By Hope Gibbs
Be Inkandescent magazine
Having grown up in Philadelphia with parents who loved to eat out, I have had the privilege of dining in some of the best restaurants in town. When my sister became a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef—and worked at a few four-star establishments before opening her own place— Avenida, in Mt. Airy—we got to taste even more fabulous fare.
So the last time I was in town, I asked my mom to make a reservation at her favorite Italian restaurant, Ralph’s—a spot where her parents used to take her and my aunt for Sunday dinner when they were little girls.
One step inside the three-story building, and it’s as if you are back in the 1950s.
We are immediately greeted by a kindly maitre-de/waiter named Barry, who directed us to one of 16 tables on the first floor—a dining area accented by clean white tiles on the walls and floor. As we paused to admire the framed photos from days gone by, it was clear that the place hasn’t changed in decades.
This came as a happy surprise to my mom, who said, “I love when the special memories you have in your mind still exist in the modern world.”
Since it was 3 p.m, we pretty much had the place to ourselves—except for Jeannie, a woman who tells us she’s a therapist in downtown Philly and comes here whenever she needs a break from her practice and patients.
“When I need a mental health break, this is where I come,” she admitted.
When we ask what she’s having, Jeannie gleefully told us about the lunch choices she and her companion were sharing: a heaping helping of eggplant parmigiana ($8.95), a large plate of roasted peppers with fresh mozzarella ($7.25), and a towering Mediterranean salad with shrimp, crabmeat, tomatoes, and black olives, served on a bed of mixed spring greens with balsamic vinegar and olive oil ($14). “And a carafe of Chianti, of course,” she noted, lifting her glass.
Although we opted for glasses of chardonnay, the Mediterranean salad sounded wonderful to my mom and me. Along with the basket of fresh bread and butter, it was the perfect portion for two, and we ate it greedily as Barry sat with us to talk about the history of Ralph’s—where he’s been happily employed for the last 23 years.
“There’s rarely a dull moment,” he insisted, noting that in addition to the thousands of loyal regulars who helped Ralph’s garner dozens of “Best Of” awards, Barry has had a ball serving celebs such as TV host Greta Van Susteren, actress Ann Jillian, and country music star Trace Adkins.
In fact, Ralph’s is known for feeding famous folks over the decades—including actor James Darren, a South Philadelphian himself.
“There are certain things I remember from my childhood that stand out as very special,” Darren writes in the preface to the restaurant’s cookbook, Ralph’s Italian Restaurant: 100 Years and 100 Recipes. “Most of them are the places I would go with my father … including Ralph’s. My dad and I had the greatest food there, and believe me, my dad was very particular about food. But Ralph’s wasn’t only about food. It was a place where old friends meet, and where you can make new friends. The feeling was very much like a large family get-together, where everyone enjoys each others’ company, and the food is very special. I’ve never been to another restaurant like Ralph’s.”
Frank Sinatra also came in to drink martini’s in the service bar. Dom DeLuise loved Ralph’s calamari. Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Jimmy Durante, and Sammy Davis, Jr., also made sure to stop by Ralph’s when they were in town.
But perhaps the most distinguished patron to dine at the 9th Street restaurant was Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1900 ate at Ralph’s when he was in Philadelphia as a delegate to the Republican National Convention.
That was just months after Francesco and Catherine Dispigno had opened what is now the oldest Italian restaurant in town. Named for their son, they began cooking authentic Italian fare not long after they emigrated from Naples in 1893. Back then, the building was a three-story rooming house, and the top floor remained a place where the family would house family and friends when they came over from Italy.
Today, the restaurant is owned and operated by Jimmy Rubino, the fourth generation of the Dispigno family, who is keeping the legacy alive.
Here’s what we thought:
1. The atmosphere: Warm and inviting. This is a great spot for an intimate meal with a loved one, or dinner with the entire family.
2. The food: Tasty. The portions are big, the prep style is traditional Italian. Go for one of the house recommendations: Veal Rollatine ($22), Veal and Artichoke Hearts ($22), Veal Capricciosa ($22) or the Chicken Sorrento ($17.50).
3. The booze: The wine cellar at Ralph’s is filled with cases of classical Italian wines, as well as reds and whites from around the world. If you are a wine connoisseur, do ask to see the list of “grandmom and grandpa’s private stash,” which includes some impressive vintages.
4. The service: Charming. Like the best wines in the place, all of the waiters are vintage Italian. And they are as happy to spend time with your table as they are to share their suggestions of the best dishes, and their tales of Ralph’s rich history.
5. The extras: If you sit at one of the downstairs tables, do ask for a tour of the top two floors. These spaces are also good options for large or private parties.
6. The price: Not bad. A pasta dish, soft drink, and tip at lunchtime will run you less than $15. Estimate about $30 per person for dinner, but you’ll likely leave with a very full belly and a box of leftovers.
7. The bottom line: If you are in Philadelphia for business or pleasure, a trip to Ralph’s is sure to give you a taste of what has made the city great: a dash of South Philly hospitality, a splash of the past, and a heaping helping of savory Italian home cooking.
Inkandescent rating: Four candles out of 4.
Click here to check out Ralph’s cookbook: 100 Years and 100 Recipes.
For more information:
Address: 760 S. 9th St., Philadelphia PA 19147
Hours: Fri-Sat., 11:45 a.m. to 10:45 p.m.
Sun.-Thurs., 11:45 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.
Phone: 215 627-6011