As any true Philadelphia cynic would say about the bee-you-tee-ful success of Pete Ciarrocchi, the fix must be in, right? It’s true he has friends from City Hall to Harrisburg, but Pete says old-school back-room politics isn’t his bag: “A handshake and a smile go a long way. I never had to ask for anything, because I never had anyone against me.” And all of Pete’s connections didn’t help him with the casino deal he signed on for with buddy Pat Croce and Donald Trump. (Their plan for the Budd Co. site in Nicetown was shot down by the state gaming board.) Quid pro quo in Pete’s world works more like it did back in Mayfair than in the Mayor’s office: Sit down, have some mussels, and come back anytime — just bring a friend or two. So when Jon Bon Jovi — a buddy of Pete’s through the arena football team the Soul — made his first appearance on Oprah, he took her camera crew to Packer Avenue. “This is the place where I come whenever I’m in town,” Bon Jovi told an audience of roughly eight million, before throwing his arm around the crab-fry king.
“I had no idea what would be on the show,” says Pete, who watched it from home. “I saw that, and my nipples went like this — BANG!” he says, flicking his fingers in the air.
Even then, Pete still saw his restaurant as a seafood joint with sports, not a sports bar — a phrase he says is redundant: “Every bar is a sports bar! Every corner bar has a TV!” It wasn’t until ESPN named Chickie’s & Pete’s the third best sports bar in America that Pete stopped fighting the label. “I could never have figured this out,” Pete says, marveling at how far he’s come since he spiced up his first french fry three decades ago. “When I’m dead and gone, people will still be eating crab fries. That’s why I make sure they know I made them! If my father had a clue on this earth about what this would become … He never told me I did anything right! That’s why I’m the businessman I am today. And maybe that was his plan.”
THE NIGHT AFTER another Eagles loss, this time to Chicago, Andy Reid arrives at the restaurant for his weekly radio show. Sports studs are everywhere — ex-Eagles Ike Reese and Hugh Douglas, play-by-play icon Merrill Reese and Phillies reliever J.C. Romero. That Pete doesn’t get lost among all the high-wattage celebrities is testimony to his own hometown-star power.
If there’s a threat to Pete’s success, it comes from the fact that there’s only so much of him to go around. Every time he expands, that means a little less Pete in Chickie’s & Pete’s, and with a top-secret restaurant concept in the works, he’ll soon be spreading himself even thinner. For now, at least, the empire is small enough for Pete to handle and still make it to his kids’ football games and home for the occasional dinner.