Ralph’s and Vetri conjure culinary philanthropy


The Dispigno Family founded Ralph’s Italian Restaurant in 1900 at 901 Montrose St. in the heart of a bustling Italian Market. Francesco and Catherine Dispigno arrived at Ellis Island from Naples, Italy in 1893. One-hundred-twenty-two years later and their fourth and fifth generations of children and grandchildren are still running the iconic Italian restaurant, now at 760 S. Ninth St., with a second location, Ralph’s of South Philly, on North Gulph Road in King of Prussia.

On May 15, they celebrated 115 years after a triumphant centennial in 2000. This time, they teamed up with a new arrival in Philly’s Italian food market — one that’s a little less old-world but decidedly celebrated on a national scale, Marc Vetri. Vetri’s namesake space in Center City is often hailed as one of the best restaurants in the city, state and country. With the help of his culinary director and main chef at Amis on 13th Street, Brad Spence, Vetri and his crew descended upon Ralph’s to cook alongside its fourth-generation leader, Jimmy Rubino Jr., to raise money for the Vetri Foundation. A little more than $15,000 to be exact.

“With about four months of planning, we pulled it off that Thursday night, and it was amazing,” Rubino said. “All fans of Ralph’s, fans of Vetri, we were all united in one night — it was electric. Everyone was there for a good cause with two legendary restaurant teams. It was such an amazing night, I’ll never forget it.”

The Vetri Foundation focuses primarily on diet, health and culinary education for children, especially in urban schools, introducing students to healthy cooking and eating habits and proper nutrition. Spence said “we work on nutrition in schools in and outside of Philadelphia. We go into schools and try to show what we can do as far as using fresh ingredients and healthy eating family-style. We pass it around and converse with kids about the food — some of these kids have never had a fresh peach or an apple or a fresh piece of fish.”

Spence says they did approximately 220 covers.

“We were thinking about doing the first floor, but we decided to do the second floor, too,” he said, adding that his whole family came out last month to celebrate, a ten-top of eager eaters. He and his father first ate at Ralph’s when he was 19 and, he adds, “15, 20 years later Jimmy would let me back in to cook, it’s funny.”

It all started when the Ralph’s team volunteered and donated food for a famed industry night at Amis. Rubino Jr.’s son, Ryan (armed with a marketing degree from Hofstra University), put it to his dad that a Vetri team-up for the 115th anniversary would be great. But the fourth generation was skeptical of the fifth. When Ryan pushed the issue at Industry night, his father said ‘Go ask him!’

“I posed the idea and ended my presentation saying we would be honored to have you,” Ryan Rubino said.

Rubino Jr. was floored when Vetri said “You’d be honored to have ME? I was speechless, I got emotional.”

Rubino Jr. says he and his family restaurant, where he’s been bussing, cleaning and cooking since the age of 5, are known for a handful of dishes: mussels in red or white sauce, veal parmigiana and capricciosa, linguine pescatore, eggplant parmigiana, monkfish fra diavolo and sweetbreads. Vetri and Spence came in to try some things and talk about the riffs they’d like to try on the special night. The Ralph’s team was floored when Vetri vets came in to offer a taste of what they were thinking of cooking up.

“We had a tasting and we were blown away — it was incredible,” Rubino Jr said.

Though celebrities from Frank Sinatra, to Rocky Marciano, to Theodore Roosevelt, to Taylor Swift a couple years ago, have been through Ralph’s doors, Rubino Jr. seems relatively unphased and focused on the restaurant’s product. Spence has noticed and admires his dedication to the cooking that loads of South Philadelphians treasure.

“To me, it’s like Italian-American home cooking. People came from different parts of Italy and adapted to what they found here: it’s definitely olive oil, tomato sauce, sharp cheeses, garlic, simple fish,” Spence said. “It’s not technically-driven food; it’s food your grandmother would cook. You don’t feel like you’re eating a professional chef’s food — you feel like you’re eating your grandmother’s food. The family just really cares about the food, and it’s crazy good.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at bchenevert@southphillyreview.com or ext. 117.