The readers have spoken, now it’s time to honor some of the businesses and people that make South Philly stand out
By Bill Gelman and Tom Beck
One-hundred-fourteen years. Looking over this year’s list of Readers’ Choice winners in the food category, the number alone makes Isgro Pastries, 1009 Christian St., stand out as the granddaddy of the South Philly-based businesses on this list. The title is fitting, being that the late Mario Isgro, grandfather to current owner, Gus Isgro, and great grandfather to AJ and Michael Isgro, who run the day-to-day operations, opened the store in 1904. Of course, there is also the number one, as in the Readers’ Choice winner for bakery.
“It’s a great honor being that we are in South Philly,” AJ Isgro said. “It shows us we are on the right track because we wouldn’t be here without our customers.”
The funny thing is, there was a time when AJ had no intention of answering questions about the family business. He got a master’s degree in biology, and had every intention of going to medical school, at least that was the career plan.
“Working here for my family was right under my nose the whole time, apparently,” he said.
Isgro has established such a following that it should come as no surprise that three generations of families are coming through the front door. Some visit every morning for a fresh-baked danish, while others come for a cannoli, rum cake, limoncello cookie, fresh fruit tart or other pastry of choice. We can’t forget about the cherry pie that earned the brothers some TV time on “Good Day Philadelphia” last month for National Cherry Pie Day.
The busiest time of year tends to be Christmas time, especially the two days before when AJ said there is typically a three-hour wait with a line that wraps around the corner. Cookie tins tend to be a popular item during the holidays.
This four-generation bakery continues to adjust with the times, too, making use of online ordering services like caviar and Uber Eats to help meet customer demands of those who don’t want to make the trip into the Bella Vista neighborhood. The baking starts before 4 a.m., and continues throughout the day. With more than a century of baking experience, the Isgro family has mastered the art of producing delicious results.
Termini Bros., 1523 S. 8th St., baked a piece of the second-place pie, and Varallo Brothers Bakery, 1639 S. 10th St., got a taste of third.
Appetite for success
Stogie Joe’s Tavern may have only been around since 2008, but it has the feel of a long-time neighborhood bar. In fact, it was one of the progenitors of East Passyunk’s revitalization, partly responsible for making the neighborhood the desirable place to live it is.
Manager Joe DiOrio said he was “happy” and “grateful” toward the Review’s readers for voting Stogie Joe’s, bar menu as being the best in South Philly.
“I think the whole idea is that it’s really fresh, homemade, qual- ity food and drinks that are affordable for people,” said DiOrio. “From a lawyer to a little kids T- ball team, anybody can feel com- fortable sitting at the bar. You’ll make a friend.”
DiOrio said what really makes Stogie Joe’s bar menu the best is the pizza and the antipasto salad with meats and cheeses.
“What really makes it is the housemade red wine herb vinai- grette,” he said.
For the 10 years it has existed, Stogie Joe’s, 1801 E. Passyunk Ave., has proven to be one of the
best bars in the neighborhood for grabbing a cold post-work brew or to watch the game.
The bar was mentioned in a 2014 Huffington Post article that list- ed Philadelphia as one of the seven best cities for pizza in the United States.
“Some of the best include Stogie Joe’s, which serves square pizza with the cheese buried beneath a tangy sauce,” the article read.
What is it that sets Stogie Joe’s apart from the rest? It’s “the feel,” DiOrio explained.
“It’s almost like a ‘Cheers’ type of atmosphere,” he said. “You come in here and you most likely wind up knowing somebody or making a friend.”
Rounding out the list of best bar menus in South Philly was Bar One, 767 S. 9th St., and Toll Man Joe’s, 26 E. Oregon Ave., which finished an appetizing second and third, respectively.
News to brunch on
Sunday is typically the day of the week to go out for brunch. Why wait? Customers of Green Eggs Cafe, 1306 Dickinson St., never have to worry about it as brunch is served seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Popular dishes like chicken and waffles benedict, red velvet pancakes, creme brulee french toast and kitchen sink — three eggs scrambled with sausage crumbles, gruyere cheese, potatoes, peppers and onions, topped with a homemade jumbo biscuit and country style pork sausage gravy in a cast-iron skillet, are great breakfast options, too, and the Readers’ Choice Award for breakfast spot is proof.
“I love it,” Stephen Slaughter, COO of Green Eggs Cafe, said of the win. “It’s always more satisfying when your customers are voting us in because it’s not ones person’s opinion. It’s public opinion.”
