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.
Frank "Franco" Borda has always been a good cook. After getting his first kitchen job at age 14, the food he brought to school when he was attending CAPA was so well-known that, he said, his teachers offered him a full culinary scholarship to Johnson & Wales (he turned it down).
In 1982, when he was 20 years old, he bought a property at Seventh and Federal, renovated it and opened it as Borda's Pizza. Two years later, he partnered with Louis Gentile and they moved the business to the northwest corner of 13th and Tasker, rebranding it as a portmanteau of their names: Francoluigi's. In 1990, when the rent got too high (all of $700 or so), they bought the building across the street and moved the pizzeria into its current home.
Borda was also a talented opera singer, and he wanted a venue where he could sing. In 1995, he and Gentile bought the building next door and expanded their operation with a sit-down, full-service dining room. Instead of singing waiters, their spot featured a singing owner.
Borda would spend part of the night manning the stoves, then wipe the sweat from his brow and take up a position at the balcony and let opera fly from his lungs. He had - and still has - the amazing ability to hit high notes, and the pizzeria's sister restaurant became known as the High Note Cafe. It was the place to go for live music, especially singing.
But things change. A couple of years ago, Borda realized the current generation wasn't necessarily interested in having opera take over their dining experience. The High Note Cafe name was phased out, and the live music was toned down. Weekend nights in the dining room now feature live jazz, but opera performances only occur around once a month.
The pizzeria continues to flourish, and Borda, who bought out his partner 10 years ago, is mulling plans for the future. His son is earning a degree in food marketing from St. Joseph's University, so they've discussed opening some kind of a franchise. Alternately, he also owns a property on the 1900 block of East Passyunk Avenue, so he's considering launching a restaurant on that hot strip.
How did you learn to cook?
From my mother. Coming from an Italian family, she would make everything - we ate livers, hearts, lungs, scallopini, chicken cacciatore. It was all inexpensive food, but it was very good.
First restaurant job?
I was a cook at Sonny's Seafood Italiano on 11th and Tasker, right by where I grew up. I was only 14, so they were hiding me in the kitchen. They used to say to me, "Don't come up[stairs], don't come up!" Then I worked at a bunch of different restaurants. I worked at Sbarro's in the Gallery at Market East at one point. I even turned down a four-year scholarship to Johnson & Wales for culinary arts.
Why turn it down?
I wanted to be an actor! I was at the Performing Arts High School, and I would bring in food all the time. There was a scholarship offered, so my teachers said, "Frank, you're so passionate about food, who better to have this scholarship than you?" I crumpled it up and I threw it out. I felt it was was like telling me, "Your acting sucks - go cook."
So you opened a pizzeria instead?
I did. A property became available at 7th and Tasker, so I renovated it and opened my own shop called Borda's Pizza. This was 1982 - 33 years ago. I was 20 years old. The day I had my grand opening was actually the same day I got accepted to the Police Academy. But I put that on hold, and stuck with the pizzeria.
A couple years later, I got a partner and we moved into a spot at 13th and Tasker. By 1990, our rent had gotten ridiculous, so I talked the owner of a lamp store across the street into selling us the building. Five years later, we made a deal to buy the building next door.
Do you remember how much you bought them for
Around $60,000 or $70,000. The neighborhood was still old-style back then. Nothing like it is today. I could never have imagined it would be like this here. People I sold a home to for $275,000 five years ago would probably get $375,000 today.
Have the neighborhood changes been good for your restaurant?
Yes. It's probably doubled my business. Even with all the other restaurants on the Avenue. I've been here for 33 years. We've always focused on tradition. We stayed with the chicken parm, the veal parm, the mussels. We never got into those $30 or $40 entrees. I've had customers tell me other restaurants would send them here, in kind of a dismissive way, like, "Fried calamari? We don't do that. Go to Francoluigi's." And I'm here, arms open. "Yes, we do that! You want mussel juice dripping down your arm, I'm your guy."
What was the most memorable night you've had here?
When Joe Paterno came in with his entourage. We sat down and drank and ate for five hours. A mutual friend told him about our Thursday nights - we used to have accordion, it was like a wedding. Joe got up and sang with everyone, he was hitting everyone with the tambourine. He told such great stories.
You used to sing opera here?
I did. We even had a group going at one point. There was me, Phil Mancuso (he owns the cheese shop on the Avenue) and a Frank Munafo, who had a butcher shop on Ninth Street. We used to do concerts: The Butcher, the Baker & the Cheesemaker. We were very popular - we would have been on the Food Network, if it had been around.
Has the Food Network been good for restaurant industry?
I think the Food Network has made everyone more aware of better food. It's made everyone want to be a cook. But I don't like that none of the cooks wear aprons or chef coats. I don't think it's appropriate for cooks to wear dress shirts.
What about the Internet - good for the industry?
I think it helped. Everything helps out. I think good online reviews help out, but I think bad reviews help even more. Because people say ridiculous things, but it creates interest. I also do my own Facebook and Twitter, which works. A customer told me the other night, he was sitting around wondering where to eat, and he went on Facebook and saw a post I made like, "Come on in, chicken cacciatore and cold beer on tap." He and his wife got in the car and came in.
But I think cell phones are the opposite. Bad for business. There was an article in the New York Times recently: a two-top used to be in and out in under an hour, now it's an hour and a half. Because when wait staff comes to take the order, they're texting or on the Internet so they ask for another minute. And then they spend time taking pictures of the food. I think the cell phone is going to be very unhealthy for this next generation.
Your son works with you in the restaurant?
He's been working with me for years. I killed his weekends during high school and college. I can't believe I actually let him off for his prom - I was like, "It's Friday night, can't you work the rush and then go?" But now he's a food marketing major at St. Joe's. He has two years left. We don't know what avenue he'll pursue. Maybe a franchise - he's into the fast-casual idea. No more table service.
Are those your plans for the future?
Maybe. I do own a beautiful building right on the 1900 block of the Avenue. I have a tenant right now, but I might step into that arena and do something really outrageous. The second floor would be a balcony with musicians, and the first floor would be a restaurant. It might make some people on the Avenue upset, but I would love it.
1549 S. 13th St., 215-755-8900
Hours: 3 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday; 2 to 11 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 10 p.m. Sunday