Staring out the window of his cheese shop one slow afternoon, Philip Mancuso declares himself "the last of the Mohicans."
After almost 70 years on Passyunk Avenue near Mifflin Street, the store's competition is long gone, along with many of the old-timers who craved Lucio Mancuso & Son's handmade cheese.
Nowadays, hardly anyone makes homemade anything, Mancuso says plainly, more observation than criticism. Dinner, he says, comes frozen or ready-made.
Then, there's the flat economy. But Mancuso, 73, holds on, a signpost for the new generation of enterprising mom-and-pops setting up shop.
"Gimme a twist of mozzarella!" customer Pete Jacovini shouts, tracking in slush.
The well-fed Jacovini also orders a half-pound of hot cappacuolo and a loaf of Italian bread for the bottle of red wine awaiting him at his South Jersey home.
Jacovini, 72, who grew up in the neighborhood and runs a nearby funeral home, has shopped at Mancuso's for 40 years.
"Phil has the best stuff," he says, "the best bread, the best cheese, and the best advice."
Mancuso shrugs, saying, "I can't say I'm a nice guy. Folks have to tell me."
On the avenue, one of the city's oldest shopping corridors, Mancuso - married, with three sons - has witnessed waves of revitalization, watching businesses come and go.
In the last year, 19 businesses have opened on the avenue between Ninth and Broad Streets. Drawn by cheap rents and cooperative landlords, the new owners have created an eclectic patchwork of bistros, galleries, and boutiques, joining fixtures such as Di Cocco Family's St. Jude Shop, where girls for 20 years have bought communion dresses, and Mancuso's, where mothers once lined up outside to buy handmade ricotta for Sunday dinner.
Such a mix, "it's what keeps the avenue authentic," says Adam Erace, 25, co-owner of Green Aisle Grocery, which opened three months ago up the street from Mancuso's, where Erace remembers shopping with his mother. True to the avenue's roots, Erace's neighbor, a seamstress who owns his building, often brings him homemade Italian dishes for lunch.
"It's a great balance," Erace says, "and I hope it stays that way."
South Philly native Erace, a food critic, and his brother Andrew, who works in real estate, opened the grocery with their savings, selling local produce and food crafted by small producers.
Their customers are mostly transplants, Erace has noticed, natives of Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and as far away as Turkey.
Erace, who "did the South Philly thing" and stayed in the neighborhood surrounded by his relatives, says that in its first year, the little grocery will turn a profit.
"They maintain the tradition," Mancuso says of the avenue's newest crop of business owners. "I'm running a business. They're running a business. We're all trying to make a living."
Across the street from Mancuso's, Rocco Cima, 25, who graduated from St. John Neumann High School with Erace and is a DJ for radio station Q102, four months ago opened the restaurant Fuel.
Inside the red-and-black, 24-seat, Wifi-ed BYOB, Cima serves salads, sandwiches, wraps, and desserts - all under 500 calories. The Restaurant School grad even makes his own mozzarella.
Cima says the costs to renovate the former men's clothing store, long shuttered, were minimal. He put in $30,000 for the kitchen. Then, paying $1,000 a month in rent, he waited to see if healthy would fly in a neighborhood famous for its pizza, and cheesesteaks with Whiz.
"We've been so busy, it's overwhelming," says Cima.
The fledging restaurateur is already looking to expand, he says, to Center City or University City.
He credits the boom to attitude.
Two of his regulars, a couple from Phoenixville, used to do "pizza Fridays" at home, Cima says. Now they come to Fuel.
"I think people are sick of hearing how bad the economy is. . . . People want to get out and enjoy their lives."
Most of the new businesses are run by first-timers, says Renee Gilinger, main street manager of the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District. Gilinger says the first question she asks wannabe entrepreneurs is: Do you have cash, or someone who will give you cash?
"For new business owners, you're not going to get a loan," says Gilinger. "Lending is really slow right now."
However, rents on the avenue are relatively low, says Gilinger. And after paying first and last month's rents, "in most cases, people just had to throw up some paint and get a display case."
While new businesses are trading in organic walnuts, low-calorie food, and yoga classes, Mancuso's stays the course, selling mainly one thing - cheese.
In the cramped shop, boxes of mezzi, rigatoni, spaghetti, fedelini, and linguine fill rows of shelves, along with cans of peeled tomatoes and tomato puree. Buckets of olives and artichoke hearts sit on the counter. Balls of cheese hang near a poster of Frank Sinatra.
Mancuso, dressed in a knit cap, a big gray sweatshirt, and black corduroys, resembles a weathered dock worker. But there is gentleness in his dull hazel eyes, his deliberate way of speaking, and his broken smile. And behind the counter, on the shelf between the bottles of vinegar and cans of olive oil, is a framed 5-by-7 of Enrico Caruso, "the greatest tenor who ever lived," Mancuso declares.
As a teen, Mancuso sang in the subway, took voice lessons, and later recorded a few arias. "But you have to be real. You can't be making cheese full time and think you're going to be a singer."
Instead, he sings on Fridays a few blocks away at Franco's High Note Cafe, usually the classic "Occhi di Fata." And sometimes, from behind his counter, he'll tell the story of one of his favorites, La Boheme.
His father, Lucio, born in Calabria, opened the shop in the fall of 1940, when Mancuso was 4.
An only child, Mancuso would play with the cans of peeled tomatoes like building blocks and watch his father baby-sit a 100-gallon vat on the stove in the basement, where Mancuso sometimes stays.
After high school, Mancuso worked with his father full-time, during the "the golden era" of the '50s and '60s, when, he says, people crowded the avenue, even on weekdays.
Mancuso's then made two vats of ricotta a day. Now it might be two a week.
For the most part, Mancuso's customers are "leftovers of the old families."
Like him. Like his customer, Jacovini. And he has no plans of leaving, even though Jacovini recently brought him an offer - his nephew wanted to buy the store.
Mancuso looked him in the eye and said, "I'm going to die here."
"He'll definitely die there," says Jacovini. "He's not going to go anywhere."
After Mancuso wraps Jacovini's twist of mozzarella and cured ham in white paper, he rings him up ($21.32) on the old cash register.
In comes another regular, wanting provolone to go with his roast beef cooking at home. He's followed by a young man wearing glasses, a new face.
He's looking for pepperoni, which he bought there a while ago, and loved. At least, he thinks it was pepperoni.
When Mancuso shows him a pepperoni, the young man shakes his head.
"It was tapered on the end," he tells Mancuso. "The casing had white on it."
Mancuso holds up a roll of salami.
"That's the stuff," the young man says, grinning. As Mancuso wraps it up, he grins back.