Yes, there are plenty of breakfast options around South Philly, ranging from take-out spots to diners to breakfast-centric places. The Green Eggs team never focuses on what the others are doing.
“We are always trying to elevate our quality,” Slaughter said. “We have specials every two weeks.”
In terms of the menu, he said only about 10 of the 40 current items were listed when Green Eggs opened its first location in December 2009. The previously mentioned dishes are among the originals and remain the top sellers. The concept has since expanded to the Northern Liberties and Midtown neighborhoods, with Fishtown coming soon. The South Philly spot, which was previously three row homes, seats about 80. In terms of what stays or goes on the menu, Slaughter said they rely heavily on social media feedback.
“We are always looking to do high-value items,” he said. “We always feel we can cater to everyone, from the person wanting a plain omelette to the more creative.”
Fitzwater Cafe, 728 S. 7th St., enjoyed a taste of second place while Sabrina’s Cafe, 910 Christian St., sampled third place.
Biting into success
Some businesses on this list are newbies who’ve earned the trust and respect of South Philadelphians in a very short period of time. Lombardi’s Prime Meats, 1801 Packer Ave., however, has been around the block once or twice.
In fact, they’ve been around two blocks. The business originally opened at 20th and Jackson and stayed there for more than 50 years. The business moved to its current loca- tion 17 years ago. Once again, they’ve made the final cut as the Readers’ Choice winner for butcher.
“We’re a third-generation business, my father, me and my son,” said owner Anthony Lombardi, whose father and son are both named Vincent. “It’s a family business where we stress service and the highest quality meats you can purchase.”
Lombardi said that there are two main reasons why customers continue to come back to Lombar- di’s. One is the quality of the ingredients.
“All the beef we use, we purchase USDA prime beef,” he said. “It’s really good. It’s the best you can buy.”
The other reason? The strong bonds between the business and its customers.
“A person can come in, and I [already] know what they want,” he said, noting that he knows how all his regular customers like to order their food. Of course, it’s a bit easier for Lombardi to remember everybody’s orders since he spends so much time there. Lombardi, 52, works a 65.5-hour workweek, getting in a 6 a.m. six days a week.
Esposito’s Meats, 1001 S. 9th St., and Cannu- li’s Quality Meats and Poultry, 937–39 S. 9th St., tied for second best, while Dad’s All Natural Stuff- ings, 1615 W. Ritner St., finished in a respectable third place.
Roll-ing with it
If the United States were to officially name a cheesesteak capitol one day, there is no doubt it would be South Philadelphia. The likes of Geno’s, Pat’s and Jim’s are a big draw for tourists. Even President Donald Trump was spotted having a Geno’s cheesesteak during a campaign stop through Philly. But there are so many neighborhood spots that have mastered the art of the cheesesteak. Lorenzo’s Pizza, 900 Christian St., consistently score high marks among SPR readers, and the proof comes in form of a repeat win in this category. Owner Keith Vellios said it’s an honor to be named a Readers’ Choice winner.
“There are so many great options out there. I feel like the people from the neighborhood always come to us,” he said. “It has a local feel to it.”
The win also honors the memory of his father, George Vellios, who started the business 40 years ago. The elder Vellios suddenly passed away earlier this year at the age of 70. Over the years, Keith said he picked up the basics from his father like how to make the dough and sauce for the pizza, dealing with injuries and being friendly with customers.
In terms of the cheesesteak, the Lorenzo’s staff knows many of their customers by name, as well as what each of them likes to order. One of the regulars, who happens to be an attorney from Center City, likes his cheesesteak with a little kick. We’re talking hot peppers, sweet peppers and fried onions. Others prefer just the cheese — choice of provolone, American or Whiz. Lorenzo’s is cash only, but credit card delivery orders can be placed through GrubHub.
John’s Roast Pork, 14 E. Snyder Ave., had a meaty taste of second while the iconic Geno’s, 1219 S. 9th St., made its mark in third.
“I don’t think anybody really knows for sure,” owner Bill Dovas tells the Review when asked how long his restaurant, the Penrose Diner, 2016 Penrose Ave., has been around. “Our group has been here for 20 years now. We’ve done our best to keep up with those changes, and we like to be known as the neighborhood diner.”
Dovas, who said the diner has to be at least 60 years old, was grateful to SPR readers for voting the Penrose Diner as the top diner in the Review’s Readers’ Choice Awards.
