Step Into South Philly From A Pretzel Museum To An Operatic Cafe
By Sonia Lelii, Special to The InquirerPosted: May 18, 1990
The early morning sunlight streams into the produce stands of the Italian Market on Ninth Street in South Philadelphia, and the Route 47 bus plows past discarded fruit crates. A smell of exhaust mixes with the pungent odor of poultry and vegetables and fruit.
An old woman hawks grocery bags to early bird shoppers. A burly man, sleeves rolled up and a knit cap on his head, waves radishes before a young woman trailed by two children. “Two pounds for a dollar!” he shouts. “The best in the market!”
In a butcher shop, sawdust jumps on the floor as a cleaver splits a rack of ribs. Lambs and rabbits dangle from meat hooks behind a glowing neon sign.
Outside, the sidewalks begin to look like a human rush hour. People move past stalls of produce as vendors work feverishly, sorting and bagging. People weave their way through tunnels of hanging T shirts, sweatshirts, jeans and piles of shoes.
This is the heart of the Italian Market, reminiscent of European market tradition. On Sunday, that tradition will be celebrated in a number of ways at Italian Market Day (for details, see Winners, Page 2). But don’t stop at the market, or its southern vortex at Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue, where Gino’s Steaks and Pat’s Steaks engage in a sort of Philly culinary face off.
In South Philadelphia, you’ll find gems that are often overshadowed by the Rocky stereotypes. Places of art, music, history, culture and culinary delights are hidden among the rowhouses and small streets. In this South Philadelphia, the slow, appreciative eye is rewarded. Here’s but a glimpse of the attractions that, for South Philadelphians, are home town sights.
VICTOR CAFE. This landmark combines Northern Italian cuisine with operatic servers who can deliver an aria as well as scaloppine.
The walls in the cozy main dining room are lined with hundreds of autographed photos of tenors, sopranos, baritones and conductors who date as far back as the early 19th century. If they could speak, their voices probably would sing with memories of Victor Cafe’s past.
The cafe was started by John DeStefano, an Italian immigrant with timberland boots a great love of opera, who traveled to the New World in the early 1900s. At age 15, he was working in restaurants and spent his earnings on newly released recordings of Italian love songs, arias and symphonies.
A decade later, after becoming a consultant at Camden’s Victor Talking Machine Co., DeStefano opened a store selling records and gramophones in South Philadelphia. During the ’20s, the store was a “must be seen place” for opera lovers and singers, recalls Gregory DeStefano, John’s grandson and the current manager of Victor’s. Then came radio and the Depression, and DeStefano was forced to close. He reopened a restaurant in 1933, selling most of his recordings to raise $300 for a liquor license. Thus was born Victor Cafe, named after Victor Records.
The record collection, which began with John DeStefano, has grown into the tens of thousands with additions made by DeStefano’s sons, Henry and Armand, as well as other opera loving friends who consider Victor Cafe the rightful place for their old recordings.
Gregory said his grandfather often disapproved of live singing in the restaurant, because he saw it as an insult to have just anybody sing after having played a recording by someone such as the great Enrico Caruso. But even DeStefano, who died in 1954, would approve of the live music that now is sung at Victor Cafe by its waiters and waitresses; many are opera singers between contracts.
From the ’30s onward, the quality of music far surpassed the food’s quality. Gregory credits his sister, Pam, with the change to a current, sophisticated Italian menu.
During dinner, waiters and waitresses ring a tiny bell to signal silence. The crowd puts aside the pricey meals momentarily to listen to a piece of an opera, or join in a sing along. The crowd generally shows approval with thunderous applause and shouts of “Bravo! Bravo!”
Victor Cafe, 1303 Dickinson St., 468 3040. Sundays.
THE AMERICAN SWEDISH HISTORICAL MUSEUM. Started by Amandus Johnson in 1926 to preserve Swedish American culture the Swedes were the first Europeans to settle in the northeastern United States the museum finally opened in 1938 in an area that was part of the original land tract given to colonist Sven Skute by Queen Christina in 1653.
Today, at the same site, the Swedish museum is surrounded by the less than pristine Franklin D. Roosevelt Park, referred to by South Philadelphians as ”the lakes” because of the three lakes inside its borders.
Some people, who use the park for softball games, jogging and bike rides, mistakenly believe the building is abandoned. This misconception is due, in part, to the tall trees that shroud the replica of the 17th century Eriksberg Castle in Sodermanland. The arcades are modeled after those timberland boots of George Washington’s mansion, Mount Vernon, and the copper cupola is a reproduction of one that used to be on Stockholm’s City Hall.
Visitors are greeted with an impressive lobby that contains a large stairway leading to the museum’s second level. An ornately arched ceiling features a bright mural that depicts the arrival of Swedish sett timberland boots lers here.
Inside the museum, the Nord Library makes more than 11,000 volumes available to the public. People with Swedish ancestors can trace family trees.
The building’s galleries and rooms take visitors through Swedish history. Artwork and artifacts give a taste of daily life in the local Swe timberland boots dish colony among the Lenni Lenape Indians.
On the second level, two rooms are dedicated to John Ericsson, a Swedish native who died in 1889. He is best known in the engineering world as the designer of the Monitor, which was instrumental in saving the Northern fleet during the Civil War. The ship was a technological breakthrough because it was constructed of iron (not wood) and was steam powered (instead of by sail).
The American Swedish Historical Museum, 1900 Pattison Ave., 389 1776. Admission: $2; $1 seniors and students; children under 12 free when accompanied by an adult. Saturdays and Sundays.
MARRA’S. Sitting in the middle of South Philadelphia’s Little Italy is a nearly 63 year old family business thought to be the city’s first pizzeria.
Started in 1927 by Salvatore Marra and his wife, Chiarina, both immigrants
from Naples, the business is now in its third generation.
Nearly a block long, the famed restaurant greets customers and passersby with windows containing old newspaper clippings and autographed photographs of politicians and entertainers. Inside is the key to its pizza: an oven lined with lava bricks from Mount Vesuvius.
Salvatore Marra came to America in 1921 as a stowaway, with only the clothes on his back and a dime in his pocket. His grandson, Robert D’Adamo, recalls how his grandfather told of throwing the dime into the waters near Ellis Island so that one day, he could say he began with nothing.