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. 

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 < Previous Next >View as One Page

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • 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.