The Italian Market’s Century Club

Anastasi Seafood, in the heart of the Italian Market, is one of many multi-generational businesses that anchor the area’s rich tradition of retailers.

Photo by Tina Garceau

To make it to 100 years is an impressive feat on its own, in life and in business. A century of service to a community in any discipline requires at least a few things: a pioneering and awe-inspiring first generation; a product that decades of South Philadelphians clamor for; and successful generational support – children willing to take on their parents’ business and move it competitively into modern times.

That was the kernel of where we started with this Throwback Issue – what businesses and institutions have stayed afloat for a full 100 years and why? We knew the 9th Street Italian Market was ripe, and focused our second story on South Broad Street. But even the May 17, 2012 South Philly Review issue celebrating 65 years in South Philly, all 112 pages thick, feels like a relic with which to begin (in fact, John Lerro Candy’s Pasquale Lerro is on the cover of that issue, and we caught up with his grandson for the story on page nine).

100+ year-aged churches abound in South Philadelphia like Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church, 916 S. Swanson St, which has welcomed parishioners since 1677. As do parks like Jefferson Square (deeded to the Union Army during the Civil War), banks like Prudential Savings, schools like Francis Scott Key (opening in 1889 at 2230 S. Eighth St.) or the former George W. Childs (debuting in 1894 at 1541 S. 17th St.), and then there’s community centers, Mummers, libraries, and eateries.

The Italian Market as we know it didn’t get that commonly-known title until the 1970s when supermarkets were blossoming. But vendors, shops, and family-run businesses have been flourishing in Bella Vista and the northern reaches of Passyunk Square since the late-19th century.

Danny Fiorella’s been making sausage at Fiorella Brothers Sausage Co., 817 Christian St., for 50 years now. But their doors have been open since 1892.

“I came to work here full-time in 1966; this September will be 50 years, and there’s not much that can happen that I haven’t already seen or experienced,” the great grandson of Luigi Fiorella said. “He came to America in 1892 at 19 years old. He came by himself to a strange country, opened a business, and 125 years later we’re still here. To me that’s a pretty big accomplishment.”

Their specialty is pork, and Fiorella, with his wife Trish, produces seven varietals: mild with fennel and mild without; hot with and hot without; a liver sausage; a cheese sausage; and a breakfast sausage. Luigi met his wife Antonette in South Philly and they had eight children – four boys and four girls (they married at St. Paul, 932 Christian St.).

Fiorella lives on the 2600 block of South Mole Street, just a couple blocks away from where Trish grew up. He enjoys making the short commute, likely in awe of a South Philly bursting at the seams and changing rapidly. Meanwhile, the business model and the recipes haven’t changed since the beginning.

“All these years we haven’t changed a thing,” the spry fourth-generation proprietor reported, pointing to his daughter’s husband as the potential fifth-generation and their son as the sixth. “Why fool with success? If it’s working, you don’t fool with it.”

Gus Sarno is a more direct descendant of Sicily – he speaks of his grandfather with great warmth and admiration.

“He was brilliant,” Sarno said in the back room of Isgro’s Pastries, 1009 Christian St., of Mario Isgro whose second child, a daughter named Mary, gave birth to Gus and lived above the shop until passing two years ago. “[Mario] went to work for a land baron at 13 or 14 – he lived at the farm and he would go on the roof and look into the kitchen everyday” until the baron’s wife spied him and they sent him to culinary school in Vienna, the current lead baker explains. A lifelong culinary maverick was born.

His location consistently wins over hordes of traditionalists with iconic cannoli, rum cake, and Italian cookies. Sarno remembers when Christian Street and Ninth Street were all businesses – cheese shops, olive oils, chicken shops and bakeries. His grandfather could bake and did just that in Messina before making the voyage to the States, but the fine details of pastries were his specialty. He’d certainly be proud of his grandson, who, upon request, provided dulce de lece and smores desserts to Pope Francis for last summer’s Philadelphia visit.

Sarno simplified the joys of running a beloved sweet shop: “Working here, when a customer walks through the door, you have them – it’s perfect,” he explains. “They’re celebrating a birthday or an anniversary, they’re treating themselves. All you have to do is smile and explain the pastry.” But the delivery is just as important – “you make sure it gets back to where it’s going and that it looks exactly like it did in the bakery. I’ll get them to come back because of the taste, but it means a lot to look good.”

Ralph’s Italian Restaurant, 760 S. Ninth St., celebrated 115 years of continuous family operation last year (Francesco and Catherine DiSpigno emigrated from Naples in 1893 and opened on Ninth in 1900). Fourth-generation leader Jimmy Rubino Jr. says “it’s insane – I still pinch myself.” He was sweeping floors and learning to cook before it was legal to do so.

Salvatore Anastasi is the fifth generation of his family to specialize in aquatic delights at Anastasi Seafood, 1101 S. Ninth St. He runs the market and focuses on mornings, while his sister Janet is more responsible for evenings at the restaurant. It’s very much a family affair: his son Thomas runs a Pescatore BYOB on the Mainline and daughter Mia just opened Anastasi Raw Bar in Manayunk. At the bar on a rainy Tuesday, Salvatore wore an Italian-striped Phillies hat and said with a smile “I was born on Eighth Street, work on Ninth Street, live on [the 900 block of South] Tenth Street, and my wife’s from Seventh Street.”

They opened in 1908 up the street and are looking at a temporary displacement while a massive mixed-use development project takes over the block (to 920 S. Ninth St.) in about six months.

This weekend, a massive Italian Market Festival will consume the area where all of these ancient businesses thrive. Ron Bauman, a new kid on the block as a part owner at Connie’s Ric Rac, 1132 S. Ninth St., is a big part of how the Festival boasts more than 40 musical acts over the course of the weekend.

“We rebuilt the bar, brought in draught beer, brought in a bigger fridge for craft beers, built a green room, and most importantly we re-engineered the whole sound system,” he explained.

He’s pumped about their 10-year anniversary celebrations in July and August but also to give local bands that he’s put on his stage the 50,000-per-day crowd exposure they deserve.

“We’re focusing on local, original music on our stage,” which will stand at Ellsworth Street. It’s “the one weekend of the year that we can do something for the bands and acts that we love and love us.”

Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at or ext. 117.

Isgro’s Italian Pastries and Fiorella’s Sausage Co. are classic South Philly institutions fueled by generations of Philadelphians keeping family traditions alive as the business gets passed down from grandfather and grandmother to grandson and granddaughter.

Photos by Tina Garceau
Isgro’s Italian Pastries and Fiorella’s Sausage Co. are classic South Philly institutions fueled by generations of Philadelphians keeping family traditions alive as the business gets passed down from grandfather and grandmother to grandson and granddaughter.

Photos by Tina Garceau