One of the more delicious offerings at conjoined South Philadelphia eateries Francoluigi's Pizzeria and the High Note Cafe is owner Frank "Franco" Borda's operatic voice.
How fitting. What has played out on that corner of 13th and Tasker in the last 33 years for the restaurateur/real estate investor/amateur singer has all the makings of an opera.
There's been hope, dashed dreams, laughter, betrayal, perseverance, frustration, and love - of life, the community, and the business that Borda blames for making him bald.
The 54-year-old graduate of Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts is a tenor as well as a cook, prone to breaking into song in his dining rooms.
Or at least he used to be.
"I had to give up the opera," he said, referring to his own midmeal performances and those by servers. "Opera worked when people didn't do this."
He pulled out a smartphone, pretending to text and take pictures of plates of food and post them to Instagram. Diners have even complained about the live piano entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights, he said.
"This generation wants to come out . . . eat, talk, socialize," Borda said. "They don't want Franco to hit the high note."
They also don't want to pay for bar-served drinks, he complained. When he got a liquor license about seven years ago and shed his BYOB status, "I lost 90 percent of my clientele because they were used to bringing their own wine."
He wasn't finished venting. Up next was a condemnation of two-hour parking restrictions in the residential neighborhood where he's been doing business and has a home.
"My cook has to move his car every two hours," he fumed. "Do you know how many pies a week I burn because employees have to move their car?"
The answer: Five.
And yet Borda vows to be in the restaurant business "till I die." Not that he's keeping all his linguini in one pot. He has augmented food service with real estate investments, now serving as landlord on about a half-dozen properties. Those who pay their rent on time get a discount each month on a pizza at Francoluigi's.
Dubbed "the mayor of Francoville" by his friend since grade school, cheesesteak impresario/actor Tony Luke Jr., Borda had plans other than serving tasters and tenants.
"I was going to be the next Al Pacino," he said in an interview at High Note Cafe, just three blocks from his childhood home at 10th and Tasker, where his mother, Helen, still lives. (His father, Anthony, is deceased.)
The cooking bug outlasted the acting bug. By 15 or 16, Borda was working in the kitchen at Seafood Italiano at 11th and Tasker. Although he could have had a four-year culinary scholarship to Johnson & Wales University, he said, he went right into the restaurant business after high school, opening Borda's Pizza at Seventh and Federal Streets in 1981.
"This is why I didn't pursue opera: Metropolitan Opera guys didn't make money," he said. "I did in pizza."
In 1983, he and a partner, Louis Gentile, moved the business to the intersection where Francoluigi's and High Note Cafe are today.
One of the properties was a lamp shop. Borda used unconventional means to coax the owner to sell. "I knew the guy's weakness: His sister was a retired opera singer. I would go in and sing."
The partnership with Gentile ended about 10 years ago. Three years later, Borda acquired the liquor license that turned off many regulars. But the BYOB crowd had been making him pazzo, he insisted. Parties of two would linger 31/2 hours at a table, spending just $40.
Liquor license or BYOB, the place holds unrelenting appeal for George Polgar of Northern Liberties, a developer and marketing expert whose personal passion for Borda's food and dining atmosphere has led to Polgar's helping him to promote them.
"It's the whole scene that gets you," Polgar said of the generations that gather there.
"This is a place where you come for sausage and peppers, for the old-fashioned family recipes," he said, calling High Note Cafe "such a different thing" from the "gentrification of South Philly" in nearby East Passyunk.
Sam Katz first met Borda in 1999, when Katz was running for mayor. Borda was singing at a festival at Girard Estates.
"I called out to him, 'Sole Mio,' Katz recalled. "He fired back, 'Can you sing it?' I jumped on stage, and we sang it together."
Regular family dinners at the restaurant followed, during which Katz and Borda again collaborated in song.
City Councilman Mark Squilla, who represents the Passyunk Square/East Passyunk Crossing district where Borda's parkingagita persists, said a suggestion by the restaurateur is under review by the Parking Authority and "may be able to get some traction."
Borda has proposed letting employees of restaurants in residential areas purchase $300 yearly permits that allow them unlimited parking time during business hours.
"He doesn't only complain, he tries to come up with solutions," Squilla said. "I have to give him credit for that."
With a recession hitting about the same time High Note Cafe's transition from a BYOB occurred, the pizza side of the business saved the enterprise, said Borda, who has a home in Chalfont, Bucks County, and one on 13th Street across from his restaurants. He and his wife, Teresa, bought that property four years ago and renovated it with spectacular features, including Italian tile, heavy oak doors, and a stairway landing ideal for singing performances.
"If I had just had the restaurant, I probably would be out of business," he said.
While not revealing revenues, Borda said that pizza still accounts for most of his business but that High Note Cafe is experiencing a "peak" year, thanks to private parties and the faithful.
"For any film that I'm doing, any celebrity that comes from out of town, I take them here," said Luke, a regular at Table 12. From that location on the balcony, Luke has watched Borda sing and work the room.
"You come here just as much for his show . . . as you do the food," he said.
Borda might not belt out as many dining-room arias as he once did, but music will remain on the menu, he said. Amici Opera Co. is planned for Sept. 30.
"Food and music," Borda said, "is a marriage that will never separate."