You should have been here earlier! The construction workers were some comedians today.”
As I stepped into the Five Dollar Foot Long truck, located at 12th and Norris streets, this was how I was greeted by the two people inside. Sylvia Ndreu, wearing a Temple basketball T-shirt, worked at the front window handling the orders. Billy Ndreu, the chef, unpacked a box of eggs.
“The construction workers earlier this morning were a riot,” Sylvia said. “I told them they should hang around until you get here!”
As I looked around, it was immediately apparent that the couple takes particular care of their food truck.
“Food safety is our No. 1 concern,” Sylvia said.
Each morning they meticulously check the temperatures on all of their appliances to ensure they’re up to the standard. The vending machine must be below 40 degrees, the steam table above 155 degrees.
“All of the machines have to be bleached down daily,” Sylvia said. “It takes time, but it’s worth it.”
As Billy stepped outside to move the couple’s pick-up truck to a closer spot, Sylvia stepped in his place to prepare an order — a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich on a Kaiser roll. As the bacon sizzled on the griddle, she told me it came from a farm in Haddonfield, N.J.
“Everything is fresh,” she said. “We get the freshest bread, freshest produce — all from Jersey.”
“We know it tastes better, and the kids keep coming back,” Sylvia added.
Billy came back into the truck to finish the sandwich Sylvia started to make.
“Billy used to be a gourmet chef,” Sylvia said.
I asked him why he left, and he said that the catering business just wasn’t fruitful anymore.
“Our landlord decided to hike our rent, so we decided to try a food truck,” Sylvia said. “It’s only five days a week. It’s perfect.”
As the two shared a brief conversation, I began to realize that a few of the words they were using were not in English. I asked them what they were speaking, and Sylvia told me it was Albanian.
“I was born in Albania, but I came here when I was 6 months old and I haven’t gone back,” she said. “Billy’s from Naples.”
As an Italian minor, I was immediately intrigued.
“Naples?” I asked.
“Yes,” Billy said. “In 1958, I caught the very last boat to Ellis Island. No joke, the very last one.”
Living only a few feet away from the streets where the famous Feast of San Gennaro is held, it was in New York City that Billy learned to cook from a Neapolitan woman named Anna.
“She taught me everything,” he said.
Billy showed me a box of his chicken tenders — not pre-packaged from a factory, but individually hand cut and breaded by him.
“People from other trucks are always trying to get a peek at how he does it,” Sylvia said.
Besides being known for its good prices and good food, Sylvia and Billy’s truck is known for something special — their interaction. Part loving couple, part irritated friends — any given conversation between the two of them can go from complimentary to downright petulant in a matter of seconds.
The pair met in New York City 30 years ago, and have been together since.
“That’s what happens when you sneak out to the club when you’re underage,” Sylvia said. “I say we’ve been married for 60 years because we work together. It’s like overtime.”
As one kid stepped up to the window to pay for a sandwich, he asked Sylvia whether they take debit cards or Diamond Dollars.
“Sorry sweetheart,” she said. “We don’t take either of them.”
Realizing he had no cash to pay for the sandwich that was just made, Sylvia told him not to worry.
“If you don’t have it, dear, I’ll just put your name down,” she said.
He thanked her and walked away with his breakfast.
I told her that was an awful lot of trust to put on a college kid.
“Yeah, but what are you going to do?” she said. “Should we let a kid starve? Ninety-nine percent of the time they come back, and they appreciate what you do for them.”
As she looked out the window at a crowd of students, it is apparent how much she appreciates Temple folk.
“My regulars, I can tell when they’ve just gotten a bad grade on a test or something, but I tell them they’ll get it next time,” Sylvia said. “They always do.”
One man came up to the window and before saying anything, Sylvia called out an order, “Ham and cheese, no ketchup.”
The man smiled and walked away.
Sylvia shook her head like a knowing mother.
“He gets it every time,” she said.
It’s apparent that the operation has devoted fans. I asked Billy what his secret is, and he told me, “It’s all in the hands. You can give two pizza guys the same ingredients and the pizza will come out different. It’s all about who’s making it. I think these Temple folks like us just like we like them, you know? We care.”
Suddenly, Sylvia got excited. “Ah, here comes one again! How you doing, dear?”
As I looked out the window, I saw it was one of the construction workers Sylvia had mentioned earlier. While chatting, Sylvia made him a cup of coffee.
I asked the gentleman why he keeps coming back to the truck.
“That’s easy,” he said. Sylvia hands him the fresh coffee, and he takes a sip. “They make it just like I would make it.”
Annie Nardolilli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.