Sal and Tony D’Angelo, formerly of Messina, Sicily, opened D’Angelo’s at 256 S. 20th St., on February 5, 1990. Starting this Saturday, Jan. 31, a week-long celebration will attract crowds who have been drawn to the wonderful Italian food, Sal and Tony’s personalities and to the other retailers and dining spots on the block
By Theodore N. Beitchman
The brothers are sitting in the afternoon shadows, perched to take advantage of the balmy weather that often attracts outdoor diners to their legendary restaurant.
On 20th Street, just off Rittenhouse Square, neighbors are whizzing by on foot, bike and car. And they all seem to know these most quintessential Philadelphians.
“Hi Sal, how are you doing?”
“Hey Tony, what’s good tonight?”
And Sal and Tony seem to know everyone.
“Hey Barbara, how was the swim?” Sal calls out to an attorney with hair still wet as she hustles from the Lombard Swim Club, the aquatic equivalent of Merion Cricket with a waiting list seemingly longer than Merion’s.
To call Sal and Tony D’Angelo the Mayors of 20th Street would not be an exaggeration.
Their eponymous Italian restaurant has been at 256 S. 20th – between Spruce and Walnut — since February 5, 1990, when it opened without fanfare to a standing room only crowd on a cold winter night in the teeth of one of the worst economic periods in Philly history.
And D’Angelo’s has been packed ever since — 25 years of fine Italian dining, what has become one of the trendiest bars in town, a massive flat screen, the better to watch the brothers’ sainted soccer heroes and Phils, Flyers and Sixers, and dancing on Friday and Saturday night.
In a town only known for great restaurants in the past 20 or 30 years, where chefs get hot and then fall from favor, there is no more enduring chef than Tony D’Angelo, who came to Philly from his native Messina, Sicily in 1967, and started in the kitchen of Jimmy’s Milan on 19th Street just north of Chestnut.
It is hard to imagine now, since Philly has become one the hottest dining out towns in the country, but in 1967 it was a food wasteland.
The highest-profile spot was Bookinder’s at 2nd and Walnut, but for the most part that was a tourist trap and the food was mediocre. Mitchell’s and Arthur’s were the only real Center City steak joints, the Hunt Room at the Bellevue was good for lunch and Gino’s on Walnut served fine Italian fare. Georges Perrier’s Le Bec-Fin was still three years away, and Stephen Starr’s empire wasn’t even a gleam in the 12-year-old’s bright eyes.
But the bar-none, take-it-to-the-bank hottest spot in town was the Milan, with its Milan salad, great veal and steak and pasta, jumping bar and eclectic clientele.
And lines waiting to get in almost every night.
Cops and criminals mixed seamlessly at Jimmy’s, district attorneys, other pols and notables were there every night. Leonard Tose, who would inherit a thriving trucking company and buy the Eagles, pissing away both with his uncontrolled high living, was in five nights a week. Ballplayers, actresses, models, Frank Rizzo who would soon be mayor, Joe Rizzo the fire chief, Tom Foglietta, Muhammad Ali, Dr. J.
“I used to eat there at least four times a week,” the late Jerry Wolman, who bought the Eagles in 1964 and sold them to Tose five years later, said in 2010. “And when I was headed back to D. C. I used to get orders to go. Tell Tony and Sal I said hello.”
Into this environment came Tony D’Angelo with his long hair and beard.
Tony and the Milan was not an ideal marriage.
“It was rough,” Tony says today as he sat outside in the late-summer sun. “I didn’t understand the system and I didn’t understand English. Jimmy [DiBattista, the Milan owner] told me every time I learned 10 new words I would get an extra 10 dollars a week.
“Within two years I was running the kitchen.”
“At first he didn’t like working for me,” Tony, who is now 64, says of Sal, 60.
But the brothers had a mother, sister and Tony’s young daughter to support.
“In those days, Chestnut Street was the big shopping street, not Walnut, so there was a natural clientele,” Tony says with a nostalgic tone in his voice.
Sal would ultimately direct his talents to the marble business and real estate, but he always kept an eye on his younger brother.
And when the Milan expanded into the building next door, Sal was in the kitchen with Tony, who was essentially running the business.
“It was very crowded in there,” Sal says with a laugh.
All through the 1970s and ‘80s Tony was the maestro of the Milan and Sal, who had gone to South Philly High and Community College on a scholarship, had learned English well enough to entertain his dream of becoming a singer.
All the while, there were rumors of a Milan sale, and Tony got tired of waiting for the shoe to fall.
“They stopped listening to me,” Tony says, and he and Sal started plotting their move.
“Sal wanted to open our own place a long time before we actually did,” Tony admits. “I was worried. I was married and had kids, so I had responsibilities. Sal was single.
“I was running Jimmy’s and wasn’t making enough money, and every year Jimmy’s father talked about giving me more money or a piece of the place. I old them I would never leave unless I had a chance to open my own place.”
Sal looked around and settled on the former home of Marco Polo, at 20th and Rittenhouse Sts., buying it in August of 1989. The building was owned by the Rago family, which had a fruit store next door, and when Sal made the proposal to his brother, “Tony turned me down.”
“The location wasn’t an issue,” Sal remembers, “but Tony thought that people wouldn’t walk up the three floors.”
Sal struck a deal with Harmon Spollan of Jefferson Bank, who knew Sal was a savvy businessman because he was his banker at the marble business.
“I paid $800,000, with $3,000 down,” Sal marvels.
“And I told Tony that I had to put $50,000 down and that I would lose the Fifty K if he didn’t come in with me.”
Tony was doing better at Jimmy’s but he didn’t know if the restaurant would close.
“I couldn’t get any answers,” he says.
