Rick Olivieri was working the grill yesterday, just as he'd been for 25 years.
The third-generation crown prince of cheesesteaks was wielding his spatula with the usual speed and grace. He was flipping skin-thin slices of meat, shoveling deep into the translucent mountain range of diced onions, and, with a flick of the wrist as practiced and precise as Paul Newman's in The Hustler, delivering the salty, juicy, greasy goods into a cradle of warm bread.
His dimples showing, he palled around with the regulars, explained the meaning of "wid" to first-timers, and high-fived his fellow tenants in the Reading Terminal Market. And if you didn't know that today is the end of a nasty landlord-tenant battle that cost Olivieri $310,000 in legal fees and resulted in the eviction of Rick's Steaks from the spot where he first started working with his father in 1982, you'd never have guessed. For nothing in his demeanor revealed the truth that he was bitter and sad and leaving a place that's as close to his heart as a place can be.
"For the first three months of this ordeal," he said, "I didn't sleep at all."
Tuesday night, however, he had no trouble. What's done is done. He lost. They won.
"What are you going to do?" he said with a shrug.
Beginning at 9:30 a.m. yesterday, regulars made the pilgrimage for their last lunch at Olivieri's hallowed spot, with its narrow counters dissecting the wall of windows overlooking 12th Street. They took one last look at the photos of Bill Cosby and Al Roker and the huge sign telling one version of the history (it's disputed, long story, never mind) of how Olivieri's ancestors invented the cheesesteak in 1932.
"It's a shame what happened here," City Councilman Bill Green said as he stood in the crowd of two dozen customers waiting to order at noon. Green, a childhood friend of Olivieri's, criticized Reading Terminal's private, nonprofit board for voting to evict Olivieri, then spending $700,000 to fight him in court when he sued, alleging conspiracy and breach of contract.
The origins of the conflict lie in management's decision several years ago to modernize leases and operating policies to make the market more competitive.
The changes, requiring sales reports, longer operating hours, and higher rents for retailers of prepared food, created tension between the board and the 74-member merchants' association. Olivieri, the association's president during negotiations for a new master lease, maintains that his eviction was retaliatory. The market denies the assertion.
The dispute was settled in June.
"It was ego and personality," Green said. "Not a rational decision on the part of the board."
Kevin Feeley, spokesman for the board, rejected Green's interpretation, calling Olivieri's eviction "a very difficult period for the market," and saying, "It's been very emotional for a lot of people."
With Olivieri's departure, Feeley said, "it looks like now we're finally going to have a chance to put it behind us, and that's what we're looking forward to. We never wanted to wish him ill, and we really hope he has another opportunity in another place."
Initial plans to replace Rick's with a cheesesteak operation owned by Tony Luke seem to have vanished.
"From the market side of the fence," Feeley said, "we see this as a chance to lower the temperature and let things heal a bit."
For now, he said, the space will be an open dining area, but no long-term decisions have been made.
"The market has been contacted by a number of people, some who would sell cheesesteaks, but for now it's a matter of letting the 31st come and go and try to move forward the best we can," Feeley said.
For Olivieri, leaving Reading Terminal will be personally painful.
"My parents met in the market," said his daughter Kristin, 22. "My mom worked at Bassett's ice cream in the early 1980s. He used to come over and flirt, and she would spray him with Windex."
Kristin and her sister, Chelsie, 17, have helped out since they were in grade school and stood on crates to dispense soda. "This is a place we love," she said.
Throughout yesterday, friends of the 43-year-old Olivieri came by with good wishes and gifts.
"It's like losing a family member," said Eric Matthews, dropping off a bottle of Andre cold duck. Matthews, who has worked for 15 years at Basic Four, a Reading Terminal health-food stand, said he found it hard to believe this was Rick's last day.
Olivieri had a parting gift of his own. At mid-morning, one of his workers handed him the phone. John McNesby from Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 was on the line.
"I'm going to make the check out to Officer Nazario's trust fund," Olivieri said. "We'll just do it quietly."
He explained later that the day's proceeds, which he estimated at $1,500, would go to the family of Philadelphia Police Officer Isabel Nazario, who was killed last month when a stolen car hit her cruiser.
"I'm crying," said Al Beiler, who walked over from his Amish bakery down the aisle to commiserate with Olivieri. "You're not leaving. You'll be here tomorrow."
Olivieri shook his head. "It's kind of a relief that it's finally coming to a conclusion," he said, although he suspected that the reality would not sink in until next week, after he has cleared out all the equipment, put it in storage, and awakened to his internal alarm clock at 6 a.m. Monday with nowhere to go.
His five full-time and five part-time employees, several of whom have worked for him for more than a decade, said they had not found new jobs yet.
"Seventy-six? Seventy-six!" Virginia Hartwell hollered, summoning a customer to the register. "For here or to go?"
As of tomorrow, Hartwell, who has been on Olivieri's staff since 1997, will be out of a job. What will she do?
"I have no idea."
Olivieri, however, has plans. He still has his cheesesteak operation at Citizens Bank Park, and hopes to have a new Center City location within a few months.
In the meantime, he said, "I'm going to relax. Really relax."
Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or email@example.com.