In the days before balsamic hit South Philly, when virgin had nothing to do with olive oil and arugula sounded more like a condition than a salad green, Italian restaurants felt like this.
The baskets of garlic bread were so hot and butter-crispy, they disappeared before their fragrance left the room. There were cheap carafes of chilled red wine, steel bowls brimming with steamed clams, and platters heaped with sausage cloaked in peppers and cacciatore gravy. And when the waitress led our family to the table through the joyously bustling room, she dropped the atty-tude just long enough to confide with grandmotherly awe: "Your kids are getting so big!"
And that's just in the two weeks since we ate there last.
It sounds like just the hokey script that so many national chains have co-opted and cheapened. But it still exists in its purest form in South Philadelphia. And in few places does it thrive more genuinely than at Villa di Roma, the unpretentious De Luca family spaghetti hall in the heart of the Italian Market. Its polished brick facade reflects the deep crimson hue of its tomato gravies. The swooping green neon "V" of its sign glows like a beacon from the 1960s.
And there is very little about the dining rooms inside to bring you up to date, from the bentwood chairs and terrazzo floors, to the brick walls with Italian Market-scene paintings, to the wagon-wheel chandeliers over the bar where portraits of Columbus and Rocky jogging set the mood.
Villa di Roma may be a time capsule, its menu especially anachronistic alongside the truffled risottos and grilled whole fish of our many upscale Italian eateries. But there's something magnetic about the century-old version of Italian immigrant cooking when it's done with honest care.
And that's what you'll find at Villa di Roma, where the five De Luca brothers and sisters still give their full attention to the restaurant their parents, Domenic and Carmela, bought in 1963.
Affable Pip (short for Epiphany) runs the busy dining rooms, where he has been since leaving the bitter cold and the fire barrels of the family's Ninth Street fruit stands four decades ago. Mariann works the bar, and Anna works alongside the crew of veteran servers. Frank cooks a couple of nights a week, perfecting indulgences such as deep-fried asparagus ladled with a stick's worth of tangy scampi butter.
Meanwhile, middle brother Basil arrives each morning at 5:30 to lay the foundation, setting the giant pots of tomato gravy to simmer and meticulously hand-rolling dozens of meatballs the way his Uncle Sammy taught him.
Like those simple sauces - slow-stewed plum tomatoes touched with onion and oregano for the marinara, which becomes "gravy" with the addition of fried and crumbled meatballs - most of this Sicilian American menu has been handed down. Not just from Uncle Sammy (a.k.a. Salvatore), but from the legendary South Philly chef Vince "Cous" Pilla, who was Villa's original chef.
Chief from the Cous' canon is chicken Sicilian, a zesty saute with cherry peppers, capers, cured olives and butter that was Angelo Bruno's final meal (eaten at Cous' Little Italy) before the mob boss was gunned down. On a good night, the morsels of boneless breast are superbly tender, and the rich sauce vibrates with tangy spice.
This chef-less kitchen, however, is run by a series of different cooks each night, and has its moments of weakness (overcooking the chicken is an occasional offense; too much gravy on the veal pizzaiola is another). But for the most part, it is admirably consistent, with a number of specialties that keep me coming back.
That fried asparagus is positively addictive, but scampi sauce may be even better over butterflied shrimp. The garlic bread is another classic, with rounds of airy Vilotti bread dipped in pecorino butter that develop the right balance of crunch and puff. Top those toasts with sliced sirloin and garlicky wine butter, and you have Domenic's steak "My Way."
The steamed clams are among the best I've had, their oregano-flecked wine broth the pure essence of clam and garlic.
There are also the usual old-style pastas, which are good in a homey way. Among the best is the baked ziti with asparagus tossed in ricotta-blushed marinara. The creamy quattrocini blends yolk-rich alfredo sauce with prosciutto bits and fresh spinach.
Villa also has a nice touch with meats, including great sausage from the Hollywood Market a few doors south that comes broiled in crispy horseshoes with peppers and onions, tossed in thickened tomato gravy cacciatore, or simmered Genovese style with cannellini beans and escarole, with a hunk of crusty Sarcone's bread.
The veal dishes are simple, but carefully done. The parmigiana is perfectly tender (though not as crisp on the bottom as nearby Ralph's). The bella bucca, though, was a delight, sandwiching provolone and ham between two medallions over a light brown gravy ribboned with spinach.
The lobster francese brought two delicately fried tails, but suffered from a sauce that had the alcoholic scratch of low-end wine.
Bad wines, of course, are among the few old-time legacies at Villa di Roma that I don't get, and could easily be improved. Our server boiled the selection down to this: "red" or "white."
Go with a Peroni beer.
The same waitress erupted in peals of laughter at the mere suggestion of an espresso machine: "We don't have espresso, we don't have cappuccino!" she laughed. "Everything here is standard. We don't have anything special."
How wrong she was.