IT’S THE FOURTH quarter at sun-washed Lincoln Financial Field, and for a moment — just one — Pete Ciarrocchi doesn’t care that his Eagles have blown a huge lead over the Washington Redskins. It’s not the balmy weather on this October Sunday that’s lifting his spirits, or that he’s here with his three boys and his wife, who roll their eyes and laugh as he curls a game program into a megaphone and bangs on his chair in a futile attempt to will his team to win. What’s making him smile now are the two things that occupy a place just below family and football on his priority list in life — crab fries, and making a scene.
Pete opens the back door to one of the five Chickie’s & Pete’s stands at the Linc and sizes up his employees. “Look at their faces,” the giddy 51-year-old whispers. “They look straight down. They’re mortified.” Then it’s showtime, as Pete circles the fryers and does his best Jerry Blavat impression at top volume: “Chickie’s and Pete’s! Chickie’s and Pete’s! Look at all the beautiful girls, sellin’ those crab fries! Look at all the handsome guys, cookin’ up those chicken fingers! Crab fries! Get your crab fries! I’ve got three kids to send to college! Graduate school is expensive these days!”
Customers in two long lines chuckle, and as predicted, his staff seems to be thinking, in unison, “Please, God, make him shut up.” But if he did shut up, then Pete — who usually introduces himself as “Pete from Chickie’s & Pete’s,” as if the restaurant says more about him than his last name, which it does — wouldn’t be Pete. And Chickie’s & Pete’s wouldn’t have evolved from a family-owned gem of a corner bar in Mayfair to the city’s best-known sports bar, a place where fans in oversized jerseys and power brokers in rolled-up shirtsleeves rub up against the players they idolize.
Not even Pete’s own father would have predicted the kind of success his son is enjoying today: five stand-alone restaurants, plus three at the airport and one on the way at the Philadelphia Park casino. Around 6,000 buckets of crab fries sold at every Eagles home game, and 1,500 at every Phillies game. A house in Bensalem, and another in Longport. Buddies with everyone from the Governor to Andy Reid, the Geator to Bon Jovi. And to top it all off, he married a babe — a friggin’ Eagles cheerleader.
What’s really made Chickie’s & Pete’s a success story isn’t just sports; it’s both the menu Pete’s honed over decades and, more importantly, Pete himself. As with conjoined twins, separating the man from his restaurant could mean neither would survive. Pete’s the guy, after all, who used to ride to the Vet every Sunday in the same green Eagles tailgating bus that his wife — in her cheerleading skirt — was immortalized on. He’s the ham who made an appearance in the Mummers documentary Strut! and the guy who skipped out on a black-tie dinner honoring his Pennsylvania Restaurateur Award for an Eagles-Cowboys game (but who sent a thank-you video including a few words from Andy Reid).
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.”
In 1977, Pete Sr. bought Wally’s, the bar down the street from his deli, and made just three changes — he added stools to the standing-only bar, he lifted the “men only” rule, and he named the bar after himself and his wife, Henrietta, whom everyone called Chickie. His brother George would run the place, along with Pete Sr.’s oldest son Pete, who had taken a cooking class at Northeast High because it sounded easy. (It turned out to be a twice-a-day, double-period French culinary monster.)
So there’s Pete the next year, in the dead of the winter, with no crabs to sell, a bunch of leftover seafood seasoning, and a couple guys he was bribing with free beer just to keep him company after midnight. Those late-night regulars became a focus group for his kitchen experiments, most of which were disasters, save for one — seasoned french fries. Twenty-one-year-old Pete trademarked — and later patented — his creation, but his old man wasn’t sold. “Look at Big Shot over there,” Pete Sr. would say of his son. “He’s reinventing the french fry.”
When Pete’s father died in 1987, it was Chickie who encouraged Pete to run with his fries and whatever else he wanted to try. The heart of the Ciarrocchi family was the kitchen, and that’s where Chickie would hold court. She lived the role of the traditional Italian mother, and when she died, Pete, then 31, and his 21-year-old brother, Tom, felt like their world had collapsed on them. Both were still living at home, and suddenly, no one was there to leave a plate of macaronis for Pete when he’d come home from the bar at 4 a.m. Then after work one night, Pete found leftover pasta in the kitchen, covered with Chickie’s red sauce, and immediately woke up his brother.
