JUST ABOUT every Saturday morning, Emilio Mignucci gets up early and drives from his house in Havertown (where he moved when he had kids) to 9th Street to open the original Di Bruno’s store for its busiest day of the week. After pulling the various cheeses out of the ancient refrigerated walk-in, stacking the pepperoni, he’ll unlock the doors at 8 a.m. and work behind the counter in a black polo shirt monogrammed with the Di Bruno’s logo, jostling for space with whichever of the 12 employees are on that day, bantering with customers, offering samples — trying to keep the spirit of Danny and Joe Di Bruno alive.
It is late morning on a recent frigid, snowbound Saturday when Emilio slips a plaid tam over his closely cropped pate, dons a bright red yacht-racing-team jacket he’d purchased in Spain, and heads out onto 9th Street. On the sidewalk, he surveys an Italian Market that is both little changed and radically transformed from the place where Danny and Joe struck a beachhead in 1939.
To leave Di Bruno’s Chestnut Street store, or, more fittingly, their sleek, white-tiled shop in the high-tech and über-green Comcast Center — the oh-so-of-the-moment symbol of Philadelphia’s potential as a spiffy, modern city — and travel the two miles to the original store on 9th Street is like entering a time warp. Down here in the Italian Market, it might as well still be the dingy and depressed mid-’70s, when Sylvester Stallone ran down the street as Rocky, past the stacked produce and the street vendors, who, then as now, are warmed by the smoky, gritty heat of a flaming 50-gallon drum, burning bright amidst heaps of trash. Here, Frank Rizzo still presides, symbolically at least, confidently glaring from a three-story mural that covers the side of a building. This everyday eccentricity and unashamed shabbiness, this soles-of-the-shoes authenticity, helps make the market one of the few places in the city that is both ogled by tourists and patronized by locals.
The painted Rizzo looks south, over the canopies covering sidewalks squeezed with merchandise — tomatoes to toothbrushes — across the tattered awnings that protect the open-air stands, off toward Washington Avenue, where an empty lot about the size of a city block has been purchased by a New York developer. The project evokes the promise of a Big Apple-quality revitalization to some, and the specter of a yuppie and chain-store invasion to others. In that part of 9th Street, if you had a Rizzo’s-eye view, you could see the bodegas and taquerias that have filled up most of the storefronts north of the cheesesteak mecca that is the corner of Pat’s and Geno’s. It is this Spanish-speaking strip that prompts cab drivers to correct your destination request: You mean the Mexican Market; it ain’t the Italian Market anymore. A few decades ago, it would’ve been a crack about the Asians taking over.