“We just wanted to thank the voters and give a lot of credit to the staff,” he said. “The staff is the face of the place. They see who they’re connecting with. We’re grateful to have so many great people working here, and I think that’s what keeps people coming back. “
The diner, which is open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays and from 6 a.m. to midnight all other days, is a popular spot for breakfast.
“Everybody comes for breakfast,” said Dovas. “You can get your typical diner fare, but what might surprise people is that you can eat a good dinner here too.”
According to Dovas, some of the best-selling items on the menu are the crab cakes and the desserts. The diner has a bakery onsite, which bakes fresh pastries, pies, cakes and cookies for all who enter.
Oregon Diner, 302 W. Oregon Ave., plated a second-place result while the Melrose Diner, 1501 Snyder Ave., cooked up a third-place finish.
Feeling like #1
“That’s awesome,” Primo Hoagies’ South Philly store manager Bill Jess said when he learned his store earned the best Italian hoagie honor in the Review’s Readers Choice Awards. “We’ve been waiting to hear back from you guys because every year this is the most important award we can win. It’s our customers, and our actual neighborhood means more than any other award we could possibly win. It’s the only one that matters.”
Primo, like a lot of hoagie spots, uses Thumann’s meats and cheeses. But what really sets it apart is the bread, which, unlike a lot of hoagie spots, the company bakes itself. One other thing that makes it unique: you’re not going to break the bank for a sandwich.
“We’re the lowest price around here,” said Jess.
Rich and Colleen Neigre, who opened the store more than 25 years ago, still own the place.
“They all started making sandwiches, and his main thing was he used the best bread and meat he could possibly get,” Jess said. “He started selling to his buddies and then decided to open a store.”
Jess said that every now and then Primo’s will mix up the formula, “but sticking to the actual original basics is what keeps us №1 year after year.”
In addition to the quality of the hoagies and their ingredients, the other thing that really sets Primo’s apart, Jess feels, is the customer service you’ll find at the store.
“We have a great relationship with the local neighborhood,” he said. “We appreciate every new customer. It takes years to gain one, and it takes a second to lose one. Every new customer is treated like one who’s been coming for ages. There’s no difference.”
Ricci’s Hoagies, 1165 S. 11th St., and Pastaficio, 1528 Packer Ave., sandwiched their way into the second and third place spots, respectively.
Taste of something new
There is no doubt the South Philly restaurant scene is hot, so hot that new places are opening on a regular basis. The new restaurant category ended up being one of the tighter Readers’ Choice races, but in the end, Barcelona Wine Bar, 1709 E. Passyunk Ave., claimed the prize. The tasty Spanish tapas, and of course wine, registered high marks with customers.
“It’s an honor to be acknowledged for this award. It’s truly a testament to our team, their hard work, and our commitment to this community,” general manager John Scott said.
Barcelona took over the space previously occupied by A Man’s Image, which Abe Mandel owned for 60 years. The restaurant concept existed in other parts of the country. Including the New England area and Washington, D.C., before moving into the East Passyunk Crossing neighborhood. The newcomer on the avenue participated in the recently wrapped up East Passyunk Restaurant Week. Scott and his team are excited about being part of the vibrant avenue scene. Customers come in throughout the day to enjoy tapas items or a glass of wine at the bar. Some are people they have gotten to know from neighboring businesses.
“We have developed relationships with the local businesses that we really value, such as the hair salons, the cleaners, and the other shops — the people working right around us have become some of our regulars and often recommend us to their customers,” Scott said.
Pulpo, hanger steak, patatas bravas along with the jamón and manchego croquettes are some of the most popular items. With spring almost here, chef Will Shaw and his team plan on adding ramps and some soft shell crab, but the exact date has yet to be confirmed.
“One of the things I love most about what we do is how we’re always changing the menu based on what’s fresh and exciting while staying true to our concept — and our classic Spanish dishes are, of course, a constant on the menu.” Scott said.
Shaw is one of the newer additions to the Barcelona team, replacing executive chef Paras Shah, who ran the kitchen when the restaurant opened last year.
“Chef Will has a great approach to managing the kitchen and creating new dishes. He’s also willing to listen and take into account guest feedback, which has been very impactful,” Scott said. “Our guests like to get involved in South Philly, and we appreciate their input — we’re here for them, after all.”
Chick’s, 1807 Washington Ave., raised a glass to second place, while Mattei Family Pizza, 1260 Point Breeze Ave., took a slice of praise in third.
One more slice
For the second year in a row, City Pizza has been crowned winner of the Review’s Readers’ Choice Award for pizza.
“I’m very happy with it,” the store’s manager Bruce Nagel said. “Customers seem to like it.”
