RALPH'S ITALIAN RESTAURANT – A CENTURY OF EXCELLENCE
It was 1893 when Francesco and Catherine Dispigno and their little boy Ralph arrived at Ellis Island, from Italy. Like many others, they believed that this country was a place where they could make a good life for themselves and pursue the fabled "American Dream".
The Dispignos knew that the only way to success was hard work and they weren't afraid of that. Leaving New York they made their way to Philadelphia where they settled down in an Italian enclave, around 9th and Catherine Sts., and began to fashion their dream.
In 1900, it was the dawn of the 20th Century and South Philadelphia's population was exploding. Francesco's neighborhood was made up of hard workers, men and women who toiled from sunrise to sunset and who, often times, went home virtually too tired to eat.
Francesco had a vision. He felt that his neighbors would appreciate a place where they could go and get a good meal and some refreshment. As a family man with a 10-year-old son he believed in his heart that his neighborhood was the right place for a small restaurant and so he gathered all his savings and took a chance.
His vision led him to a building at 901 Montrose Street in South Philadelphia, which he rented and where Francesco opened his restaurant. The Dispigno family worked hard at their new business. The restaurant meant long, long hours and lots of hard work but they were equal to the challenge.
In 1905 their son Ralph, now 15, was forced to leave school and work full-time in the family business, the restaurant. It was that point that Francesco realized that his restaurant was destined to be a long-term family business and he purchased the Montrose Street building outright. As much of a visionary as Francesco was, however, it is doubtful that he ever dreamed that, one day, his restaurant would be America's oldest family-owned Italian restaurant which, of course, it is today. (1.)
For the next decade the restaurant grew and prospered and in 1915 the Dispignos made a major decision. Their business had simply outgrown the Montrose Street location. The Dispignos searched South Philadelphia for a bigger place and found a boarding house, built in the late 1800's, at 760 South 9th Street that fit the bill. They purchased the boarding house – and another house on the same block, where Francesco and Catheine would reside – and moved the business to where it stands today.
Without missing a beat, they converted the first two floors to dining space, installed a fashionable wood bar, and continued their 15-year-tradition of serving Italian food to their South Philly neighbors.
In reality, though, they served more than their neighbors. Because the restaurant is located in the heart of the legendary Italian Market merchants from all over the tri-State area converged daily on 9th Street and began to sample the excellent food at the restaurant – and their reputation spread.
Ralph loved the business and was an apt pupil and his father, Francesco, taught him well. The restaurant flourished and Ralph became one of the leading businessmen in South Philadelphia. He used the bedrooms on the third floor of his building as a small hotel and it served as the first home in the New World for several of his immigrant cooks and waiters. Francesco passed away in the early 1930's but, by then, Ralph was in complete charge of the day-to-day operation.
Ralph Dispigno Jr., Ralph's oldest son who still makes his presence felt at the restaurant, recalls that the rooms were still being occupied by Italian immigrants well in to the late 1940's. "My Father would sponsor people who wanted to come to this country," Ralph recalled, "and they would live up there on the third floor until they got on their feet."
Ralph Sr. had six children, Frank, Catherine, Ralph Jr., Eleanor, Michael and Elaine. Today Elaine Dodaro, the youngest of Ralph's children, serves as president and treasurer of the restaurant. Her sons, Jimmy Rubino Jr. and Eddie Rubino, are the owners/operators of the restaurant. They are the fourth generation of family to be involved in the restaurant. The fifth generation of the family, Ryan and Alexis, are Actively involved in the business.
Ralph Jr. was born in 1929 unfortunately just in time to see his 39-year-old father lose virtually everything he owned in the stock market crash. Everything, that is, except the family business. "My father owned property all over South Philadelphia when the market crashed he lost it all, everything but his restaurant. I remember hearing stories about how my parents (Ralph and Mary) sold bowls of spaghetti and meatballs out the front door for five cents just to keep a roof over our heads," Ralph said.
The depression and prohibition would have been enough to wipe out a less hearty family but not the Dispignos, they kept working, kept offering the same quality of food and service that they always had and their city-wide customer base responded with their support and kept them going.
Ralph's general manager Ronnie Trombino is told by an old time customer of the days when Ralph would serve wine to his "good customers" in coffee cups during the time of prohibition.
The family has always been a big part of the business and as Ralph and Mary's kids grew they took their jobs seriously. Ralph Jr. learned to be an excellent chef, Michael and Eleanor both tended bar and Elaine was a waitress. Both Ralph Jr. and Michael were promising musicians, but both sacrificed their musical careers for the restaurant. It was the family thing, and the right thing to do, Ralph Jr. said.
During World War II when "manpower" was at a premium Eleanor recalls how she would come in and clean the restaurant in the morning and then moved out in to the kitchen where she helped in any way she could.
Elaine remembers days that she'd be home with her two sons when her father would come to the house and say "honey we need you at the restaurant" and she'd have no choice – or no second thoughts – about going there to help. "It would usually be that someone, a dishwasher maybe, a waiter, had called in sick and my Father was short-handed," she recalled.
Like his father before him, Ralph Dispigno was a pillar of the community. He was honored countless times for his civic involvement and served as president of the Madonna House in the St. Paul's Roman Catholic Parish for eleven years.
Elaine laughs when she recalls that her father ran the annual St. Paul's charity banquet for many years. "People would come here to eat and before they left my father had sold them a ticket to the banquet. It was always sold out," she recalled. On March 29, 1966 the Italian Government honored him and the title of "Cavaliere" was bestowed upon him.
It was about that time that little Jimmy & Eddie Rubino began to take an interest in the family business run by their beloved "Poppy". Jimmy was five years old, Eddie was nine, when they started to "work" at the restaurant. "They were born for this business," they said, "never a day has gone by that we didn't view this restaurant, this business, as our destiny."
Jimmy was a serious five-year-old and he told his Mom, Elaine, that he should be dressed just like all the other members of the restaurant staff. "In those days our waiters wore red jackets, white shirts and black pants and I went crazy trying to find a red jacket for Jimmy," she recalls. One day she was in center city Philadelphia shopping at Strawbridge and Clothier's and she spied a bright red kid's vest – it was perfect. Jimmy had his uniform.
And so every Sunday, just like all the other waiters and staff members, little Jimmy and Eddie would walk from their home – which happened to be next door – to the restaurant carrying their "uniform" on a hanger. they would then go to the third floor and change like everyone else. It was the dawn of the fourth generation of family ownership.
By the time he was 13 Jimmy's Uncle Ralph had already taught him how to cook.
Jimmy began as a busboy and then became a waiter, a job he held until he was 18 years old – it was then that he seriously turned his focus toward the kitchen. Eddie also followed in th same path.
In a business where a five-year-run is the norm, Ralph's for over 100 years has been serving consistently great food. This is a restaurant that has been in business through the terms of 20 American Presidents, that has survived two World Wars, a depression, prohibition, and countless local and national tragedies. It has been an oasis of fine dining for a century and has been honored countless times.
In recent years we have been the recipient of seven "Best of Philly" awards (Philadelphia Magazine), ten "Reader's Choice" awards (The City Paper), and consistently receives Zagat's survey's highest scores. We believe that the next 100 years will be just as exciting as the first 100.
(1.) Fiore D'Italia, a San Francisco restaurant, commissioned and published an extensive survey on Italian restaurants in America in 1997. Their findings indicated that their restaurant, founded in 1899, was the nation's oldest but had gone through several different owners. Ralph's Restaurant in Philadelphia, founded a year later, was the oldest still owned by the same family in the country.