Retro Week: Revisiting Ralph’s

Photo by Stephanie Viggiano

At Ralph’s Italian Restaurant, where a century’s worth of footsteps have buffed the dining room’s floor mosaic as smooth as the inside of an oyster shell, the idea of a regular customer takes on a genealogical hue. Five generations of the same family have owned and operated the place, which was founded by Francesco Dispigno in 1900 and has occupied its current location for 100 years. But one of their biggest points of pride is a clientele whose claim on the tables is almost as ancestral.

“We have three and four generations of families as customers,” marvels Jim Rubino, the 53-year-old great-grandson of Francesco, and grandson of Rafael Dispigno, whose Anglicized name the restaurant bears. “It’s a remarkable thing.”

Two of them were settling in at a neighboring table on a recent evening, as my family wrapped up our own first dinner here as first-generation Philadelphians. They were a woman of perhaps 60 and her slow-moving but bright-eyed mother. I listened as our waiter, whose absentminded and easygoing vocal accompaniment to “Witchcraft” had augmented the background music at the beginning of our dinner, pivoted to their table.

“We haven’t seen a menu,” the daughter said, “but I think I know what we want,” and outlined a couple entrees along with preference pertaining to a side of broccoli rabe. Her mother beamed with contentment.

There’s a way in which that tells you everything you need to know about Ralph’s: that all someone needs to know is what she already knows. Even me, who knew nothing–and yet knew it just the same–knew perfectly well that the choice would boil down to spaghetti and meatballs or fettucini alfredo or linguine pescatore sauced red or white as I pleased. Ralph’s tells you right on the historical plaque out front: “We prepare our food the same way our ancestors did, from recipes that have been passed down from one generation to another.” And you know what food this is. Everybody and their grandmother knows what food this is. Can there be anyone in this city who remains a stranger to marinara sauce?

Which is one reason why—for all the paeans to generational endurance and la cucina povera that one might like to compose over a third glass of sweetish Chianti—it’s hard to get excited by the contents of a plate at a restaurant as venerable as this one.

Lay aside the fact that the ravioli and manicotti on the list of “housemade specialties” are not, in fact, house-made. (They come from Talutto’s, which places them in a category of local sourcing that sets South Philadelphia apart from virtually every other urban neighborhood in America. And even if they tend more toward sturdiness than thin-rolled delicacy, they should be prized for their role in a culinary ecosystem whose scaffolding is too delicate to be taken for granted.) There are deeper challenges facing a restaurant that’s both burdened and ennobled by the responsibility of keeping this particular flame.

Following the 2012 closure of San Francisco’s Fiore D’Italia, Ralph’s became the oldest Italian restaurant in America owned continuously by its founding family. It calls itself the oldest Italian restaurant in country, period, and it may be. Honoring a past that goes back more than a century is a weighty endeavor in any field, but especially for a restaurant.

Part of Ralph’s lore is that the 1929 stock market crash cost the family all of its property except for the restaurant. To make ends meet, they sold spaghetti and meatballs out of the front door for five cents a bowl. That is part of the legacy the restaurant tries to carry aloft today. Which is to say, the recipes handed down bear the stamp of an era that is absolutely alien to our own. The 1920 Census, which would have been the first to record Ralph’s current location, classed restaurant cooks as “servants,” grouped with bell boys, chore boys, and chambermaids. As late as 1960, cooks were grouped in the same Census category as bootblacks, porters, elevator operators, charwomen, and janitors.

To carry the torch of a turn-of-the-20thth-century restaurant past the turn of the Iron Chef 21st is an unlikely feat, then. And it’s even more astounding when you consider how thoroughly the last century has transformed Italian cooking in America. The age of Babbo and Vetri has lasted long enough now to make it seem like Italian restaurants have always ranked alongside French ones (and other kinds) in culinary prestige. But Ralph’s was in its fifth decade when the seeds of that change were planted—by tens of thousands of American servicemen returning home from the European theater of World War II with a taste for Italian cuisine (but without the stigma of being immigrants fresh off the boat). For the first few decades of the 20th century, Italian-American food occupied a position closer akin to present-day Chinese or Mexican food. And it wasn’t until the 1970s and ‘80s that the liberalization of trade restrictions opened New World taste buds to ingredients like balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, to say nothing of prosciutto and bottarga. Most people today expect completely different things from Italian restaurants than their grandparents did—let alone their great-great-grandparents.

Ralph’s is plainly not an exact facsimile of the restaurant it started out as. Indeed, one of the most striking things about it is the way small details make it feel dated to many different decades at once. The specialty martini list, loaded with versions bearing names like “Orange Creamsicle” and “White Chocolate.” The paper placemats reminiscing about the era when Jimmy Durante and Lena Horne ate here, and Joe Biden was a semi-regular. The payphone built into the wall across from the bathroom, which hasn’t worked for eight or ten years but will still let you feed in a pair of quarters to hear that bygone clink. It’s likely older than Taylor Swift, who also made an appearance a couple years back.

But the question remains: how do you judge a restaurant that holds itself, at least in part, to the standards of a museum? Maybe the same way you judge any other, in the end—by the comfort and satisfaction that it gives you, by whatever means it gives them.

The pastas that followed my respectable Negroni to our table were not Philadelphia’s best. They were all a little slick on the tongue, probably because they’d been sauced too late in the game for everything to meld and emulsify as really good pasta can. The canoli crowning a slice of canoli cake was soggy. Too long in the fridge, no doubt. But twenty years in the kitchen have taught Joseph Shay a thing or two about sautéed escarole. The tender pile that came to us, pelted with separately cooked garlic that was as fragrant and toasty as garlic gets, was pure soul food. I’d happily consider it the best of its kind in town. The other overachiever was my exquisitely tender, very nicely seasoned braciole—an item that recently rejoined Ralph’s menu, along with kidneys and peppers, and tripe, after a long absence during which those old-time offerings were out of fashion. Funny how if you wait long enough, you can see the pendulum swing both ways.

But it’s even stranger, perhaps, how a restaurant built on old family memories can somehow spark nostalgia in two brand-new customers who have no connection to it at all. Which is why the deepest impression Ralph’s made on me was watching the work it did on my two boys within the first minute that we all sat down. The song in the air—“New York, New York,” as sung by Sinatra, who of course ate here—instantly brought the thought of my mother, who uses it as a cell phone ring, to the lips of the youngest. And the water glasses set down before us almost as quickly brought my mother-in-law’s name, who has the same ones, to the lips of the oldest.

Now that was something. For two boys who love those women above every other except for their own mother, Ralph’s was plucking heartstrings no other restaurant has ever set in motion. And my wife and I would do well to remember it if there comes a day when we have grandchildren of our own.

Ralph’s [Official]