We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
About 21 years ago, Brunella Russo-McCall and her husband, Vincent, moved into the Fitler Square neighborhood. Her brother, Renato Russo, at the time owned Felicia's, a popular Italian restaurant in Ardmore.
Restaurant work came naturally to the Russos, who with their parents arrived in the United States in 1971. Back in their hometown of Santa Lucia di Serino, in Campania, their maternal grandparents owned a trattoria.
There was something missing in Fitler Square back then. "I was pregnant and then I would take her walking around and it was very desolate," she said. "I called Renato and I said, 'Renato, you should really do something.' I saw this place at 23d and Spruce, and it was just boarded up, and it was just dark."
He gutted the former pizzeria and installed an oven, laying in the bricks one by one. Not too many neighborhood restaurants were serving brick-oven pizza in 1996.
Mama Palma - named in honor of Brunella and Renato's mother - was supposed to be pretty much a one-man show.
Brunella was a hairstylist at Thunder, a popular salon near Rittenhouse Square. "I went on maternity leave, and I had a very, very big book," she said. "I was planning to go back. Renato opened up the business and there were lines, waiting, waiting around the corner. So one night, we were jam-packed and Renato called me, and he said, 'Can you call Mommy to watch [newborn daughter] Celina because I really need you here?' I said, 'I don't know anything about the restaurant business.' And he said, 'But you know people.' Because when you cut hair, I mean, you have to be. I'm a very social person. So I came and I did the front of the house and I was like, 'Wow. I like this. And they like me.' And I got all dressed up, you know, in a full face of makeup, and it was fun. I was a new mom. I was home all day long. This got me out of the house to meet people. And it's family. So that's how it started, and I never went back to Thunder."
Brunella, 52, is a live-wire, a gym rat. She's been widowed for 2½ years, the mother of Celina, now a 20-year-old college student in New York. Renato, 54, divorced, is more reserved. He saves his passion for work. When Brunella teases that Mama Palma's is his girlfriend, he makes a face.
The two sat down in the dining room before service one night last week.
How do you divide the work?
Brunella: One of us is always here. So if Renato's here, I'm not, unless we're short-staffed. Like last Saturday, we worked together. But generally one of us is always here, and I think that's why it's very successful too, is because instead of leaving it in the young servers' hands sometimes. I mean, of course they care, but you can't care the same way as when it's your baby.
Renato: We want to handle it.
Brunella: I live a block away.
So it's just you two kids?
Brunella: Just the two of us. I don't think I could deal with another brother. And I'm sure he could not deal with another sister.
What was your goal?
Brunella: We didn't want to be just like another pizzeria.
Renato (pointing to the oven): That's the hardest oven you could work with, because it's only wood.
Brunella: You have to train people.
Renato: It's unforgiving. You have to know where you put your pizza, you have to know where you turn it yet. It has to be cooked right. It's all about how you rotate. Also when you're making it, my pizza man or me, we're not looking to throw all the stuff on. You want to make it evenly. When you take a bite of that pizza, you taste everything. Not only that, when you take a bite, everything can't slide off.
Brunella: There's an art to it, definitely. It's not just 'Oh, yeah, you have a pizza shop.' Well, it's an art to cook that, to deal with the oven.
What's changed over the years?
Brunella: Well, the neighborhood's definitely changed. Fitler Square is the hot neighborhood right now. Everyone wants to buy in Fitler Square. It's a lot of families, and the Philadelphia School has grown, so you have a lot of families that are moving in to make it convenient.
Renato: But not just the neighborhood. We also changed as providing what the people were asking for. Some people come in, 'You think you could put that on the menu?'
Brunella: We did a pizza for Vince, for my late husband, the Vincenzo pizza. He liked to eat all this stuff [even though] he had a bad heart. He's like, 'I don't care. I want extra cheese, bacon, this.' No wonder he passed of a heart attack.
Renato: When people come in, let them feel like you are in a family place. This is my family.
Brunella: We have a Renato salad for Renato, and my dad's Gaetano, so we'll do a special, and we have a pizza for my mother, the Mama Palma special. Mom is Palma. She was born on Palm Sunday.
Renato: We cut our own pepperoni. We buy the long ones, and then in the back, we cut them a little thick so it doesn't give you all that grease. But they're all Italian pepperoni, and we slice them up. We use filetto di pomodoro on our margherita.
Brunella: We added beer on tap.
Renato: We added, and it's amazing, a gluten-free pizza.
Brunella: And credit cards. People were just asking constantly. 'I don't have money,' and then I would read on Facebook, too, 'I tried going there, I didn't have cash.' We have an ATM machine, and Renato was really kind. He would give back the fee. As the customer was leaving, Renato would go in the drawer. I wouldn't, but Renato would, and Renato would give it back.
Renato: I felt bad that he's coming and giving me my business, and he's got to go in there and pay $2 to pay me. I pay a fee on a credit card, though. I'm trying to keep the costs down and accommodate everybody.
Brunella: But a lot of people, sometimes they bring five credit cards: 'Oh we want to split it,' and we tell them it's a $1.50 each time we put it in here.
Your parents are still around?
Renato: Yes. My father's 84 years old and still goes to Giordano's. Been going there for 30 years. We got all the fresh stuff three times a week.
Brunella: Every single night, they sit right here [by the beer taps]. This is their table. When we start getting busy, I'll be like, 'All right! Gotta make the money!' And customers are like, 'No, no, no! Don't ask your parents to leave!' I'm like, 'No, no, no. They're leaving.'
Renato: Customers come up, 'Can you sign this?' My mother gets all red.
Tell me about the people here.
Brunella: We've had a server that met her boyfriend and they're married and they have children.
And the restaurant business?
Renato: It's tough but if you have the heart, you know you're going to make it. You can't come in with negative. You've got to be positive.
Brunella: And you have to consistently put out good food.
Renato: Of course you're going to have bad days and good days. Slow days and busy. That's the way the restaurant business is right now. You have a million restaurants. People used to come in four times a week, now they come in twice. Because there's a lot of places that they want to try. There's nothing wrong with that. Also we get new people. 'They told me come here. They told us to come here.' All the time we get new clientele.
So what's next for you? Another restaurant?
Brunella: We talk about that, Renato talks about that a lot. We could do like a takeout place, you know by Penn or somewhere. I don't know.
Renato: We talk about that but you know, this place might be a small place, but it takes a lot of work. I don't want it where I open another restaurant and my food goes down here because I'm not here, I'm too busy doing this and that. One is enough for me because I know that when you come in you're getting the right ingredients.
Brunella: Like we talked about expanding, or even franchising, but the time that we talked about it, and Renato was so into just having the perfect food for this place, we don't need 10 places.