Back in his seat, 10 rows from the field on the 40-yard-line, Pete holds court, as he does everywhere he goes. The guy behind him is an elementary-school classmate. The guy two rows in front is a neighbor at the Shore. “Who’s my best friend?” Pete ponders. “I don’t know. Everybody’s my friend. I accumulate people.” The Eagles defense gives up a first down, and Pete shares his secret for staying upbeat during an ugly game: “When we’re losing, I look at the rows and count the crab-fries buckets!”
Surrounded by family, friends and football, Pete from Chickie’s & Pete’s tallies crab fries and never shuts up. Like he says when he samples a fry that’s been seasoned just right, “This is bee-you-tee-ful!”
BEFORE THE EAGLES game, as he does before every home game and during most away games, Pete buzzes through Chickie’s & Pete’s on Packer Avenue, shaking hands, inspecting food and playing host. The enormous space once housed a Super Fresh; today, it evokes memories of a typical neighborhood watering hole, just on a scale more suited to Pete’s personality, meaning huge, loud, and constantly in motion.
Pete knows that to lure a sports fan away from the 60-inch high-definition plasma in the basement on game day, his restaurants need to be shows unto themselves. Comcast SportsNet shoots its Eagles postmortem, Monday Night Live, right smack in the middle of the hardwood dining floor at the Packer Avenue location, where VIPs like Ryan Howard attack their hard-shell crabs in the open and mingle with FOPs (Friends of Pete) like Gino Barbera, of the Barbera car-dealership clan. In a city that demands authenticity, Chickie’s & Pete’s feels more like a neighborhood nook than an ESPN Zone or a Fox & Hound, and the show you’ll see here — meaning the raucous scene and the owner himself — has made Pete’s place as synonymous with Philly sports as 610 WIP.
The restaurant pulsates with music and conversation, and the beat that drives it is Pete, who hops from one location to the next on most weeknights, always looking for ways to fine-tune the Chickie’s & Pete’s experience. With black Ray-Bans perched on his head, a handsome chiseled jaw, and a deep tan from weekends at the Shore, Pete gives off a movie-star vibe. But before cameras roll for Monday Night Live, he tells a SportsNet producer that the show’s Hollywood lighting rigs need to be turned down: “It’s so bright in here, you could grow marijuana plants!”
Everybody knew someone in high school like Pete, who could give you a good-natured shot to the ribs and talk just about anybody into doing just about anything. He was the guy who would slide effortlessly between the jocks and the burnouts and the thugs, and even his enemies would eventually become friends. His charms didn’t play as well at home, where Pete’s dad was every bit the old-school Italian. Pete Sr. ran Cold Cut City, about three miles from their house at Cottman and Castor, and what mattered to him was hard work. But Pete’s father had a knack for marketing and a certain charisma of his own — intentionally misspelling “Italian sasage” on signs in the window, or hanging a placard upside-down, just so people would come in to tell him about it, and then hopefully end up buying something. “Two-liter sodas, 99 cents,” he’d tell a customer. “Or two for $1.98.” Sometimes they’d fall for it, or just laugh and say, “Pete, you got me.”