We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
In 1951, Frank Barbato had recently returned home to South Philly after getting out of the Army. Twenty-eight years old, he was looking to start a business, and decided to buy the tavern at the corner of Wolf and Warnock. The bar had a colorful history — shortly after its 1936 launch, it was bombed twice within two months (fallout from a business rivalry, possibly racketeering related) — and none of the neighborhood folks ever called it by its formal name. Instead, they would say they were "going down to the 'bomb bomb.'" Barbato decided to make the nickname official.
Over the next four decades, Bomb Bomb became a neighborhood standby, with Barbato dishing out drinks up front and mussels, pasta, pizza and ham sandwiches from a tiny kitchen in the back.
In 1990, Barbato was ready to retire, and his son took over the business. Frank Jr. and his wife Deb expanded the food offerings, built out the kitchen, put a partition between the bar and the dining room and turned the place into a real restaurant. In addition to the red-sauce Italian classics the spot had become known for, barbecue was added to the menu, and this August, Frank and Deb will celebrate 25 years of Bomb Bomb BBQ Grill & Italian Restaurant.
As the scents of smoked meat and simmering gravy battled for attention, the happily married couple sat down at a corner table to talk about how they met (over pots of mussels), where they learned barbecue and why they think South Philly is the best place in the world.
Did you grow up in this restaurant, Frank?
I did. I spent the first two years of my life in the apartment upstairs. My grandmother lived three doors down (that's how my mom met my dad). So I've been here nearly every day for almost 60 years.
What's your first memory of it?
My dad making pizzas on Friday night, and having lines literally out the kitchen door, down the block. He would carve hams on Friday night, too. Because you were not allowed to eat meat on Fridays, so at midnight he'd pull out the hams and there were lines down the street.
Do you remember the prices?
We have an old menu somewhere from the 1950s. I think the ham sandwiches were 25 cents apiece. Sausage scallopini was like 35 cents.
How did the two of you meet?
We both lived in the same neighborhood. Deb used to come in and buy mussels, and she would always say, "Would you pick out the little mussels for me?" So we knew each other. One night we met up at a club, and Deb said, "You know, we should have dinner one night."
You asked him out, Deb?
Yes. I'd never done that before. Then he called me the very next day to arrange it.
When did you get married?
We got married in 1984. We lived right down the corner for a couple years. Then we had our son and decided to move, but also decided we wanted to take over the restaurant. The only stipulation from Frank's dad was that we keep the name "Bomb Bomb."
Did either of you cook?
Not professionally; we just had the recipes from our family. But that's how it used to be done. No one went to culinary school. And Frank had learned from his dad how to make gravy, clams and linguini, crabs and spaghetti, mussels. We still use the exact same recipe for the mussels.
Why did you decide to add barbecue to the menu?
There were so many other Italian restaurants in the area, wanted to do something different. We've always loved barbecue. During a vacation in Virginia with the kids, someone told us we had to try Pierce's, in Williamsburg. It was the best we'd ever tasted, and we asked the owners, "How do you do it?" They actually took us back in their kitchen and showed us.
So what you serve is Virginia-style barbecue?
No. The style here is our own style. This is South Philly barbecue. We make our own barbecue sauce — the key ingredients are bacon and bourbon — and mix our own spice rub.
What's the most popular meat?
Ribs. Or maybe brisket. We've won many awards. Garry Maddox, he's a regular customer here, and he always makes sure we're at his annual event [with Stephen Starr]. We came in first for ribs twice, for brisket once and for chicken once.
Any other customers whose names we'd recognize?
Frankie Avalon used to come in. One night, it wasn't that long ago, he was in town doing Grease. He just had a small part, the "Beauty School Angel" or whatever, and so he wasn't rushing dinner. All of a sudden he looked at the time, and he was late for the show! I had to rush him up to the theater. Jerry Blavat comes in. Ed Rendell used to be here all the time, getting ribs. And Lynne Abraham, she's a customer. Also the chef from Le Virtu, there was an article where he was asked his favorite old-school Italian, and he said us.
Do you go out to other restaurants?
Oh, yeah. We just ate at Le Virtu actually, it was great. Paradiso is awesome. We went to Townsend after we read the great article in the Inquirer. We were just at Farm & Fisherman; it was excellent. And we love Spasso's. We really lucked out that we have such a great staff, because we're here every day from 8 in the morning to around 4, but after that, they take over. Many of them have been with us more than 20 years. We like going out because it gives us ideas for new dishes, new specials.
The red stuff you put on pasta, would you ever call it "sauce"?
No. It's gravy.
It's gravy when it's been simmered with meat, is that right?
It's always gravy. Whether it has the meat or not, it's gravy. Just like we say "galamad" for calamari, or "manicod" instead of manicotti. It's a South Philly thing.
Has this neighborhood changed, over the years?
It did. It's been up and down. But within the last three or four years, it got really nice again. Young people are coming back to the city, and they can't afford Center City, so they buy other places. We did a catering gig up on Frankford Avenue and we noticed all the — I guess they call them hipsters. Now they're coming down here, too. And people from New York are moving here, buying houses and fixing them up. It's so much fun!
South Philly is different from any other place that you would ever go. We can say that, because we travel all around. But coming back home is the best. It's very unique down here.
What makes it unique? The slang? The food culture?
There's a closeness. An acceptance of everybody. It's a blue-collar neighborhood. As long as you're hard-working, it doesn't matter who you are. South Philly has a large Hispanic and Asian population now, and it's great. Because they're reopening all the little stores that closed up over the years because the big supermarkets put them out of business. Now there's food markets on every corner again!
South Philly has always had all kinds of people. When I was growing up at 13th and Ritner, there were Italians, Irish, Germans, Lebanese, — and it was awesome. I feel like that's happening again. And young people now are so open. We're having a good time, watching it all come up again. We wouldn't have been here so long if we didn't feel this way. We love this city.
Bomb Bomb BBQ Grill & Italian Restaurant
1026 Wolf St., 215-463-1311
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday; 1 to 10 p.m., Saturday