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 1920, Salvatore Marra left his hometown of Naples in search of a better life. He landed in San Francisco and then moved to Chicago, where he opened a pizzeria and became friends with Al Capone. After a few years, he moved to Philadelphia, and was joined by his wife, Chiarina.
The couple set out to launch another pizzeria. They took over a storefront in South Philly that had been home to a butcher shop, constructed a huge brick oven, and, in 1927, opened the doors to Marra's.
Fast forward 88 years: those doors have never closed.
As East Passyunk Avenue experienced alternating cycles of prosperity and decline, Marra's stayed the course. In 1950, the Marras bought the bakery next door and expanded beyond pizza. Since then, the menu of Italian American classics has remained pretty much the same. The ravioli are still made in-house. The veal is still butchered and pounded by hand. The thin-crust pies are still made using Chiarina's original recipe, and they still emerge from Salvatore's original brick oven.
Third-generation owner Robert D'Adamo now oversees that oven, shepherding his grandparents' vision into its ninth decade. He's assisted by Maurizio DeLuca, a native Italian who married D'Adamo's niece and bought into the family business in 2000.
With a few strong cups of espresso as fuel, the partners took a trip down memory lane, reminiscing about the many movie theaters that used to dot the area, laughing at $2.25 dinner entrees and lamenting the lack of parking on the now-bustling strip.
What's your first memory of this restaurant, Robert?
I remember the bakery that used to be here. The baker was called Lefty - he made cakes, not bread. We lived in a flat on the third floor of the building, and I used to play with the baker's son. I also remember Saturday nights, how busy we used to get. We used to stay open until 2 or 3 in the morning.
It was a busy neighborhood?
There were all these movie theaters - there was a big one on Broad and Snyder, and another one on Broad and Castle - and also the Alhambra, which was turned into a roller skating rink. But they used to have boxing fights every Saturday night. There was also the drive-in theater - me and my friends used to sneak in, just walk in. So there were all these events around here, but the only restaurants were us and Fiore's, a Sicilian place. We were packed.
Now there are tons of restaurants on this street. Has that affected your business?
We've always had our own customers. When a new place opens - it seems like every month, now - everybody runs to try it. But in the end, they come back to us. The yuppies, or whatever you call them, they all go to the bars on the Avenue, but when mom and dad come to visit, this is where they come.
Are there too many restaurants?
When I was a kid, this Avenue was a like a boardwalk. It was unbelievable. People would walk. It was really crowded. There was a lot of shoe stores. Boutiques. Lingerie stores. Now we need some other stores, too. You can't have just restaurants.
But it's a pleasure to see people walking by again. The neighborhood has changed - now you see dogs on the street, bicycles. The only problem is the parking.
Do your customers usually drive here?
We have a lot of customers that drive from out of town. People who used to come here as a kid, or met their wife here, and now they live in New Jersey or the suburbs. The parking situation is getting crazy. People run in to pick up a pie and get a $20 or $30 parking ticket. I can't park, myself. I park four blocks away.
Do you live far away?
Not really. I should walk. Or ride a bike! I go to the gym at Fourth and Bainbridge and I just saw the city built a thing where you put money in and pick up a bike. Bike rentals. They're nice bikes, too, with a basket to carry things in. Maybe I should do that here, get a bike station out front.
How would you describe your pizza?
Thin-crust type. From a brick oven. It's a very simple dough. We don't add all this new stuff, like lard or whatever some new places do. The sauce is also simple - the key thing is to buy good tomatoes.
You still use the original 1927 oven?
Yeah. Once in a while, we have to re-cement the inside and turn the bricks over, but it's still the original oven.
Do you do pizza delivery?
A little bit. It's not our main focus. A customer told a story the other day: before there were pizza boxes, the cooks here would just wrap up the pie in a piece of paper and hand it to the customers. And then people would have to stop as they walked home, to put it down for a minute and let their hands cool off.
Do you know how much pies used to cost?
We found a menu from the 1950s the other day. I think pizza was $2 or something. A veal chop was $2.25.
How much is the veal chop now?
I had to take it off the menu, actually, because veal was getting so expensive. I think we were charging $12.50 for them. Someone told me they charge $30 for that in Center City. We still go through a lot of veal here. I cut the veal - I go through three legs of veal a week. It's a lot of work.
Are you here every day?
Six days. Mondays we're closed.
Have you ever had a different job?
Do you eat here?
Yeah. The truth is I eat a lot of pizza. I never got sick of it. I like the style my grandmother used to make, the tomato pie. With just a little grated cheese, and she would put oil on it. Real thin, and cooked so the slice stands stiff. People say the things you eat as a kid, you remember your whole life. Like the hoagies I used to eat down the shore - we used to go down to the Steel Pier and there was a place called the Italian Village. They made a hoagie that was so good, I still stop and think about it today. A lot of people who come in our restaurant, they feel the same way.
1734 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-463-9249
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday to Saturday; 1 to 9 p.m. Sunday