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In a changing South Philly, a classic deli stumbles upon a milestone | Mike Newall

All Mike and Matt Silvano knew about the origins of their deli was found in a grainy photo of the original owner. Turns out, it's history goes back a long time. 100 years?

Matt Silvano, Girolama Giambri (center), and Flavia Carabello stand behind the counter at Matt and Mike's Italian Deli in South Philadelphia, where four generations of owners met to celebrate the place's anniversary.
Matt Silvano, Girolama Giambri (center), and Flavia Carabello stand behind the counter at Matt and Mike's Italian Deli in South Philadelphia, where four generations of owners met to celebrate the place's anniversary.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Mike Silvano, co-proprietor of Mike & Matt’s Italian Market, was staring at the black-and-white photo above his meat slicer. The picture that held a riddle he wanted to solve: How old is his corner store at Camac and Mifflin?

This was not idle speculation. He had counted the years racked up by the previous three owners the best he could. The deli was clearly old. Maybe even possibly turning 100. Mike liked the ring of that: 100. Sure, he wanted to know the history of the shop he and his brother bought 13 years ago, but he also figured he could do something with the anniversary.

“I’m thinking, nostalgic,” Mike said. “I like that idea — nostalgic.”

The new people in his changing neighborhood seemed to like nostalgia, he noticed. The old-school stuff. Just like they liked the new, vinyl hardwood floors he’d just put in — which he fancies afford a little Old World touch.

Mike spends a lot of time thinking about the new people in the neighborhood, because the old people in the neighborhood keep moving or dying (10 long-time customers have passed in the last six months alone, Mike said).

Those who are still around call themselves the leftovers.

Like Johnny Dings, who runs the deli’s celebrity death pool and stopped to recount the latest affront to his existence: a hipster type at the local Acme who falsely accused Dings of cutting in line. Dings assured him that, had it been 1986, he would have been rewarded with a Johnny Dings’ haymaker.

“I’ve been in this zip code 47 years," he shouted, "and I’m the leftover?”

In this way, Mike has become something of an East Passyunk anthropologist. Keeping a possibly 100-year-old Italian corner deli in business these days means keeping up with the strange new habits of millennials. (“That term ‘millennial?’ You don’t know what that’s all about until you actually stop and talk to someone,” he told me, cryptically.)

Anyway, the photo. It’s a grainy shot of old man Giambri, the deli’s first owner, his wife, and their oldest son, standing proudly behind the counter. The shelves are stocked to bursting, their goods lined up so beautifully. A group of customers poses in the corner. But the photo is a tease — when you lean in close, the faces blur. (“Because of the pixels,” said Mike, who printed it from a text from the surviving Giambris. “I couldn’t do nothing with the pixels.”)

So Mike stopped staring at the photo and picked up the phone, dialing the granddaughter of the store’s second owner, Nick Giambri — second son of Filippo. She had stopped in with her mother and grandmother three years ago, and marveled that the old family deli was still going. Tears were shed. But no one ever got down to history.

Then last week, Mike waved me over as I picked up my regular ration of chicken cutlets.

“I think we may be turning 100,” he said.

So I made some calls of my own.

On the phone from Manhattan, Phillip Giambri, Filippo’s grandson, told me about his namesake, who’d emigrated from Caccamo, Sicily, in 1905. Serious and reserved, with a bushy head of black hair and a trim mustache, he married Salvatora Zagone from his hometown. Dora, as she was known, was a free spirit with a taste for the finer things who loved to sing and dance.

Filippo was a respected figure on Mifflin, known to offer a helping hand, whether it be the wooden produce crates he left out for neighbors to use for firewood during the Depression, or rides to the hospital or downtown in his ’39 Plymouth, one of the only cars on the block. The couple raised three kids upstairs.

Phillip remembers the overwhelmingly beautiful aroma of his grandparents’ shop — barrels of olives from Sicily brimming with brine. Rows of hanging figs. Provolones in the basement, leaking oil. And how, when his grandfather retired, he said simply, “I have been standing my whole life.” Nick worked it until the Acme moved in. He sold it to Nino and Flavia Carabello, who carried it through the early years of the population drop.

Mike and Matt have carried on the legacy of their deli. In the tradition of Filippo and Nick and Nino, Mike shovels out neighbors’ cars, makes deliveries for the old-timers, does odd jobs, picks neighbors up when they fall on the sidewalk.

Mike and Matt may gripe about being the leftovers, but they welcome newbies like me.

People come for the lunch meat, Mike puts it, but also for the show.

“If there’s not something going on, it’s not a good day in here," he said.

While they dream up ways to make their store more “authentic,” what’s great about the place is that Mike and Matt already are as authentic as you can get.

By the way, the Giambris delivered some news: The store opened in 1919.

No schemes necessary: Happy 100th, fellas.