“Wait for it,” insists Marco DiTullio, as he finds Louis Prima’s rendition of “Just a Gigolo” on the jukebox. “It’s coming up now.”
So, I sit quietly at the bar at Friendly Lounge, a portal to a different era situated at the corner of Eighth Street and Washington Avenue. According to Marco, a scatting Prima will, near the end of the song, shout, “Skinny! Skinny!” and it will be in reference to his father, John “Skinny Razor” DiTullio — the originator of Friendly Lounge, a loan shark and, according to some, a local Mafia underboss. The moment in the song arrives, and Marco beams. “There!” he says. I nod, though I do not hear Prima say “Skinny” at all.
That’s the way it goes at the Friendly, where the truth is slippery and maybe better left that way.
Close to midnight on a Friday, I find Marco, dressed for golf in khakis and a coral-hued sweater, smoking cigarettes, drinking vodka, and trying to decide how much to reveal. He concedes that the bar opened “sometime in the ’50s,” and that, after Skinny Razor’s death, he and his brother Dominick took over. He declines to state his age. He says, after almost every sentence, “You don’t need to write that.”
Secondary sources are more explicit: The Friendly was featured in I Heard You Paint Houses, the book about hit man Frank Sheeran that’s being adapted for a Martin Scorsese film, The Irishman. In it, Skinny Razor is described as the “number two man in Philly.” Mobster-turned-informant Ralph Natale’s memoir, Last Don Standing, describes Friendly as a classroom for new Mafia recruits, and claims that Skinny Razor was “a legendary mob killer” so named for carrying a razor in his suit jacket.
Marco dismisses those accounts. His father, he insists, got his name because “he was skinny, and he dressed sharp as a razor.” On the flip side, he does note that, “Ralph Natale came to the bar when he came out of jail to say hello.”
Marco seized the opportunity to grill Natale about Friendly’s star-studded past, when Frank Sinatra used to stop by for the ribs. (The kitchen’s closed now. “We’re catering to the cigarette smokers,” Marco says.) Up on the walls are photos from that era: Skinny Razor with Joe DiMaggio; a signed headshot from Prima; photos of Marco’s mother, Hildegard, who was in the Ice Capades and whose sister, Trixie, was a juggling phenomenon.
In some ways, it’s a neighborhood bar for a South Philadelphia that’s long gone. No one has bothered to replace the burned-out bulbs in the sign above the door. The walls are clad with the same wood paneling as in Skinny Razor’s day. The barstools are probably the same, too; after I nearly fall off a wobbly one, someone calls over to me, “The ones at the end are better, dear.” Sometimes, high school kids stop in to snap pictures of the curious contraption in the corner known as a pay phone.
It’s the kind of place you’ll find Action News on the TV and customers arrayed along the red laminate bar, watching in silence or remarking on the world today. A woman walks in and asks what’s the best beer available (Heineken), then what beer she can get for $2 (none). One man, a little drunk, starts rambling. “This end of the bar is a bad neighborhood,” another customer complains.
Eventually, Marco fishes a guitar from behind the bar so he can strum along as The Band’s “Ain’t Got No Home” plays on the jukebox — the CD kind, one he promised won’t go the way of TouchTunes. After all, he said, “You don’t change a good thing.”
1039 S. Eighth St., Philadelphia, 215-627-9798
When to go: It’s always basically the same sleepy twilight inside the Friendly. It’s open 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and 2 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday.
Bring: The name is accurate. Go alone and mingle with regulars: artists, writers, restaurant-industry workers, homeless people, and South Philly residents.
Order: It’s a Coors Banquet ($3.50) and shot of Jameson ($4.50) kind of place.
Bathroom situation: Follow the threadbare, horror-movie staircase upstairs to the disintegrating-but-clean linoleum-lined women’s room, or squeeze into the narrow men’s room that features the dreaded blue infinite towel.
Sounds like: The rumble of the 47 bus, the chatter of the evening news, an appearance by Marvin Gaye or Billie Holiday. Or maybe, like me, you’ll catch Marco in a guitar-playing kind of mood.