So he gave notice, worked till New Year’s Eve and he joined Sal and their sister Magdalena – Lena to everyone who knew her — and opened D’Angelo’s on Feb. 5, 1990.
Neighbors walking by over that weekend saw the little sign in the window: Open Monday.
There were no ads in the papers, just word of mouth, especially from the Milan regulars. “Where’s Tony?” they asked.
That Monday was cold and snow flakes fell periodically. The weather mirrored the economy, as the nation was slipping into a recession. Streets weren’t repaved or plowed of snow, trash was collected late. The homeless were becoming a real social problem and an impediment to business.
“Homeless people were begging outside the Academy of Music,” a Rittenhouse Square attorney and a D’Angelo’s regular pointed out.
Into this economic environment, which would propel Ed Rendell into the mayoralty the next year, came a business that would change life on Rittenhouse Square.
“I closed every bank account I had just to get the money to make the opening work,” Sal says.
And at 5 p. m. on the dot, the doors were thrown open with Tony and Lena in the kitchen, Sal working the front and Gus tending bar.
Gus Tsikouras isn’t an official member of the D’Angelo family but he might as well be. Many of the restaurant’s most valued employees are members of the family, and as many of the patrons who know Sal and Tony and Lena (who passed away in December 2009) just as many know Gus, who is often the first face they see when they enter. He has been there since 1990, and he walks through rain, sun and cold every day from his home in the art museum area.
“By 5:30 that first night,” Sal recalls, “I got summoned to the kitchen” where Tony was doing what he does best – preparing sirloin puttanesca, veal chops, D’Angelo’s Salads (patterned after the Milan Salad), antipastos and all versions of pasta.
There was a mob of people at the bar, waiting for tables and even more outside trying to get in. All three floors were packed, and “I went outside and gave people in line bottles of wine,” Sal admits now.
“I couldn’t believe how crowded we were.”
D’Angelo’s has been open for lunch almost since Day 1, and the restaurant expanded in 1994, buying the building next door from the Ragos.
Soccer is sweeping the U. S. now, with the Union, the local MLS team packing ‘em in at PPL Park in Chester, which will soon be expanded from its 18,000 capacity to 30,000. The recent Euro Cup and the 2010 World Cup created great business for local soccer bars, with crowds lined up at 7 a.m. to feast and drink before the action begins on TV.
But Sal and Tony were soccer fanatics before it was cool.
“I started playing when I was 9,” Tony says. “And I started playing later,” Sal counters.
“And after work at Jimmy’s,” Tony says, we used to drive to New York and wait till the games started at 7:30 a.m. We used to go to a special place in Brooklyn.”
The D’Angelo soccer identity is easily discerned when one enters the restaurant – a line-up of 25 soccer balls, each signifying a different World Cup championship — sets atop the liquor wall behind the bar that also includes an Italian banner.
And though the restaurant had only an ancient anagram TV set with no cable when it first opened — a March Madness viewer at the bar had to peer through lots of snow to make out the score — a giant flat screen now dominates an entire wall.
But getting reception for the brothers’ favorite soccer games and news from their mother country was another story.
“We started getting a lot of Comcast people in,” Sal recalls the mid-1990s, “and we told them, ‘You guys are losing millions of dollars but not having RAI,’” the state-owned Italian network the provides news and sports.’ ”
The brothers couldn’t wait, and they ordered the Dish Network, which has an expended soccer package, before Comcast made RAI available along with a slew of soccer networks.
The food is too good to describe D’Angelo’s as a soccer restaurant, but many locals do come in, eat at the bar and watch the Phils, Sixers or Flyers. Not the Eagles, only because with the exception of Mother’s Day Sunday is a day of rest.
And D’Angelo’s reputation has made it around the National League. “Cliff Lee comes in to watch college basketball,” Sal says, “Tommy LaSorda likes bean soup and calamari, Joe Torre brought in a bunch of Dodgers and paid for everyone, Tony LaRussa would walk up from the 4 Seasons.”
“After we bought the building next door, we expanded on each floor,” Sal says, pointing out that he did the work in house. “And the space just off the main room is perfect for dancing.”
So each Friday and Saturday night, a completely different clientele comes to D’Angelo’s — younger, hipper, more rambunctious than the typical dining crowd — to dance the night away.
It would be fair to say that 20th St. goes through a metamorphisis, which is not always appreciated by the folks who reside on Rittenhouse Street and endure the extra traffic and noise as the clock approached midnight.
“A few neighbors were upset at first,” Sal says, “but we made sure the parking issue was taken care of with valet parking and we make sure the noise is at a minimum.”
Twentieth Street has also gone through a change of life in the 24 years that D’Angelo’s has been its anchor. The Rago fruit stand has made way for Maxx designer fruit store across the street, which is on the same side as Twenty Manning, one of the hippest bars and restaurants in town, which was opened by the Audrey Claire Taichman, whose Audrey Claire has anchored the south side of the street for more than 15 years. And in 2011 Taichman took over the seemingly haunted space caddie corner from D’Angelo’s with Cook, a 16-seat cooking/classroom that is almost always filled.
And then there is Spread Bagelry, which specializes in “Bagels made the Montreal way” — who knew that Canadian-style bagels are even better than New York-style! And The Bakeshop, a relatively new and popular bakery across the street. For the more mundane there are the 7-Eleven on the corner of 20th and Locust, in the space of a former Wawa which had been empty for three years, and Food and Friends on the corner of 20th and Spruce which draws a young clientele and also features the cheapest Nantucket Nectar ($1.49) in the city.
It is not true that D’Angelo’s created all this economic activity, but it is fair to say that Sal and Tony created a climate that makes people feel, well, welcome.
“All our lives we have tried to do a good job for people,” Sal says matter-of-factly about he and his brother Tony.
After 25 years, the people seem to agree.