And there’s a lot to like. Nagle said some of the most popular items on the menu include the shop’s pulled pork pizza and the pizzazz. And of course there’s always good old plain and pepperoni. Even better, there are locations at Front Street and Snyder Avenue and 16th Street and Oregon Avenue.
For those looking for a slight twist on the typical plain pie, there’s the “old style” pie, which features crushed tomato gravy, sliced mozzarella, and fresh garlic and parsley in a thin-crust square pizza. If you order it on a Thursday, it’s $1 off.
Other selections from the menu include the buffalo chicken pizza, the meat lover’s pizza and the smothered fry pizza, which is a fresh, hand-tossed pizza smothered with french fries, three cheeses, bacon and ranch dressing.
The business has had the same owner, Bob Petril, it’s had since it opened in 1993. That’s why, according to Nagel, the food is just as good now as it was then.
“It’s the best way to have a business — don’t change the people and the food doesn’t change,” he said. “Same recipes and you don’t change anything. Consistency keeps the people happy.”
Most of all, Nagel is very proud of taking the title two years in a row.
“I appreciate the customers staying with us,” he said. “The voting is nice, but I appreciate them staying with us.”
Lorenzo’s Pizza, 9th and Christian streets, finished in a cheesy second place, while Uncle Oogie’s, 36 E. Snyder Ave., and 2119 W. Oregon Ave., took third.
Deep in the heart of South Philly, along the 1500 block of Packer Avenue, Pastaficio fixes hoagies, hot sandwiches, salads and in- side outs daily. According to SPR readers, they make the best specialty sandwich in South Philly.
“It’s an honor to get the award from people from South Philly,” said Anthony Messina, co-owner of Pas- taficio, 1528 Packer Ave., along with Frank Sangiulia- no. “We have a big South Philly clientele.”
Messina and Sangiuliano never really intended on becoming the kings of the South Philly specialty sand- wiches they’ve become. In fact, when they first started, all they wanted to do was make homemade pasta.
“We were just going to do homemade pasta and prepared foods,” Messina said, “but people started asking us for sandwiches and the sandwich busi- ness kept growing from there on in.”
Pastaficio still makes homemade pasta and also added chicken cutlets to the menu, which Messina said are “really popular.”
In fact, in honor of the Eagles’ recent Super Bowl win, they’ve added a new item to the menu called the “Philly Special.” It features chicken cut- lets doused in BBQ sauce, topped with American cheese.
Like many other business owners, Messina stresses that consistency is the biggest reason why customers keep coming back.
Concetta Varallo and her husband John are no strangers to success. For the past 15 years, their restaurant, Ristorante Pesto, 1915 S. Broad St., has been a South Philly staple for high quality, fine Italian food. Before that, they owned a restaurant called Io E Tu at 9th and Dickinson, which was also a neighborhood favorite.
“We owe it all to the customers,” said Concetta. “A lot of family members and friends have been with us for throughout the 15 years.”
Ristorante Pesto, the Readers’ Choice winner for South Philly Restaurant. is arguably South Philly’s closest thing you’ll find to the kind of authentic Italian food you’d find in Italy. That’s because John Varallo was trained in the culinary arts in Naples, Italy. One of the couple’s daughters, Maria, is also a chef at the restaurant. They have two other daughters as well: Gianna, who works as a bartender at Pesto and Christina, one of the restaurant’s bussers.
The restaurant is located right in the heart of South Philly.
“We loved the area. It was close to all the sporting the events and theater of the arts,” Concetta said.
At Pesto, customers will experience a lot of things that make their dining experience unique. For instance, all the food — including the pasta — is homemade, customers get free appetizers and the serving sizes are generous.
“We always give out containers because nobody seems to finish everything,” said Concetta.
The restaurant has plenty of options to choose from as well. Perhaps too many, which is never a bad problem to have.
“We have a five-page menu and 20 specials,” boasted Concetta.
One of the most sought after dishes at Pesto is the cavatelli pasta, which features lobster, shrimp and crab meat in a rose sauce. Rachael Ray bestowed the title of “best pasta dish” upon it during an episode of her TV show.
Because the restaurant is №1 (out of 3,629) on TripAdvisor’s best restaurants in Philadelphia, the Varallos have welcomed in people from all over the world, including Romania, Australia and Kenya.
Rounding out the top three in the list of South Philly’s best restaurants is Villa Di Roma, 936 S. 9th St., which came in second, and Scannicchio’s, 2500 S. Broad St., which came in third.