Community ignores economy and welcomes new eatery

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All winter, and into late spring, the residents of Spruce Hill walked past the fresh white stucco building with bright blue awnings on a corner of 45th and Chestnut and wondered, "What is going on?"

A new restaurant - Demetri's Pizzeria & Mediterranean Cuisine - had been in the works for more than a year. The owners, Dimitri Maroulis and his son Michail, had attended meetings of the community association and listened to the zoning committee's concerns.

Yes, they would make sure the Dumpster was sequestered. Yes, they would take down the huge billboard that the previous owner had left. They would use only subdued lighting and discreet signage and serve high-quality food at reasonable prices.

This West Philadelphia neighborhood of city workers and university professors and students and middle-class families and tradespeople had been looking forward to getting a nice, little, sit-down restaurant. Sure, five streets east they could find everything from Ethiopian to Tex-Mex. But Spruce Hill, which stretches roughly from 38th to 46th Streets and Market to Woodland, is one of those urbane residential enclaves in which daily sustenance means eating out or ordering in. And the closer the restaurant, the better.

By May, the natives were no longer impatient.

They were worried.

"We were asking ourselves: Is this thing really going to happen?" said Barry Grossbach, chairman of the zoning committee for the Spruce Hill Community Association.

Grossbach, a retired history professor who has lived in this neighborhood since 1970, had met the Maroulis family, who had run seven pizzerias over the last 25 years in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Along with his neighbors, he had watched them last summer, gutting the place, throwing out the shovels full of crack vials and decrepit mattresses and years of filth.

"It was a dump," said Jasmine Maroulis, Michail's wife and comanager of the restaurant. "A dump, dump, I mean dump."

Everyone heard the drills and hammers as the father and son laid down a hardwood floor and put up wainscoting.

People watched through the windows approvingly when trucks unloaded sueded beige banquettes and tables for two and four.

"But the economy like this, we were afraid to open it," Jasmine said. "So we waited." Finally, on the last Friday in May, they put out a "grand opening" sign and unlocked the doors.

The sign, however, was misspelled "Demetrios." They put up with it for a few days, then took it down.

Maroulis the elder had made enough compromises with his name already.

The city has a long list of places called Dimitri's in various variations and didn't want to issue a business license unless Maroulis came up with a unique name. So Demetri's had to do.

A former butcher, Maroulis had moved to the United States in 1988 when his mother-in-law needed surgery unavailable in the family's native Greece.

After his mother-in-law recovered, she went back home, where she remained until she died two years ago at 95.

But Maroulis and his wife stayed.

"My parents always worked very hard," Michail said. "I hardly ever saw them unless it was at the restaurant." After school, he and his older brother, Ed, helped make pizza.

Ed moved to Miami and opened a five-star restaurant.

"But I didn't want that kind of life for my family," Michail said. He went to trade school to learn auto-body repair and got a job with SEPTA.

In 2004, his father sold the last of his pizza stores and retired to spend time fixing up the family's home in Upper Darby and spend time with his grandchildren.

"But he couldn't not work," Michail said. His father, with graying stubbly hair, wearing black-and-white checked chef pants and bearing the creases around his mouth from a perpetually good-natured grin, nodded and said a few confirming words in a thick accent.

So he bought the distressed property in Spruce Hill and, at age 56, came out of retirement.

The Maroulises took out a mortgage on the building, received money for the renovations from relatives, and, when Ed sold his restaurant in Florida last year, happily accepted the high-end furniture from his establishment.

Business has grown incrementally since the opening, promoted mostly by neighbors telling neighbors and spreading the word to friends. The gym and the barbershop across Chestnut Street order takeout nearly every day.

"The community has been so helpful," Jasmine said. "They're the greatest."

On a recent afternoon, Raymond Pitts, who describes himself as "a retired person," was one of three customers. "This is my third time here," he said. "The atmosphere is wholesome. They have no bars on the windows, and people smile when they serve you." Pitts ordered asparagus soup and a rib-eye.

"How's the food? OK?" Maroulis asked.

Pitts, having just finished off the entire meal, leaving only the bones and the garnish, nodded. "Yeah!"

The one problem the restaurant has had stems from Maroulis' magnanimity, Michail said. "He wants to please everybody. And you can't please everybody."

This, he said, explains the Guinness World Records-worthy 10-page, single-spaced menu.

It has intimidated customers, who have trouble trusting that one small family-owned restaurant can turn out cowboy fries (ranch dressing, cheese, spices) as well as stromboli, pasticchio, salade Nicoise, lamb with roasted root vegetables, and quesadillas.

"We're revising it," said Jasmine, who speaks four languages (Armenian, Russian, Greek, and English) and left her job as a medical assistant to help run the restaurant.

The new menus will be pared down. Instead of five lamb dishes, they're cutting down to three.

They're cutting back, a little at least, on the hours, too. Breakfast is served beginning at 9 a.m. instead of 7.

But they're still serving dinner long past 10 p.m., with Michail there most nights until well after his three children's bedtime.

He's keeping his day job at SEPTA, he said, but felt compelled to help his father run the restaurant.

"I wanted to get away from it," he said. "But you can't. You always go back to what you know."

 


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.