ABRUPTLY, THE REPUTED Godfather of the Philadelphia mob snatches the glass of wine from my hand, a disgusted expression on his face.
Joe Ligambi is a compact little man, five-foot-seven and lean, with thin graying hair combed back over his head, a long, hawkish nose, and small eyes with little white showing, like the eyes of a bird. He wears a black short-sleeved dress shirt, the top couple of buttons undone so some graying chest hair spills out over the top. He wears charcoal gray slacks and simple black dress shoes — a middle-class, older Italian man, out for an evening’s entertainment.
We’ve agreed to meet here at Spasso, on South Front Street, and I’ve agreed to keep the conversation light — family, sports, nothing sensitive about his past or future, nothing about him being the reputed head of the Philadelphia mob or the rumored federal indictment with his name on it. Our time together will not in any respect be a traditional interview. The 69-year-old Ligambi never does interviews. This encounter at Spasso is just a chance to shake his hand and say hello, to be in his presence and write about whatever happens in this informal setting. I’ve been under the impression our meeting might last no more than a few seconds, so when I walk into the Old City eatery, I buy myself a glass of wine as an excuse to linger. When I introduce myself, Ligambi shakes my hand and says: “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Would you like something to eat, some cheese?”
With a wave of his hand, he indicates the array of food in front of him on the bar — roasted peppers, pizza, cheese, eggplant marinated in Italian spices. I take a piece of the cheese, and he says, “Would you like some pizza?”
Ligambi doesn’t know it, but I have, at this point, already been to his house in South Philly. I’ve lingered at the edge of his lawn. “No, no,” I say, “I don’t want to take your pizza.”
Ligambi looks a little surprised by my refusal, wrinkling his eyebrows and turning to glance at the television. Seconds later, he snatches my wine — quick and deft, without spilling a drop. “Here,” he says to the bartender, “take this.”
Ligambi puts my glass of cheap Hardy’s shiraz on the bar and exchanges it for a glass of his $200-a-bottle Opus One. “Drink this,” he says, jamming the new glass into my hand. “It’s the best.”
I take a sip.
“What do you think?” he asks.
“It’s great,” I say. “I love it.”
“This is the only wine I drink,” he says.
He asks again if I would like some pizza. And this time, I accept. “Would you like some red pepper on that?” he asks.
I never use red pepper on my pizza. But — yeah, I say, bring on the red pepper. “Red pepper,” Ligambi calls out to the bartender.
Next thing I know, the Godfather rises up out of his chair: “Sit down,” he says, giving me his seat before I can object.
Ligambi grabs another stool and sits down beside me. And there we are, just a couple of fellas, talking over a glass of wine.