“I can’t believe you found Mommy’s gravy in the freezer!”
“I made it,” Tom replied, half asleep.
“Get out of here!”
“No, you didn’t,” Pete said. “That’s not funny.”
“Then don’t eat my food!”
Some colorful language and a near-fistfight followed, but Pete still wasn’t convinced. Chickie didn’t leave behind a single recipe. How had his kid brother, who had never cooked a thing in his life, made Mom’s gravy? A few days later, Pete found eggplant parmigiana waiting for him, just the way Chickie made it. Again, he roused his brother from slumber.
“You make this eggplant parm?”
“You’re cooking at the bar tomorrow. Be there at 4 p.m.”
In what could have been dark, hopeless days, Pete Ciarrocchi found opportunity. He had his chef, and nothing holding him back. Pete was ready to prove his old man wrong and see what he could do with those crab fries of his.
AS OMNIPRESENT AS the Chickie’s & Pete’s brand has become among both sports fans and the athletes they worship, Pete never planned to create the ultimate Philly sports bar. Until 1998, he still had just one location, the old family bar in Mayfair. That year, the concessions managers at the Vet decided it was time to improve the stadium’s dismal food choices, and reached out to a few local businesses. After sampling the cuisine at Chickie’s & Pete’s, they made Pete an offer to open a stand behind section 248 in left field. Pete wasn’t convinced he could limit his menu to just a few items, though. Seafood and sports? Didn’t seem like a natural fit. It took a $10,000 cash signing bonus to get Pete on board, which meant, in Pete’s world, he had to go overboard. “Pete would work the crowd,” says Aramark regional director Brian Hastings, who’s credited with closing the deal. “He used to say, ‘You’re not just getting crab fries. You’re getting Pete Ciarrocchi.’ He became the mayor of Vet Stadium.”
That same year, the Eagles hired a new head coach, Andy Reid, and as he and his staff pulled all-nighters at their offices deep inside the Vet, Pete would feed them. When Reid’s new draft picks were holed up at the Airport Marriott during contract negotiations, Pete would fetch them in his “taxi crab” van, so before they knew their jersey numbers, young Eagles knew Chickie’s & Pete’s. Pete even hosted Reid’s press conferences, knowing there are two things reporters love — good quotes and free food. That led to WIP hosts like Angelo Cataldi name-dropping his restaurant, and eventually, after years of free publicity, Pete started advertising on the station and hosting sports-talk radio shows.
By the time the Vet was leveled, Chickie’s & Pete’s was on its way to becoming a sports icon, as if the old joint was passing a torch of cultural significance directly to Pete, its mayor. He’d rolled the dice again, taking over a desolate space on the Boulevard to open his second restaurant, and once more in 2003, when he dumped $2.2 million into the 24,000-square-foot abandoned supermarket on Packer Avenue. “It scared the shit out of me,” Pete says. “I was all in.”
The Packer location became an instant hit, a place where fans could watch their teams on one of 38 televisions, and players could retreat for a post-game lobster pizza, and, of course, those fries — thin, with ridges cut to three-eighths of an inch, extra-deep to hold more seasoning, plus a secret cheese sauce made of cream cheese and three others Pete won’t reveal. (Says Pete, when pressed, “You could slip me a mickey and I wouldn’t tell you that!”)
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.
Up in his perch, high above the guys swigging from three-foot beer towers and gals digging into plates overloaded with crustaceans, Pete scrutinizes the DJ’s iPod and makes a few changes. The Phillies haven’t started their championship campaign yet, and the Birds are down. This place needs a lift, and he’s gonna give it to ’em. KC & the Sunshine Band comes on, and as Pete grooves to the music and surveys the scene he’s created below, he smiles. It’s like Pete says: “I love my job. I love being Pete. It’s like Cher. Madonna. Pete!”