instead of taking them home.
"I always enjoyed the gratification of being there," said Tavella. "If I made a new customer, they were a repeat customer. That energized me."
'A certain taste'
But after hustling for decades, Tavella decided it was time to slow down and carve out some more time for family. She put Vincenzo's on the market a year ago, fielding a number of offers - some of which involved shutting down the commercial aspect of the property.
That didn't sit well with her. Even if she wasn't going to be involved, Tavella didn't want to see the work she put in, the community she helped cultivate, ripped out, tossed into a dumpster and hauled away. Neighborhood places like hers? "They're becoming dinosaurs," she said.
Meeting Pakradooni, who has every intention of preserving what she built ("I was buying the business and the building," he said), seemed predestined.
"He was the right person at the right time," she said.
Though it was met with skepticism - I'll believe it when I see it kinda stuff - Tavella and Pakradooni finalized the sale last month. Though he knew his way around a kitchen, there was still a learning curve when it came to doing things Tavella's way. "The recipes had to go to him," she said. "People are used to a certain taste."
So came an intensive two-week period when old owner and new owner worked side-by-side. Pakradooni took in all the tricks he needed, though some of the most vital skills didn't involve knives and cutting boards. "When I was here, I wanted to know everybody's first name," said Tavella. "Michael picked up on that."
South Philly hospitality
Just a few weeks in, Pakradooni's already been treated to a heavy dose of South Philly hospitality - which manifests itself in a very particular way. "Everyone likes to break balls," he said, laughing when recounting regulars who have taken to razzing him at every juncture.
He's gotten good-natured grief for opening a can of tuna a certain way, or for what meats he chooses to put on an Italian hoagie. He's been hearing it ever since he decided to install WiFi ("Everyone's gonna be bustin' out their laptops and sippin' lattes!") and put out paper placemats ("Whoa, whoa, whoa - we're getting fancy!").
Pakradooni's taking it all in stride, cooking what the people want and slowly introducing his own menu items. He plans to add an espresso machine and an oven. Right now, he's open only on weekdays for breakfast and lunch, but he'll add Saturday service next week, and is toying with the idea of extending hours into dinner.
In the meantime, he's getting behind-the-counter help from his roommate, his mom and Tiffany Ciafre, Tavella's daughter-in-law, who's stayed on as an employee. She's helped introduce Pakradooni to most of the usual suspects, like John Renzi, an accountant with an office a few blocks away. He and his wife, Camille, were eating breakfast on Tuesday, chatting with Branden Eastwood, a photojournalist friend of Pakradooni's, in between bites of bacon and eggs.
"The place is comfortable," said Renzi. "You really feel like you belong here."
Whether or not he looks the part, it seems like Pakradooni belongs here, too.
Vincenzo's Deli & Luncheonette, 1626 S. Ninth St., 215-463-6811, vincenzosphilly.com
Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @drewlazor.