Miss the old South Philly? It lives on at Villa di Roma

When Epiphany de Luca began tending bar at his father’s restaurant, Villa di Roma, in 1969, his was the Monday morning shift, the day of rest for Italian Market merchants. “They’d come in at 8 a.m. and talk about business, the deals that went well and the deals that went sour. They drank their shots and beer, coffee with anisette, they’d put in their numbers and then, by noon, they were all off to the racetrack,” says de Luca, whom everyone calls Pip, just like they always called his father “Kaiser,” though the old man’s name was Domenic.

Today, the bookmakers have moved on and many of those merchants have dispersed, but Villa di Roma, with its long, dimly lighted, midcentury-vintage barroom, has barely changed. De Luca still lives a block away, it’s still a family business — all five of his siblings work there, plus assorted nieces and nephews — and the regulars are still colorful. “There are a couple Jerrys: a good Jerry and a bad Jerry,” de Luca says. “I can’t tell you why.”

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Pip de Luca at the bar at Villa di Roma.

On a Friday night, the bar feels like a mere way station for hordes waiting to be seated in the dining room.

I prefer it midweek, like the Tuesday in February when I stopped in, holding the door for a couple of women with cigarette-thickened voices and Philadelphia accents who clutched doggy bags heavy with pasta (leftovers are a near-inevitability here). I felt like I’d wandered into someone’s South Philly living room, complete with drop ceilings, marbleized mirrors, and wagon-wheel chandeliers that could have been salvaged from the When Harry Met Sally prop shop. A sign proclaims “This is a high-class establishment. Act respectable” — ironically or not, it’s hard to say.

There’s also a board filled with photos of customers and their kids, the edges curled with age. De Luca isn’t sure why they all want their pictures up there, but they do. Maybe it’s to be a part of South Philly posterity.

“Some people say Villa di Roma is in a time capsule,” he says.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
A plate of spaghetti on the bar at Villa di Roma.

How far that time capsule dates back is hazy: The de Lucas bought the place in 1963, but Villa di Roma was there for at least a decade before that, historical photos of the neighborhood show. There was a bar next door, too. No one remembers what it was called. De Luca knew it as “Fatty Charlie’s.” (Of the owner, he said, “I’ve seen fatter.”)

Camera icon PhillyHistory.org
Villa Di Roma, seen on Aug. 3, 1954.

The drink selection hasn’t changed much since then. The bartender, his hair generously gelled, mostly spends his time opening bottles of Peroni ($5) or pouring glasses of cheap California Chianti for people watching sports or eating alone at the bar, red-and-white paper place mats with maps of Italy spread before them.

The evening crowd, too, is much the same as it ever was. As I sipped a beer, a couple of regulars who’d been out of town awhile delivered a belated Christmas card to the bartender. A man heaved himself off a bar stool and shuffled out behind a walker, recruiting two young men waiting for an Uber to help him down to the street. One gauge of the average age here: Two acquaintances remark they last ran into each other at the Social Security office.

But the beer fridge, at least, bears evidence of a new century, with local craft brews like Dogfish Head and Yards available by the bottle.

“We take baby steps here,” de Luca said.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
The Italian Market is reflected on the windows on Villa di Roma.

Villa di Roma

936 S. Ninth St., 215-592-1295, villadiroma.com

When to go: It can be deserted during the week and slammed on the weekend. It’s open  noon to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 4-10 p.m.  Monday.

Bring: Your nonna, or anyone who’d choose jug Chianti over a craft cocktail.

Order: Peroni or the house Chianti, whichever you prefer with spaghetti and meatballs. (The red gravy and meatballs are also available to take home, from a refrigerator case at the end of the bar.)

Bathroom situation: Single-stall affairs, and not quite enough of them. Be prepared to wait in line.

Sounds like: A noisy 93 decibels of TV sports — golf, basketball — or jazz, heavy on sizzling cymbals, from an internet radio station of the bartender’s choice.