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

This is not your usual mob story. Because the mob we got used to — Joey Merlino’s youthful, murderous, Clockwork Orange-style mob, the mob that did the ultra-violence — is 10 years gone now.  Imagine ever sitting down for a simple glass of wine with Skinny Joey. Ligambi’s outfit is quieter, more disciplined and smaller, perhaps even tourist-friendly. If a body falls in a darkened room, and only the gunman is there to hear it, does it make a sound? What if no bodies fall at all? The Philadelphia mob hasn’t killed anyone in at least six years — the longest peaceful streak this city has seen since the days of Angelo Bruno, the so-called “Gentle Don,” who was shot to death in 1980. If the mob doesn’t kill anyone, is it still the mob?

Joe Ligambi’s mob, and his behavior, raise that question. And for an answer, I need to go to South Philadelphia.

AT ITS HEIGHT in the late ’60s, the Philly mob had roughly 60 official members and controlled numerous legitimate businesses. Members committed small crimes, like sports gambling. And big things, like homicide, especially after Bruno’s death. In the 19 years immediately following Bruno’s murder, there were 35 mob-related killings in Philadelphia, culminating in the nightclubbing reign of Joey Merlino. Skinny Joey is in jail now, finishing a racketeering sentence. (He was also accused and acquitted of two attempted murders and three homicides.)

Pulitzer-nominated Inquirer crime reporter George Anastasia puts the total number of currently active mobsters at just 20 guys. To put that in perspective, the Blind Bowlers Association of Delaware numbers 24.

Over the past couple of months, I went looking for signs of the mob in South Philadelphia, in restaurants, bars, private clubs, and places without any name whatsoever. Mostly, I gained weight. But after showing my face in several spots around town, I started receiving invitations to no-limit poker games. Talk about tourist-friendly! And in Malone’s Backroom Cafe, a restaurant at the corner of 18th and Ritner, I saw a business trying to strike a truce with its past.

Sixteen years ago, during the city’s last major mob war, a gunman planned to kill gangster Steve Mazzone inside Malone’s; eight years ago, during Philadelphia’s last major mob trial, federal prosecutors portrayed the place as a Mafia hangout; and three years ago, the admission policy was more exclusive than Studio 54’s. “If we didn’t recognize you,” says Johnny, the bartender, “you didn’t get in.”

Today, the door to Malone’s Backroom Cafe is wide open. The flooring is unadorned tile. The tables are bare wood, the kind families carry up from the basement for holiday parties. And the vibe is friendly. This is the restaurant as an extension of your house, serving food that tastes home-cooked, and encouraging cross-table conversations that sometimes swell to include the entire dining room. Malone’s is an Italian restaurant with an Irish name and a Mexican chef. It’s a BYOB, with a bar.   

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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.