Ralph’s should savor its spot in the record book

Ryan Rubino, fifth generation of the family that founded 112-year-old Ralph’s Italian restaurant, says Ralph’s is now the oldest Italian restaurant in the country. He points to the plaque commemorating its establishment in 1900. RONNIE POLANECZKY / DAILY NEWS STAFF
Ryan Rubino, fifth generation of the family that founded 112-year-old Ralph’s Italian restaurant, says Ralph’s is now the oldest Italian restaurant in the country. He points to the plaque commemorating its establishment in 1900. RONNIE POLANECZKY / DAILY NEWS STAFF
Posted: May 25, 2012

"OBVIOUSLY, this is a really cool thing," says Ryan Rubino. "We’ll want to do something to celebrate. But we’ll wait a few weeks, out of respect for our friends. Because this is bittersweet."

Bittersweet, indeed, that San Francisco’s iconic eatery Fior D’Italia went belly-up on Tuesday after 126 years of serving calamari, osso buco and gnocchi to hungry masses.

Fior d’Italia, founded in 1886, is no longer America’s oldest Italian restaurant. That oven-hot torch has now passed to Ralph’s, on South 9th Street near Catharine, founded in 1900 by Rubino’s great-great-grandparents Francesco and Catherine Dispigno.

"We’re in shock," says manager Rubino, 24, as he takes a breather on Ralph’s second floor, where piped-in arias echo off tiny ceramic floor tiles that are 100 years older than he is. "The Fior d’Italia people were friends. They had a daughter who went to Penn — she was in here all the time. One of our managers, his mother-in-law went to Fior d’Italia when she visited San Francisco — they treated her like royalty, wouldn’t let her pay for a thing! There’s been nothing but love between us. So this is a sad day."

I hope Rubino and his family — including dad Jimmy and uncle Eddie, who are the owners — don’t stay sad for long. Because it truly is a really cool thing that Ralph’s has shed its "second oldest" mantle, which always had an also-ran ring to it.

As if it’s fair to label any business an also-ran when it has thrived in the same neighborhood for 112 years. Survived the Great Depression — and 22 mayoral administrations. Been run by the same family. And been loved by multiple generations of customers who wouldn’t celebrate a milestone event with a plate of chicken parm anywhere else.

Maybe I’ve lived here too long, but it’s wonderful to know that, as the city’s fortunes have changed, as old buildings have been demolished, as once solid Philly names like Wanamaker’s and Strawbridge’s have evaporated like the steam off a plate of mussels red — well, that some places, like Ralph’s, are right where we left them the last time we visited.

At Ralph’s, the familiarity has bred loyalty, which has bred more familiarity, which has bred more loyalty. And somehow, the people in charge have had the wisdom, over the past 112 years, not to muck with that.

Yes, the menu has changed a bit. Ryan Rubino, who studied marketing and management at Hofstra University, has introduced old-world Ralph’s to Twitter, Facebook and Groupon (last fall, Ralph’s sold 1,800 Groupons, more than any other Philly restaurant). And the current owners might live out in the suburbs instead of right up the block.

But the redbrick restaurant looks pretty much as it did in 1900. The aromas are the same. And, importantly, the employees and the customers are (well, almost) the same.

"We have customers who’ve been coming here for 60 years," says Rubino, a cheery young man who remembers waiting tables, in a tuxedo, when he was just 8 years old. ("I made a fortune in that tux," he recalls. "People handed me money left and right.")

He pauses. "SIXTY YEARS. Think about that. It’s crazy."

Last Friday, he said, a woman walked through the door and burst into tears. A South Philly native, she’d spent years dining with her parents at Ralph’s but moved away decades ago. Entering the restaurant, her memories of those soft-focus days actually moved into real time.

"She said, ‘It’s exactly as I remember it!’" says Rubino. "It’s like she got a piece of her childhood back. It happens all the time. People are stunned that we’re still here."

Rubino’s grandmother Elaine Dodaro, 75 — her grandparents were the restaurant’s founders — lives next door and still does the bookkeeping. Her brother, Ralph, 85 — son of the Ralph for whom the restaurant was named — still works in the kitchen six days a week. ("We make him take Sundays off," says Ryan.) The wait staff, bussers, kitchen staff — they come as youngsters and grow into adults at Ralph’s.

"We stay because they treat us like family," says Anthony Pettino, Ralph’s 25-year general manager whose daughter, Lauren, busses tables while she waits to get into physical-therapy school. "Then we treat the customers like family. They don’t do that at other restaurants."

Well if they do, they’ve not been at it as long as. Because now it’s official: Fior d’Italia of San Francisco, once the country’s oldest Italian restaurant, is no more.

Long live Ralph’s of Philly.

Contact polaner@phillynews.com. Call 215-854-2217. Blog: www.phillynews.com/ronnieblog. Twitter: @RonniePhilly.

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