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

Of course, when we talk about criminals, we’re talking about gradations of evil. And it could be that gangsters like Ligambi and Bruno are simply more devious than their publicly violent counterparts. The Devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he didn’t exist. But what we have right now is a mob so small and low-key, it barely r­egisters — a mob that looms larger in our history than it does in our present-day lives.

FOR ALL THE
romance associated with mob movies, they also left an indelible stain on an entire ethnicity and, in Philadelphia, a neighborhood. So perhaps the greatest gift provided by our current, tourist-friendly mob is that it’s easier than ever for the rest of Philadelphia to see South Philly clearly.

Take 10th and Wolf streets, an infamous address in local mob lore. The Merlinos grew up around here. (Joey was born into the mob). So did current boss Joe Ligambi. The address also served as the name of a mediocre mob movie, dubbed 10th and Wolf, as if that address somehow resonated, nationwide, as being synonymous with gangsters. But the only thing to see at 10th and Wolf these days is the modern outpost of that long mob history — the Bomb Bomb BBQ Grill.

Longtime owner Frank Barbato bequeathed the restaurant to his son and namesake. But at 86, he still hangs around the place — a neighborhood bar up front, dining room in the back — doing a little work and constantly smiling. His son, by contrast, is still in the act of making his life. And he sees the history associated with the neighborhood, and his restaurant, as a mixed blessing. 

“I get that the history of this place is interesting, and it’s part of why people come here,” he says. “I respect that. But I have to tell you, my wife and I live in South Jersey now, and when someone finds out we own a restaurant in South Philly, at 10th and Wolf, and we’re Italian, they think we’re mobsters. As an Italian-American, it’s upsetting. Because we work for a living.”

Barbato Sr. purchased the restaurant in 1951, naming it “Bomb Bomb” because of a pair of mob-related explosions that had occurred on-site some 15 years earlier. “There was already a bar here,” explains the senior Frank. “But nobody called it by its name. They would say ‘Let’s go to the bomb bomb,’ so I thought, ‘I’ll call it that.’”

The twin explosions are memorialized in some newspaper articles hanging on the restaurant’s front wall: February 17, 1936; New Taproom Bombed, South Phila. Area Shaken; Windows Shattered Over Entire Wolf Street Neighborhood. Police blamed “the rackets” for the pair of bomb blasts, which happened just seven weeks apart. And the article’s accompanying photograph shows a couple of young, pretty girls smiling in the frame of an exploded window — clearly happy to have their few minutes onstage with the Philadelphia mob. 

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