What Ever Happened to the South Philly Mob?

It’s been at least six years since anyone has been killed by the Philadelphia Mafia. Is it the passing of a way of life, or an eerie calm before an ­approaching storm? Our writer takes to the streets of South Philly — and sips wine with the current Godfather — to find out

The bar’s logo remains as Frank Sr. designed it: a pair of black bombs stacked one on top of the other, fuses lit. But here, more than anywhere, the present is performing a complicated dance with the past. Regular afternoon customers from the neighborhood purse their lips in distaste when I come in and start taking notes from the articles hanging on the wall, and when Frank Sr. begins telling me stories about the mobsters who once dined here, his son and daughter-in-law make sure I understand that these are old stories. The junior Barbato and his wife have long since made the place their own, even traveling to Virginia to learn barbecue techniques; the results win local cooking awards. But traditional Italian dishes like veal parmesan still comprise half of Bomb Bomb’s food sales, largely because Michael Corleone was never seen on-screen eating a plate of barbecued ribs.

I spend a few hours knocking on doors in the neighborhood, and when I bring up the area’s mobbed-up reputation, residents react with a kind of weary shrug and some derisive humor. “I’ve lived here for 60 years,” one old woman tells me, “and there used to be all kinds of bookies running around.”

She smiles mischievously, leans outside, and looks up and down an empty Wolf Street. “I don’t know,” she says, smiling. “You see any bookmakers out there today?” 

She has a point. The odds of seeing a real live goodfella favor the house. Just do the math: As of the 2000 census, 162,683 people lived in South Philadelphia, putting the average civilian’s chances of running across one of this city’s 20 made mobsters (and not all of them are in South Philly) at 8,134 to one. For mob aficionados, a trip here is only marginally different from a trip to the Betsy Ross House. They can soak up the history, but the chances of seeing anything mob-related are about the same as running across an 18th-century seamstress sewing an American flag.

There’s still a nagging sense that South Philadelphia stands apart from the rest of the city. The locals say it’s not an ethnic thing, but a matter of geography and architecture. With all those rowhomes side by side, neighbors are bound to overhear intimate moments and heated arguments. The custom they follow is to pretend they never heard anything at all. In South Philly, they call it minding your own business. And while that might be an environment in which a secret society can form and grow, a neighborhood built on respect for privacy doesn’t necessarily beget a criminal organization.

The people here have nothing to do with the mob, except that the mob has happened, for the better part of a century now, all around them, and people like me sometimes come stumbling into their neighborhoods, looking for goodfellas. What I found on this months-long trip is that the most exciting stories of explosions and bloodshed are just that — stories hanging around from the past, the stuff of lectures, fit for busloads of tourists. At least for now.