Lee and Mariella Esposito can’t recall the moment they first met. But they will never forget the first time she had him over for dinner.
He was 26 and already running the family butcher shop with his brother on South Ninth Street. She was two years older, working in Fante’s Kitchen Shop on the opposite corner. They had seen each other around the market since they were teenagers.
Lee, the third generation in a line of Italian Market butchers, is as matter-of-fact about the meal today as he was that night in 1980, when his secretary at Esposito’s Meats was going to her friend Mariella’s house for dinner and asked him to tag along.
They left work and went straight to Mariella’s house. For Lee and Mariella, it was not love at first bite.
“She didn’t cook the finest meal,” Lee acknowledges with a smile. “I actually tease her to this day that she tried to poison me with that meal.”
Mariella, now the face of Fante’s Kitchen Shop, was experimenting that night.
“It didn’t go well,” Mariella recalls. "I made rice balls. I [had] never made them. I thought, ‘Let’s try something different.’”
His take: “big, giant rice balls that were like gum.”
The less-than-stellar meal became part of family folklore, told for decades to come. And the unexpected “meet cute” led to dating and dodging meddlesome busybodies.
“Life in South Philly — if you don’t live in South Philly, maybe you don’t know — but it’s like everybody knows your business, which is a great thing and a terrible thing at the same time,” Mariella said. “It’s part of the charm of this area that I love a lot.”
Fante’s and Esposito’s have faced each other from opposite corners on Ninth Street for over 100 years. Amid fruit and vegetable vendors, vinyl awnings and corrugated tin roofs, and now joined by tiny Mexican eateries and a tortilla factory, Lee and Mariella are market mainstays, their love set in a neighborhood they adore.
Seated side by side in the home where they raised two daughters, the couple said they must have first met in South Philadelphia as teens in the 1970s.
“I think we had seen each other on the market on and off for so long,” Mariella, 67, recalled. She’d immigrated to Philadelphia in 1964 with her parents, sister, and brothers from a small town an hour northeast of Venice, Italy. Mariella was 13 and diligent. She learned English, and then while attending high school and teaching Italian took a job dusting shelves and taking care of Italian customers at Dominic Fante’s homewares store in the Italian Market.
Lee, 65, a Philadelphia native, spent weekends working in the family business from the time he was 9 — guarding open cases from sneak thieves, restocking product, and sweeping the floor until graduating to waiting on customers over the counter. “By the time we were teenagers, we were good butchers,” he says. And good with numbers.
Before the advent of calculators, he used to tally prices so quickly, customers would demand a recount. They learned not to ask again the next time. By age 20, after some time at Villanova University, he and his brother Louis Jr. had taken over the family business.
Lee’s grandfather had founded Esposito’s Meats in 1911, and Lee’s father ran it before the brothers, who have grown it from a neighborhood storefront to a wholesale meat purveyor serving restaurants throughout the region. Meanwhile, by 1981, Mariella and her brothers had saved up enough money to buy Fante’s from its original owner.
If there’s anything Mariella and Lee are committed to, it’s family and South Philly. They’re active members of the South Ninth Street Businessmen’s Association, established in 1915 to preserve and promote the Italian Market’s small businesses and entrepreneurs.
“The market is our second home. Maybe our first home. I don’t even know sometimes," Mariella said.
The husband-and-wife team have run separate businesses for over 30 years, through marriage and the births of their daughters, Liana and Elisa.
But don’t assume they use one another as sounding boards for problems at the stores. Mariella says there is a secret to their longevity: work-life balance. “From the beginning, we decided that once we got home, we were not going to talk business, because it was just too hard. We worked a lot of hours” — from 60 to 80 hours a week, especially in the early days of their marriage.
Lee and Mariella have weathered the shuttering of time-honored stores on Ninth Street and the changing landscape of the market ushered in by the ebb and flow of immigration in Philadelphia. Over the last couple of decades, immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and Vietnam have brought new life to the market.
“The market was never 100 percent Italian. It was always a market of immigrants,” Lee said. “The predominant group was Italian, but most of the dry goods vendors were Jewish. There were Lebanese, Greeks.” Lee and Mariella believe the longstanding success of the market is due to its hard-working, family-oriented shopkeepers and restaurant owners.
They’re looking to leave a legacy for the next generation. Lee said he would welcome new restaurants in the market because he believes they would bring different rhythms and customers. Liana Esposito Ottaviani, their eldest daughter, manages business operations at Fante’s now. She doesn’t think her mother will ever retire, but hopes to continue the tradition as Mariella would in the half-mile stretch where her parents met, worked, and fell in love.
“I would love to see us grow and continue to be this vibrant retail store in the market," she said. "It’s such a gem of a place that really there’s nowhere in the world like it.”