Moving melons or trucking turnips, it's an all-consuming business

A forklift operator navigates the main thoroughfare of the Food Distribution Center as he deliveries a load of potatoes.

It was not yet dawn, and longtime Philly produce man John DiFeliciantonio was facing a dilemma: What to do about the Yuma lettuce?

Everything else was moving. California cauliflowers. Mexican peppers. Israeli mandarins as sweet as candy.

Everything but the Yuma lettuce.

It had arrived at his shop inside the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market in Southwest Philadelphia two days earlier, stressed from the unseasonable warmth in Arizona. Now, it was running out of shelf life. And DiFeliciantonio still had about 400 cases left.

Meanwhile, over at his shop, Tommy Kovacevich was a man possessed by grapes. Two hundred thousand pounds of rained-on Chilean grapes, to be exact. Kovacevich needed them out the door now.

And making his daily shopping rounds, Jimmy Iovine, who with his brother Vinnie runs Iovine Brothers Produce Market at Reading Terminal, was set on strawberries. After a long winter, the price of Florida strawberries had finally fallen back to earth - and he wanted them.

"Everyone loves a strawberry," he said.

Like most Philadelphians, I knew little about the place and people who provide Philly with its fruit and vegetables. I knew it all came from somewhere, but I rarely thought of how it got here. And I knew nothing about the hardworking people who bring it to us.

So I spent a few mornings last week down at the market.

It opened five years ago to replace the city's crumbling food center on Galloway Street in South Philly.

It's like a really nice airplane hangar, except packed to the rafters with fruit. Light streaks through the towering skylight windows. A state-of-the-art refrigeration system - the only one of its kind in the country - keeps the temperature at 50 degrees and extends the life of the produce. Workers zip and weave through the corridors on beeping, battery-operated jacks. Each year the 25 vendors who work there sell about $1.5 billion worth of fruit and vegetables from all over the world.

As spiffy as the new digs are, they still retain their Philly character - and characters.

Pinto Brothers Inc. owner Louis Penza will proudly show you family photos from before 1959 when Philly wholesalers sold out of a ramshackle open-air market on Dock Street.

His favorite, a black-and-white taken in the 1940s or '50s, shows a group of men in suits greeting the first asparagus flown from California to Philadelphia. It arrived aboard a Slick Airways cargo plane.

At A. Vassallo Inc., Don Di Angelo, who is 71 and still works the counter, fondly recalls the old days of Galloway Street, when "everything was different."

Everyone calls him "Gramps."

"I don't like when they call me Gramps," he said.

And Ryeco L.L.C. salesman Rich Mastero will stop what he's doing to tell - and retell - the story about his bit role in the first Rocky.

"I felt like Marlon Brando, I swear to God," he said.

But this winter has been a challenging one.

The unpredictable warming currents of El Niño - and the unpredictable weather it unloosed upon the country's growing regions - made sure of it.

Before the weather calmed in recent weeks, California rains, desert freezes, and Southern storms made for produce shortages and inconsistency - jacking up the prices as much as three times their usual.

And it made for nerve-racking days for even veteran sellers like 61-year-old DiFeliciantonio, who loathes nothing more than the sight of high-price produce wilting on shelves.

"We're not selling tires here," he said ruefully.

DiFeliciantonio, of South Philly, got his start 35 years ago working the tomato line at Procacci Brothers, one of largest wholesalers in the country.

"It's like going to the Harvard of produce," he said.

From the tomato line, he worked his way up to company president.

He opened his shop, North American Produce Co., two years ago with his wife, Michelle. Three of their four daughters work alongside them.

"It's made a good life for me," DiFeliciantonio said.

In the meantime, he had to move that the Yuma lettuce.

"You're looking at money going out the door."

mnewall@phillynews.com

215-854-2759

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