What Ever Happened to the South Philly Mob?

It’s been at least six years since anyone has been killed by the Philadelphia Mafia. Is it the passing of a way of life, or an eerie calm before an ­approaching storm? Our writer takes to the streets of South Philly — and sips wine with the current Godfather — to find out

ONCE JOE LIGAMBI and I are seated over pizza and wine at Spasso, we fall into a rhythm of mostly inane conversation. Ligambi has a reputation for being polite with the media, but as far as I know, a sit-down like this with a reporter is unprecedented. Over the years, he’s rarely been quoted — and then usually by indirect means. During the long Merlino trial, for instance, he was overheard talking about how foolish this younger generation of mobsters had been in making such a show of themselves. They had violated one of the oldest rules of the Organization, to melt into the dark.

During that trial, Ligambi also struck up a friendly relationship with a U.S. marshal stationed outside the courtroom. The marshal was big, heavily muscled, a former Navy Seal. He was also a born-again Christian, and used his post at the entrance to talk to all who entered about his faith. Most people blew right by him. But Ligambi often stopped and chatted. Toward the end of the trial, Ligambi even asked the marshal for a favor: “Pray for me,” he said.

Such intimate details aren’t the sort of story Ligambi provides. So I’d gone everywhere I could to learn about him, including his house. Ligambi lives on 17th Street, just south of Packer Avenue, near the sports stadiums, in a house registered under his wife’s name. The neighborhood is best described as leafy, more suburb than city. I walked the intersecting streets to see if I could spot any surveillance vans or some fed openly watching from his car. But nothing leaped out at me as law enforcement. Just lawn-care companies trimming back the first good growth of spring, any one of which could have included a government agent in disguise.

Ligambi’s house was the thing to see — a middle-class home with a carport and spacious back deck, with a black Caddy parked out front. A dark funeral-home-style awning, with an ornate “L” at its center, sticks out over his front door. And I found myself lingering there, at the edge of his lawn, listening as eddies of wind occasionally brought the sound of an operatic soprano out of his window. I wish I could say I heard the music clearly, and that the voice was mournful. But it remained just out of reach.

On another visit, I saw graduation signs in the windows — two caps with tassels, and a big black sign reading “Congratulations!” Ligambi is the father of three sons, including two college graduates. The signs were a clue to how brazenly he juggles his identities as gangster and family man. And I think it is this facility to promote what he’s proud of, and keep his sins mostly in the dark, that fuels our culture’s continuing fascination with the mob. The truth is, we don’t want to be mobsters. We don’t want to kill. And we don’t want to spend our lives looking over our shoulders. But we would all like to wear our rationalizations so lightly, with such get-lost panache.

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  • Matt

    Came across this article today. I live very near the "social club" on 13th street, and always had my theories on just what type of place it is. Now I know. Good read. And for the record, most of the clients there are good people, just the younger crowd making a ruckus at 3am that's a problem.

  • Jill

    I moved from Center City to 11th and Wolf a couple of years ago. I walk my dog past the club on 13th Street all the time. Like the previous commenter, I always had my suspicions, but the guys outside have always been courteous, even complimenting my dog. Oh, and the food at Bomb Bomb is really, really good. I'm really enjoying the neighborhood, which seems easier to do without Merlino-type antics happening.

  • Suite jimmy

    The Philadelphia{MOB} has always been an entiny unto itself,however, reporters will never get the true story straight it remains hidden for over a hundred years…EMERTA is alive and well!!!

    • Philly

      Omerta you mean. Code of honor / code of silence… Very powerful and the way to live. My grandpop always said keep your mouth shut no matter what!!

  • Pasquale

    Plain and simple…Uncle Joe has brought respect and stability back to this city's La Cosa Nostra. He's a proud man who have survived several regimes and is quite frankly "The Last Man Standing." He's smart in that he's learned from the mistakes the other have made. Good job Uncle Joe! We love ya!

  • Brian

    Anyone have any idea where the Grays Ferry steak and veal spot is? I can't think of anywhere on the street that Mr. Ligambi could have been talking about.

  • meat

    The only thing I can think of would be Gaupp Meat at 33rd and Dickinson,though it's wholesale. Of course, I am sure Mr. Ligambi could make that work.

  • BUCK

    I MYSELF COMMING AND GROWING UP IN ALL ITALIAN NIEGBORHOOD LIKE S.PHILLY; WALKED INTO THE BOMB BOMB BY CHANCE, LOOKED LIKE A PLACE I WAS USED TO AND WAS RIGHT, AT FIRST THERE WERE SOME SUSPISIONS PUT SOON SUBSIDED, THEY ASKED IF I WAS FROM S.PHILLY I SAID NO BUT A PLACE SIMALAR TO THIS, I DROPPED BY AFTER A DOCTORS APP. AT HUP. I TRULY THINK YOU HAVE TO BE, ITALIAIN TO UNDERSTAND THE CULTURE, AND HOW PEOPLE ARE I LOVE THE PLACE AND GO OFTEN AND NOT LOOKIN FOR A THRILL OF SEEING "MOBSTERS"

  • DINO

    ITALIANS ARE ALL OVER AND NOW WERE EVERYWERE PEOPLE ITALIANS ARE GREAT IN EVERTHING NOT JUST FROM BEING FROM SOUTHPHILA MY FATHER FROM SOUTH PHILA HIS FATHER FROM THE MOTHER LAND MY MOTHER FROM NORTHEAST HER PARENTS FROM ITALY THE MOTHER LAND YES IAM ALL ITALY SO WHAT IAM SOUTHPHILA ITALIAN WERE MY FATHER GREW UP OR JUST ITALIAN ITS CRAZY LOVE ALL ITALIANS GOD BLESS US ALL

  • Anonymous

    MY NAME IS NICKY AND I RELIZE THAT PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO GET RID OF ARE KIND BUT TO BE HONEST THAT AN’T STOPING ME FROM WHAT I DO AND AN’T STOPING THEM FOR WHAT THEY DO JUST GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE AND MIND YOUR OWN FUCKING BUSINESS AND GO BACK TO WHATEVER YOU FUCKING CAME FROM.

    • Danny Philly

      BADA BING. BADA BOOM. STFU.

  • erik “stick man”

    I lived in the 300 block of Wolf St. in the mid to late 80′s and early 90′s. i miss those days! I hope to soon come back with my wife and children to show them my old stomping grounds!

  • Robert Rura

    I need to know where i can find the italian mob. I’m 50% italian and i have no where else to go, i got a dui and my parents are kicking me out of the house. I grew up @ 12th and Moore and use to know people in the mob but have lost contact with them over the years. Please help me regain access to them. 215-301-7815 is my number

    • Danny Philly

      dude. stfu.