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

The bar’s logo remains as Frank Sr. designed it: a pair of black bombs stacked one on top of the other, fuses lit. But here, more than anywhere, the present is performing a complicated dance with the past. Regular afternoon customers from the neighborhood purse their lips in distaste when I come in and start taking notes from the articles hanging on the wall, and when Frank Sr. begins telling me stories about the mobsters who once dined here, his son and daughter-in-law make sure I understand that these are old stories. The junior Barbato and his wife have long since made the place their own, even traveling to Virginia to learn barbecue techniques; the results win local cooking awards. But traditional Italian dishes like veal parmesan still comprise half of Bomb Bomb’s food sales, largely because Michael Corleone was never seen on-screen eating a plate of barbecued ribs.

I spend a few hours knocking on doors in the neighborhood, and when I bring up the area’s mobbed-up reputation, residents react with a kind of weary shrug and some derisive humor. “I’ve lived here for 60 years,” one old woman tells me, “and there used to be all kinds of bookies running around.”

She smiles mischievously, leans outside, and looks up and down an empty Wolf Street. “I don’t know,” she says, smiling. “You see any bookmakers out there today?” 

She has a point. The odds of seeing a real live goodfella favor the house. Just do the math: As of the 2000 census, 162,683 people lived in South Philadelphia, putting the average civilian’s chances of running across one of this city’s 20 made mobsters (and not all of them are in South Philly) at 8,134 to one. For mob aficionados, a trip here is only marginally different from a trip to the Betsy Ross House. They can soak up the history, but the chances of seeing anything mob-related are about the same as running across an 18th-century seamstress sewing an American flag.

There’s still a nagging sense that South Philadelphia stands apart from the rest of the city. The locals say it’s not an ethnic thing, but a matter of geography and architecture. With all those rowhomes side by side, neighbors are bound to overhear intimate moments and heated arguments. The custom they follow is to pretend they never heard anything at all. In South Philly, they call it minding your own business. And while that might be an environment in which a secret society can form and grow, a neighborhood built on respect for privacy doesn’t necessarily beget a criminal organization.

The people here have nothing to do with the mob, except that the mob has happened, for the better part of a century now, all around them, and people like me sometimes come stumbling into their neighborhoods, looking for goodfellas. What I found on this months-long trip is that the most exciting stories of explosions and bloodshed are just that — stories hanging around from the past, the stuff of lectures, fit for busloads of tourists. At least for now.

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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.