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

Ligambi, up close, doesn’t seem troubled by his dual lives, not in the least. As I munch his pizza, I ask how long he’s been married. He says 36 years.

“What’s the secret to a long marriage?” I ask him.

He looks momentarily embarrassed by the question, then answers: “Take her out dancing on Saturdays in the summer.”

He recommends a store on Grays Ferry Avenue for high-quality steaks and veal chops. He talks about his old favorite roast beef shop, which he says isn’t so good anymore. Then he asks me where I live. I tell him my block and cross street. “They say it’s the Grad Hospital area,” I tell him, “so they can charge $50,000 more for the house.”

“Good area, though,” he says. “Getting better.”

“The neighborhood’s getting better,” I tell him, “but we hope this is the first summer we don’t hear any gunshots.”

He grimaces. “This city,” he says. “The same thing that happened to the roast beef happened to this city.”

Once, we edge up to the line we’re not supposed to cross. Perhaps he catches sight of an American Indian on the television at the bar, because he looks over my shoulder, in the direction of the screen, and suddenly says, “Them Indians got all the gambling.”

He looks almost sheepish for a second after he mentions this, as if he’s been caught complaining about the competition.

“We owed those people something,” I say, smiling, “after what we did.”

He laughs: “We stole everything from them people.”   

“Did you ever hear Chris Rock, the comedian, do the bit about Indians?” I ask him.

“No,” he says.

So I tell him: “Rock says, ‘You ain’t never seen two Indians. You’ll see two polar bears before you see two Indians.’”

Ligambi smiles at this, but I’m not sure he gets it. I can’t remember Rock’s next line, so I panic and improvise. “We killed so many of those people,” I say, still supposedly imitating Rock, “they can’t even find each other anymore!”

Ligambi laughs like hell, shaking in his bar stool.

We talk a little more, about his son Stephen, who lives in New York now and is in hot pursuit of an acting career. Ligambi says he goes to New York to see his son’s “every production, every event.”

When he says this, I think about how a conviction now would likely doom him to spend the rest of his life in prison. And more than at any other time during our interview, I want to drop all the pretenses and ask him a straight question about who he really is, and what he’s done with his life. But that wasn’t the agreement, and I know I won’t get a straight answer, so I just finish my slice of pizza. And maybe that should be all we need to know about Joe Ligambi. That he has lived a life that precludes straight answers, and in this crucial respect, Bruno, Scarfo, Merlino, Ligambi — who cares? They’re all the same.

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