Eugene Desipio, 67; Owned Original Nick's In South Philadelphia

Posted: October 31, 1989

Eugene DeSipio, 67, the hearty, good-humored host and owner of Old Original Nick's Roast Beef in South Philadelphia, died Saturday at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He was a lifelong resident of South Philadelphia.

Mr. DeSipio was 16 when he started working in his father's beef-and-ale business - the year it was founded, in 1938. The restaurant, at 20th and Jackson Streets, was then known as Nick's Roast Beef.

"I used to pick up the beef - 50 pounds at a time - at 11th and Federal before I went to school in the morning," Mr. DeSipio recalled in a 1976 interview. "I'd ride down on my bike and come back with the meat in a basket and then go to school. Then in the afternoon I'd make sandwiches."

The early training led to a life's occupation, and he helped transform his father's sandwich shop into a Philadelphia institution.

After Mr. DeSipio's father, Nicholas, died in 1961, he and his younger brother, John, took over the operation.

An outgoing man of great girth, Mr. DeSipio worked the food end of the business - cooking roast beef, preparing gravies, hand-carving meat and serving sandwiches from a steam table. Some of the customers affectionately called him "Fat Gene." Others dubbed him "Gene Beef."

"He was very well-known and well-liked," said his brother. "He had a very, very warm personality. A lot of people took to him."

As Nick's became increasingly popular, the business drew city celebrities and well-known visitors. The brothers were host to Joey Bishop, Guy Marks, James Darren, Frank Rizzo, Buddy Ryan, Jimmy Foxx, Dick Clark, Joe DiMaggio, Perry Como and Rocky Marciano.

"He was such a lovable person and he had such wit," said Sal Avellino, a friend for 42 years. "I often said to Gene, and to other comedians, that Gene should have been a comedian. He had lots of one-liners and most of it was original. He was humor personified, and he was a lovable person.

"You know what he reminded me of? Seriously. The second Jackie Gleason," Avellino said.

A football fan and horse-racing enthusiast when he wasn't running his family business, Mr. DeSipio had season Eagles tickets for many years and enjoyed going to the track.

"He wasn't a bettor, but he was a tremendous handicapper. He liked to handicap his own races and he was very, very good at it," Avellino said.

Over the years, the DeSipio brothers expanded the family operation. They opened a second restaurant in Philadelphia at Juniper and Walnut Streets. And in 1970 they opened seven suburban Nick's restaurants.

They went from handling 1,000 pounds of beef a week to 10,000.

But the expansion came during times of high inflation and escalating food and labor costs. Financial trouble rocked their business ventures. In 1976, the brothers decided they could do less business better than more, so they

closed the suburban outlets.

Gene DeSipio went back to running the restaurant his father founded and renamed it Old Original Nick's. John DeSipio ran the business at Juniper and Walnut.

"They were the original beef-and-ale house," said Avellino. "They used nothing but prime beef, and they had a formula for beef gravy that has never been equaled. They have a gentleman who flies in from Chicago and flies back with roast beef."

Mr. DeSipio lent his support to numerous charitable efforts over the years, including the Mario Lanza Fund, the Hero Scholarship Fund and the Veteran Boxers Fund.

Surviving are his wife of nearly 40 years, Mary "Dolly" DeSipio; daughter, Donna Spino; a granddaughter, Gina Spino, and his brother, John. A son, Nicholas, died in 1986.

There will be a viewing from 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow at the Achille Ingenito Funeral Home, Seventh and Christian Streets. A Mass of Christian Burial will be said at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Monica's Church, 17th and Ritner Streets. Interment is at Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Heart Fund or the American Cancer Society.

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