Family, friends and fun – it’s a simple but perfect summary of East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia. Part old-school Italian neighborhood, part up-and-coming Philly hotspot, Passyunk is a tight-knit community that offers something for everyone.
“Family is very important for the children. It’s more powerful and they learn respect,” Maria di Marco said. She is seated in the back of her restaurant Mamma Maria’s with her three grandchildren. Di Marco, affectionately called “Mamma,” is a petite but feisty signora who has gained a reputation for her authentic Italian cooking, especially her homemade limoncello and hand-rolled gnocchi. She opened the doors of Mamma Maria’s at 1637 E. Passyunk Ave. on Mother’s Day in 1992.
Mamma insisted that her success comes from the mother’s touch she puts in all of her recipes and the warm personality of her staff, whom she refers to as her children.
“I am a simple woman. I’m not good at making big plates. I’m just Mamma,” she said. “You come here and it’s not a looks show, it’s about family. Everybody loves their mama and they love me, too.”
While her meals are not works of art for the eyes, they are masterpieces for the palate. Her recipes call for nothing more than household cooking items, fresh ingredients and patience.
With a show airing on WBYE public television every Sunday, Mamma is looking for new avenues to express herself. Although she juggles her role as restaurant owner, television host and mother, her next goal is to get a book published. “It’s very important to stay on the top of your game, because many businesses do not, and they fail,” she said. “I cook because I don’t want to wash dishes.”
Another Passyunk hotspot is Roselena’s Coffee Bar, located at 1623 E. Passyunk Ave. Owner Terry Masino named her restaurant after her mother.
“We wanted to bring back family into the area,” Masino said. “We all come from family, no matter what ethnic entity you come from.”
Designed in the vintage style of art nouveau, Roselena’s has an ambiance that makes it easy to put romance in the air. One wall, adorned with lace, frills and family wedding photos, was nicknamed “the wedding wall” because so many men have proposed there, Masino said. Roselena’s also has a dessert menu scrumptious enough to put an overindulgent person in a diabetic coma. It was rated the Best Coffee House in America by Zagat’s four years in a row.
On the patriarchal side of the Passyunk spectrum is Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar, located at 1200 E. Passyunk Ave. It is a laid-back establishment that knows how to treat its regulars right. “It’s a fun place. No trouble, cheap drinks and lots of fun,” said owner Lou Capozzoli, a stunning Tony Bennett look-a-like with a penchant for telling jokes. “You’ve got to leave happy at this bar.”
Opened in 1938 by the late Ray Capozzoli, the bar got its name from his habit of wishing customers a “happy birthday” when they came in. His son, Lou, took over the business after his father’s death and added “The Happy Birthday Bar” to the title to carry on his father’s tradition. Customers are given one free drink on their birthday with proper identification.
“[U.S. Rep.] Bob Brady congratulated me and said that adding ‘The Happy Birthday Bar’ to the name was the best thing we could have done,” Capozzoli said. “I love my father. This has always been my father’s bar.”
Conveniently located 40 steps from Geno’s Steaks and open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar is a popular spot for both tourists and residents young and old who come for the staff’s cheap drinks, sense of humor and hospitality. The walls of Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar are covered in autographed photographs of famous athletes, entertainers and satisfied customers that span decades. The floor of the bar still has a trough that served as a spittoon when such behavior was acceptable.
“It’s a great conversation piece,” Capozzoli said.
Ray’s also offers karaoke, live bands and jam sessions. His bar is one of the few places where one can listen to and play with top-level jazz musicians, thanks to Jazz Soup, a Passyunk coalition aimed at bringing artists together.
“There are jazz musicians that come from all parts of Philly, and they come to Ray’s and get together with no rules and limitations,” said J. Stradler, who helps run Jazz Soup. “Through that they can network, work together or just jam. Certain years, jazz is on the down slope and other years, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot jazz is cool.'”
The Beautiful World Syndicate is another stop for music aficionados. Recently opened, it has an eclectic range of CDs and records from the jazz, indie rock and hardcore punk genres, among others. The store prides itself on having cheaper prices and a focus on selling used items. “Our goal is to have the hottest selection of used records and CDs in town,” reads their official Web site.
The East Passyunk Civic and Crossing Association helps to strengthen community bonds by improving the quality of life while maintaining the area’s sense of diversity.
“Instead of [the whole community] trying to have their voices heard, we try to organize people into a chorus for change. I’ve met so many people through East Passyunk Crossing that I never would have gotten the chance to work with,” said Darren Fava, co-chair of the association. “It’s about bringing people together.”
Jimmy Viola can be reached at email@example.com.