Old School Spotlight: Italian Market Edition
When you’re done reading this Italian Market edition of our Old School Spotlight, please show your support for these venerable businesses. They need your support now more than ever! Use these links and help keep them around for the next 50 or so years:
- Ralph’s Italian Restaurant – order delivery via Caviar.
- Esposito’s – reopens April 27, check here for details.
- DiBruno Bros. – give them a call for curbside pick up & delivery.
The Italian Market today is far more cosmopolitan than it was back in 1900. Yet even with the arrival of merchants and vendors from Mexico, East and Southeast Asia, and even France, the Italian immigrant families who established its first stores and restaurants remain the heart and soul of the nation’s oldest outdoor food market.
Here are the stories of some of those well-known market pioneers.
Ralph’s Italian Restaurant
Ralph’s was not the first restaurant to open in the Italian Market, but it is the oldest continuously operating Italian restaurant in the country that’s still owned by the family who founded it. Ever since Francesco Dispigno opened the restaurant he named for his son in 1900, Ralph’s has had the best legend of any Italian restaurant still in business in Philly. And it has the worldwide reputation to go with it: star chef Marcus Samuelsson stopped by Ralph’s for the episode of his PBS series “No Passport Required” celebrating Philadelphia’s ethnic restaurants.
Ralph’s stands out for having remained a family business for 120 years. Ralph — whose parents Anglicized his first name, Raphael, after arriving in America — took over the restaurant and boarding house at Ninth and Catherine from his father after his death in the early 1930s. The boarding house ceased operations decades ago, but the restaurant continues to thrive in the hands of Ralph’s grandchildren. Jimmy Rubino Jr. and Eddie Rubino are the fourth generation of Dispigno descendants to own and operate this South Philly landmark, operating from its current address since 1915.
Like Ralph’s, A. Esposito Inc. is a fourth-generation family business and an Italian Market landmark, housed at 1001 South 9th Street since Attilio Esposito opened his butcher shop there in 1911.
Over the years since, Attilio’s descendants have built on the foundation he established. His son Louis expanded the shop’s offerings to include lamb, pork and poultry as well as beef, and Louis’ sons Lee and Louis Jr. expanded the store to offer wholesale meats to restaurants and institutions. As the city’s “restaurant renaissance” took hold in the 1970s, the third-generation owners also took the retail product mix upmarket, offering customers custom cuts, seafood, game and gourmet specialty items as well.
The two grandsons steered the store through a 2002 arson fire that nearly put it out of business, getting it back in operation in six months with the help of loyal customers and supporters. Their children are now taking over the reins at this Ninth Street fixture known for high quality foods at reasonable prices.
This family business is the new kid on the block, so to speak: Danny and Joe Di Bruno didn’t arrive in America until 1939, making their way from Ellis Island to Philadelphia. There, they established a small grocery store in the 900 block of South 9th Street. Their friendly attitude— “We didn’t have much money, but a smile doesn’t cost you anything!” Danny would say—won the store a steady customer base.
“We didn’t have much money, but a smile doesn’t cost you anything!”
By the mid-1960s, however, the brothers realized that the growing supermarket chains would eat into their business. A trip to Switzerland in 1964 introduced Danny to the world of fine European cheeses, and the following year, the grocery store became “The House of Cheese.”
The small 700-square-foot store on Ninth Street became a Mecca for cheese lovers all over the city and turned the DiBrunos into minor celebrities. The store was, and still is, bursting at the seams with cheeses, cured meats and other delicacies from Europe and elsewhere.
In 1990, the DiBrunos turned the business over to three of their cousins, Bill Mignucci, his son Billy Jr., and his brother Emilio. Armed with both a knowledge of good food and college degrees, the trio took the small store to the next level and beyond, opening a huge new market just off Rittenhouse Square that put the firm on the gourmet food lovers’ map.
DiBruno Bros. today is known as one of the best specialty food retailers in the country, with five locations in Philadelphia and its suburbs. But the Ninth Street original retains the intimacy and charm it has had since 1939.