An Appreciation: Tony’s Place
When my mom was a kid, the waitresses at Tony’s Place would elbow you in the head.
Not always, and with good cause. If you were in their way — if your feet were sticking out of the booths, for example — they would elbow you. It worked: Once you got your head bashed in once, you wouldn’t get in a waitress’ way again.
By the time I started going to Tony’s, the waitresses weren’t elbowing people. The waitstaff at Tony’s is quite nice! But they still have a certain attitude — gruff with a heart of gold — that’s reminiscent of great dive bar waitresses across the city.
There’s a lot to like about Tony’s Place. The pizza — “tomato pies” in Northeast Philly parlance — is probably the best in the city. It’s certainly my favorite pizza place in the city. The beer selection is now pretty solid. The thick steak fries are mouthwatering. I’ve never ordered anything but pizza there, but I’ve been told the other food is good. Mostly, though, Tony’s feels the same as it did when I was a little kid. I might have a beer instead of a soda when I visit, but a meal at Tony’s at 33 is pretty much the same experience I had when I was three.
The news earlier this week that Tony’s Place would be sold to three Bucks County regulars came not entirely as a surprise. A little over a year ago, Northeast Philly scuttlebutt was that Tony’s might close outright. The last day for owner Joe Mallamaci is Sunday. The new owners report there will be renovations, but the menu and staff will largely be the same. Still, I can’t help but be a little sad.
Before it moved to Mayfair, Tony’s started at 10th and Jackson streets in South Philly. Tony Mallamaci opened a small corner bar. He served drinks, he sold tomato pies (without any cheese). His brother Dominic joined the business and they moved the bar to its current location on Frankford Avenue in the Great Northeast.
In 1980, the bar expanded with a second room, while a third room was added even later. Otherwise, the Tony’s I knew starting in the 1980s is largely the same as the one my mom knew when she was growing up in Mayfair decades earlier. It was a great place to watch sports. In the age before cell phones, there was an LED screen with out-of-town sports scores on one wall. It’s authentic. The memorabilia on the walls feels like the kind of stuff you might find in a family rec room. It’s a great corner bar that also happens to make incredible pizza.
Amazingly, Tony’s seemed the same despite having to rebuild everything after a 1989 fire. But they put the restaurant back together the same way. “All our customers came back,” Joe Mallamaci told The Northeast Times in 2011. “All our workers came back, too.”
When I was little, going to Tony’s was a special treat. My parents and I were occasionally accompanied by members of her extended family, since her parents still lived on Magee Avenue. Later, my uncle lived down the block from Tony’s. As I got older and my friends and I began to drive, it was a place I enjoyed introducing them to. My parents took me there after my high school graduation.
I haven’t lived in Northeast Philly for more than 15 years, but Tony’s remained a draw. I took college friends there, showing them a part of Philadelphia they’d surely never see again. My parents took me there after my college graduation. I took dates there. Tony’s was a litmus test: If you didn’t appreciate this place — if you didn’t like this pizza — how would it ever work out between us?
I’m not the only one with these experiences. When rumors of Tony’s possible closure came up, I talked with a bartender at Oscar’s (a Northeast native) about it for hours. When news of Mallamaci’s sale of the place came this week, a friend immediately told me he was going that night. My girlfriend, who passed the Tony’s litmus test a long time ago, and I went on Wednesday. She made fun of me because I ate a whole pizza. Little does she know that wasn’t the first time I’d done that at Tony’s.
Philadelphians love to tell you how nice something used to be. Even Tony’s die-hards will tell you it’s not the same, or say it’s gone downhill in some way (however minor). I don’t think I agree. Our trip there Wednesday was just like any other. We waited in a line that snaked around the bar — it was half-price pie night – talked with waitresses about the future of the bar, eavesdropped on conversations of neighboring tables and (of course) enjoyed amazing pizza. It was so good I wanted to cry when we left.
Renovation plans for Tony’s are tentative, but they include taking out all the booths and replacing them with high-top tables. The main area will become more of a sports bar, with a separate entrance possible for the connected dining areas next door. There’s a worry the bar becomes to much of a bro hangout, instead of the throwback it is now. But even if it does, in some way I don’t care: Tony’s new owners can do anything they want as long as they don’t screw up the pizza.
Maybe you think it’s silly that a random corner bar near where my mom grew up could become such a special place to my friends and me over the years. Well, one, have you had this pizza? Two, for more than 60 years, Tony’s gave so many Philadelphians a sense of place. Drunks could sit at the bar. Families could occupy tables. And, yes, guys like me could try to impress women by taking them there. The Mallamaci family ought to be proud.