When Geraldine Ferraro was nominated in 1984 as the first woman and first Italian American to run on a major presidential ticket, Philadelphia Daily News reporters knew just where to find a man-on-the-street to say approvingly, “She’s a paisan!” They went straight to Pinto’s, a corner bar at Ninth and Cross Streets in South Philadelphia that opened up shop the year after Prohibition ended and that steamed ahead for decades unchanged by the churning, gentrifying neighborhood around it.
Today, Pinto’s has been renamed Grumpy’s, but its soul is intact: a narrow, locals-only barroom that had one of the first liquor licenses ever issued in Philadelphia, and, owner Joe DeSimone claims, the last-ever smoking variance. The 9 a.m.-to-2 a.m., 365-day-a-year operation does what Philly’s most enduring bars have always done — serve, variously, as third place, senior center, cable-news provider, and neighborhood anchor.
Male friends who’ve attempted to pull up a bar stool here have at times been met with a gruff, “Seat’s taken!” But in my limited experience, among other enduring values, chivalry lives on here. A weathered man sucking on a Marlboro Red assesses me as I grab a seat then asks, “Does the smoke bother you?” After I tell him not to stop on my account, he asks the bartender to flip on a ventilator, (it is no match for the haze), then orders another pony-size Rolling Rock beer, like a dieter opting for “just a sliver” of cake, then going back for seconds.
I’ve come on a Tuesday and discovered the world’s most lackadaisical karaoke night, overseen by an emcee in Champion sweatpants who does not bother with formalities like a songbook or sign-up sheet. By way of kicking things off, he faces the wall while working through a melancholic rendition of Red Hot Chili Peppers' “City of Angels” (a song that, in the best of times, is not exactly a party starter). After an older gentleman takes on “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime,” the mic sits idle awhile.
The action, instead, is centered on the Pennsylvania Skill game terminal, which appears to be in an abusive relationship with a beefy guy in gym shorts and a sweatshirt that bears a construction-company logo. “Come on, baby, be good to me tonight!” he murmurs, pounding various buttons as the machine bleeps optimistically. Then, rage: “Stop, you b—!" Then, because of chivalry, “Excuse my language. I got anger issues.”
The karaoke night, the Skill game, the craft beers on tap, the pool table that dominates the back room and that hosts fiercely competitive league play — these were all additions over the years by DeSimone, the eponymous grump, who is, ironically, by South Philly bar owner standards, downright perky. He chose the name almost on a whim, he said: “A friend of mine happened to walk through the door and said, ‘Why so grumpy? You just bought a bar.’ ” DeSimone liked the ring of it, the way it gives him a persona to aspire to.
But, mostly, he’s about consistency. He’s worked here 32 years, bought it in 2002, and lives right upstairs. His father, who tended bar at Pinto’s in the 1960s, has been coming every day for lunch with his friends for years, turning the place into a part-time retirement community. Even DeSimone’s daughter comes in to tend bar Saturday nights, and to help decorate the place for Christmas with monogrammed stockings and, next to the rack of cellophane potato chip bags behind the bar, a tinsel-strewn tree.
The neighborhood’s changed, DeSimone concedes. “At one time, I would walk up and down the street, and we knew everyone in every house — and we dare couldn’t call them by their first name. We used to address them as ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ ”
Times have changed. Grumpy’s? Not so much.
1525 S. Ninth St., 215-336-2186, grumpyssouthphilly.com
When to go: The day before laundry day, given the smoky atmosphere. It’s open daily, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.
What to order: The best-sellers are the Citywide Special, $5 for a shot of Jameson and a PBR, and the burger, ($8), which comes stacked high with onion rings.
Bring: Anyone at all, provided he or she lives within three square blocks of Grumpy’s Tavern.
Bathroom situation: A perfect 1970s time capsule of wood paneling and beige tile that’s a single-stall and clean enough.
Sounds like: A hushed 81 decibels, with even the volume on the college basketball game turned low. On weekends, the tunes veer toward country.