Taste: Dining Scene: Second Helpings

Three neighborhood institutions — Murray's, Tacconelli's and Sang Kee — strike out into unknown territory: the suburbs and South Jersey

Last month, the Teti family, owners of Murray’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in Bala Cynwyd, opened a second outpost of the locally famous deli, on Market Street in West Chester. Cramped Murray’s, which has been in Bala for almost 40 years, achieved the level of local institution through its long-standing rivalry with Hymie’s Restaurant & Delicatessen, a block away. Hymie’s, which has been on Montgomery Avenue since 1955, renovated recently, but Murray’s has stayed proudly in its time warp: neon sign, brown vinyl seats, paneled walls cluttered with crooked mirrors, yellowing movie posters, and curt directives signed “The Management.” Over three-inch-thick corned beef sandwiches, two women comb through their 1965 Lower Merion High yearbook, reading the inscriptions aloud.

“When you have something that is recognizable, kind of an institution, you have to be careful about expanding,” scion Bob Teti explains. “We talked about it for 10 years.” Expansion is a tricky thing for neighborhood mainstays like Murray’s, where the dedicated clientele comes as much for the brusque “What can I get you, honey?” as for the matzo ball soup. But the restaurant business is booming, and the time seemed right for a sequel. Murray’s is not alone among Philadelphia restaurants taking the leap. Tacconelli’s Pizzeria, a rowhouse fixture of Port Richmond for 75 years, has been cloned in a South Jersey location, and Chinatown’s 25-year-old Sang Kee Peking Duck House recently set a second location down on the Main Line — Sang Kee Asian Bistro.

The man awaiting a booth at Tacconelli’s Pizzeria in Port Richmond has clearly dined here before. He called a day in advance to reserve his pizza dough — the gimmick is blamed on the 70-year-old oil-heated oven, which can produce only so many of the restaurant’s crackling-crust pizzas before cooling down — and has arrived with a Tupperware container of salad in one hand and a six-pack of lager in the other. (He won’t put the beer in the communal refrigerator to keep it cold. As the waitress warns the newcomers: Sometimes the cooks get thirsty.) He knows that at Tacconelli’s, there are only three things on the menu — white pizza, red pizza, and tomato pie. The place settings are delivered as a pile of paper plates, plastic cups and tissue-thin napkins, and the decor of linoleum, fluorescent lights and fake sunflowers is as sparse. A father dances his toddling daughter up and down the dining room, and a bachelorette party toasts in the corner, all waiting for the hot-from-the-oven pizzas, delivered when the persnickety old oven is ready. The garlic-explosion white pie is a crisp appetizer of a pizza; the red version’s sweet sauce and abundant toppings (the menu recommends no more than three) make for messier eating.

Across the bridge, in Maple Shade, the new Tacconelli’s, opened by a Tacconelli sibling, serves salads, sandwiches, even dessert. The menu warns of a $1-per-­person fee for carry-in dessert brought by those observing Port Richmond customs, but it’s still BYOB. The pizza varieties have been upped to five, including a “signature” white pie topped with cheese, spinach and tomatoes, packing the original’s garlic punch (it’s available in Port Richmond, but less prominently advertised), and a spicy marinara version. There’s no need to reserve your dough in advance; the gas-warmed oven that dominates Maple Shade’s sunny, glassed-in dining room keeps a constant temperature and can churn out 120 pizzas an hour, while giving the crust a more even tanning than the original’s oil-heated oven. There is also takeout available. But while Tacconelli’s pizza survived the trip across the bridge from Port Richmond, the pie’s piping-hot, cracker-thin crust steams itself soggy on the ride home.