Ronnie says Ralph's restaurant wears the "oldest" crown, despite the naysayers.

The owners of Dante & Luigi's (left) said their restaurant opened in 1899, making it a year older than Ralph's (right), which had been declared the oldest Italian restaurant in the U.S. after a San Francisco eatery that previously held that title closed. But a little research revealed that Ralph's was indeed founded before its rival, though both restaurants' dates appear to be off by a few years. Photos: Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer
The owners of Dante & Luigi's (left) said their restaurant opened in 1899, making it a year older than Ralph's (right), which had been declared the oldest Italian restaurant in the U.S. after a San Francisco eatery that previously held that title closed. But a little research revealed that Ralph's was indeed founded before its rival, though both restaurants' dates appear to be off by a few years. Photos: Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 01, 2012

EVER SINCE I wrote about Ralph's becoming the oldest Italian restaurant in the country, I've been hearing from foodies arguing that the title rightfully belongs to Dante & Luigi's.

The owners of Ralph's claim their South Philly eatery, on 9th Street near Catharine, was founded in 1900. The owners of Dante and Luigi's, around the corner at 10th and Catherine, say their place has been in business since 1899.

I hate getting things wrong — especially in print — so I'd like to set the record straight. Now that I kind of, almost, mostly know what it is.

This bowl of pasta got tangled on May 22, when Fior d'Italia of San Francisco went belly-up. Founded in 1886, it was the country's oldest Italian restaurant until a streak of setbacks (including a terrible fire) and the crappy economy shuttered its lovely doors.

According to independent research that Fior d'Italia's owners commissioned when they bought the business, their restaurant was, indeed, the country's oldest Italian place, followed by Ralph's. So when Fior d'Italia closed, Ralph's assumed the "oldest" mantle.

Since Ralph's was already the country's oldest family-owned Italian restaurant, this additional title was "a really cool thing," as Ralph's manager, Ryan Rubino, a fifth-generation owner, declared when I interviewed him.

It was also a cool thing for Philadelphia, where we love to boast of our firsts and oldests. And where the cachet of either attracts out-of-towners' cash as much as it does locals' dollars.

"A lot of tourists absolutely look for the oldest places," says Danielle Cohn, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. "They like ‘lists' — oldest, newest, biggest, first."

So we made a big deal of Ralph's new title and gave my column about it a full-page spread. Within hours of print, though, Dante & Luigi devotees were crying foul.

According to its website, the restaurant was founded in 1899 as Corona di Ferro by Michael DiRocco, an Italian immigrant. (His sons, Dante and Luigi, informally added their own names to the title years later, after their dad died.)

"That's the story we were told by Michael DiRocco's family when we bought the restaurant" in 1996, says the effervescent Connie LaRussa, who owns Dante & Luigi's with her husband, Michael. "So that's what we've always believed is true."

Just as descendants of Ralph's have always believed that their restaurant's 1900 birthday is true.

The thing is, I think the owners of both places might be wrong.

I spent last Friday digging into copies of the Philadelphia City Directory at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, looking for the people named DiSpigno (the surname of Ralph's founder, Frank DiSpigno) and DiRocco who lived in Philly between 1895 and 1915.

DiSpigno doesn't make an appearance until 1902. Through 1904, the directory indicates, he ran an oyster business. In 1905, he is finally listed as a restaurant owner.

Two DiRoccos are in the directory between 1895 and 1905, but neither is named Michael and neither ran a restaurant. It's not until 1910 that a Michael DiRocco is listed as running a dining establishment at the address where Dante & Luigi's now stands.

So if the city directories are accurate — and who knows if they are — Ralph's is older than Dante & Luigi's, but not as old as its own outdoor signage claims.

"We know that Frank sold oysters, but he might have also been serving food on the side and not telling anybody so that's why the family has always said we opened in 1900," chuckles Rubino of Ralph's. "We know he served alcohol during Prohibition, so …."

The happy news is that, questions of lineage notwithstanding, business is booming at both restaurants.

"We're doing great," says Rubino.

"Knock on wood, we're going like gangbusters," at Dante & Luigi's, says Connie LaRussa. "We slowed down a little bit last year, with the economy, but we picked up last winter and now we're packed all the time. Summers, we usually take a dip, but that's not been the case this year. We're thrilled."

Who wouldn't be? Most old-timers slow down with age.

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

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