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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