April 3, 2012
South Philadelphia has long been the heart of the region’s vibrant Italian American community, dating all the way back to the 18th and 19th centuries.
One of the many rewards of a neighborhood steeped in such rich Italian heritage is the long tradition of amazing food that comes along with it.
And while Italian restaurants are popular in neighborhoods across the area, and Italian cuisine has certainly progressed a long way from the days of a simple plate of spaghetti and meatballs, there’s something to be said for the authenticity of the old-school, red gravy -style Italian restaurants of South Philadelphia.
We’re talking about the restaurants that have been around serving the same great dishes for decades, made from recipes that have been passed down over generations. Family-owned eateries that are Sinatra-approved and known for large portions. At these places, it’s as much about what’s on the table as it is about those sitting around it.
These establishments are the real deal. And you need to experience them.
So pick a Friday night. Grab a group of friends. Order a carafe of wine (or two). And get ready to enjoy an unforgettable, authentic dining experience that would be hard to find anywhere else.
Our top picks below. And as always, let us know your favorite old-school South Philly Italian restaurants in the comments.
• Villa Di Roma: Italian flavors thrive at legendary Italian Market restaurants like Villa Di Roma, where crowds pack the boisterous dining room for the Villa salad, Ziti Francis and fried asparagus served with a side of South Philly charm. Oh, yes, and the meatballs. Do not skip the meatballs — Villa di Roma has a winning 50-year-old formula with its pan-seared all-beef beauties that’s produced several awards including a recent win on the Food Network’s Food Feuds. And for dessert, they get their cannolis from Isgro’s.
• Ralph’s: At more than 100 years old, Ralph’s is one of the oldest Italian restaurants in the country, and the oldest continuously owned and operated by the same family — the Dispigno’s. Located at their current address on S. 9th Street since 1915, Ralph’s was once a destination for Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Tony Bennett. The red gravy recipe remains the same, five generations later. The things to order here are plentiful: ravioli, spaghetti, lasagna, manicotti, fettuccine, gnocchi, meatballs, eggplant Parmigiana and so much more. BYOB on Sunday or enjoy wine from the cellar.
• Dante & Luigi’s: Established in 1899, Dante & Luigi’s is another South Philadelphia Italian restaurant that is more than 100 years old. Even an attempted mob hit on Halloween night in 1989 couldn’t keep pasta-lovers from this Italian Market neighborhood staple. From spaghetti, linguini, gnocchi and ziti to rigatoni, tortellini, manicotti and ravioli, there’s a pasta dish just for you at Dante & Luigi’s. The signature special of pasta (choice of spaghetti, linguini, penne, rigatoni or capellini) with Italian gravy and meatballs is a wise place to start.
• Victor Cafe: When Sylvester Stallone was in town filming Rocky Balboa, this is where you’d find him — because Victor Cafe was actually the stand-in for the fictitious “Adrienne’s” restaurant in the movie. But Sly also loved the food, and being serenaded by the singing wait staff. First opened in 1933, Victor Cafe is the only restaurant in Philadelphia that continues the old world tradition of waiters and waitress performing operatic arias for diners each and every night. It’s totally unique and you’ll love it. To say nothing of the awesome menu of traditional Italian cuisine.
• Marra’s Cucina Italiana – While a new restaurant seemingly opens up every month on an increasingly hip and popular East Passyunk Avenue, Marra’s has been a South Philly mainstay located here for more than 80 years. Marra’s serves up Italian-American favorites like brick-oven pizzas and homemade pastas that are perfect for family style dining with a group. Buon appetito!
Check out the rest of our list, below.
• High Note Cafe: Just a few blocks from Victor Cafe is the High Note Cafe, another unique Italian restaurant in South Philadelphia that features live opera music while you dine. Frank Borda isn’t just the chef here, he’s the “Singing Chef” and he’s been doing it here for close to 20 years. On Fridays and Saturdays, the restaurant has pianists and singers perform, and on Wednesday’s there’s live jazz. And the menu of classic Italian fare, like jumbo crab ravioli, rigatoni Bolognese, and veal Parmigiano with linguine, will win you over as quickly as the entertainment does.
• Mr. Martino’s Trattoria: Another spot on East Passyunk Avenue is Mr. Martino’s, located in an unassuming storefront across the street from the bustling Cantina Los Caballittos. Mr. Martino’s is only open on weekends — Friday through Sunday — and the decor is stuck in time. So much so that a visit will feel like a visit to your Nonna’s — that is if your grandmother was an awesome Italian cook. For going on 20 years now, co-owner Maria Farnese has been the only one in the kitchen, doing all the cooking herself: soup, ravioli, seafood, pasta fagiole, sausage and polenta, and more. So don’t be surprised if the wait is a little longer than you’re used to — it’s worth it. (215) 755-0663
• The Saloon: While it may not be exclusively “red-gravy style” since it’s also a steakhouse, The Saloon is definitely old-school. Located on South 7th Street in Bella Vista, The Saloon has been doing what’s it’s been doing for four decades. The Italian steakhouse does seafood, steaks, veal and plenty of pasta: ravioli, rigatoni, gnocchi, fettuccine, linguine, spaghetti and more. And the atmosphere and decor are classic.