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Ralph's: How you get to be the oldest Italian restaurant in America

Want to know how Taylor Swift ended up partying at Ralph's?

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.

In 1893, Francesco Dispigno left Naples and traveled to America with his wife and young son. They landed at Ellis Island, where his son's Italian name - Rafael - was officially changed to Ralph. The family headed to Philadelphia and settled on South Ninth Street.

Seven years later, Dispigno, who had worked in the shellfishing trade, decided the time had come to follow his dream of running a full-service restaurant. He rented space at the corner of Ninth and Montrose, and in 1900, opened the doors to Ralph's Italian Restaurant. Business was good - the South Philly Italian community was booming - and in 1915 the restaurant moved to a larger, bi-level space near Ninth and Catharine, where it continues to operate.

Ralph Dispigno started working at his father's restaurant when he was just 15 years old, and dedicated himself to the business that bore his name. As Francesco grew older (he died in the 1930s), Ralph led the establishment through the tough times of the Depression and World War II. He offered inexpensive meals to families and sponsored countless immigrants from Italy, whom he would allow to stay in the building's third-floor apartment and put to work in the kitchen and dining rooms below.

His mantle was picked up by his four children, all of whom grew up working in the restaurant and took over joint ownership after his death in 1972. The two boys raised by Ralph's daughter Elaine - Jimmy and Eddie Rubino - would become the restaurant's fourth-generation owners.

Jimmy, especially, had a serious knack for hospitality. He started at the restaurant full-time when he was 18 years old, and essentially had the run of the place. During his 36-year tenure, he's overseen a retrofitting of the interior to bring back its original charm (a '70s-inspired revamp had robbed it of some character), celebrated the restaurant's centennial, and treated employees well throughout - nearly half the current staff has worked at Ralph's for at least two decades.

Now, the fifth generation is getting involved. Jimmy's son Ryan was behind an outpost in King of Prussia's Sheraton Valley Forge - officially called Ralph's of South Philly - and now runs that restaurant. Plus, Jimmy and Ryan have bigger expansion plans in the works: Ralph's is on the cusp of becoming a franchise.

Seated at his de facto office - aka the kitchen table in his mother's house, right next door to the restaurant - the elder Rubino discussed those plans, as well as plans for a jarred sauce to be sold under the Ralph's name. He reminisced about his early years in the restaurant, when Frank Sinatra used to pat his young head, and talked about the time Taylor Swift brought her whole family in for dinner. He also described the thrill of hosting Marc Vetri as guest chef for the 115th anniversary event earlier this year - Ralph's has been recognized as the oldest Italian restaurant in the country.

What's your first memory of Ralph's?

Busing tables when I was around 6 or 7 years old. Back then, all the waiters wore these red vests, so my mom searched all over - Lit Brothers. Strawbridge & Clothier, Gimbels, all those stores that were on Market Street years ago - and found me a red velvet vest to match. I would walk around taking empty glasses off of tables and stuff like that. I was making money at 7 years old - my mother would put it away for me in the bank.

Was that an after-school job?

Weekends, typically. When I got older I took an interest in the kitchen. I remember watching the old Italian master chefs my grandfather brought over from Italy - I couldn't understand them, but I would just sweep the floor and watch them. By the time I was 12 years old I was cooking with them, making sauce, breaking down legs of veal. Same with my brother. He went and got a college degree, but this is basically all we've done all our lives.

So you worked here right out of high school?

After I graduated from Bishop Neumann in 1979, I did plumbing with a cousin of mine for a couple months, just to see if I wanted to do something else. But I realized my calling was here. In 1980, I came back, and for some crazy reason, it was understood: this is what Jimmy does, and he's good at it, let him do it. So I took the lead. I'll be honest with you; even my brother doesn't step on my toes. If I made a bad move, and I made plenty of 'em, then my mom and my uncle Ralphie were there to tell me.

Are they still involved?

Uncle Ralphie comes in every day and he's a beast - he's 87 years old and he shucks 300 chowder clams in two hours. That's what's keeping him young. I tell him, "Why don't you take it easy?" He says, "I'll die if I take it easy!" And my mother still lives here, right next door. This is the house I grew up in.

Has the interior decor changed, over the years?

After my grandfather died in 1971, my mom and my aunt decided they wanted to freshen up the downstairs. So they covered the mosaic tile floor with slate, ripped the tin ceiling out, and put tile on the walls. A month afterward, they realized it was a mistake. They were like, "Oh, what the hell did we do?"

For 20 years, it stayed that way. One summer, we decided to bring it back - not to the exact original, because some of it was destroyed, but to redo it new. We even bought a new tile floor that was similar to the old one. One day I came in and the contractor had these guys with sledgehammers ripping up the slate floor. I screamed "Stop!" - I could see the original mosaic tile below, and it was still intact. So they continued more gently and we were able to restore it.

Upstairs, 80 percent of that room is all original from as far back as we know. Except for the paintings on the wall at the front, because they were painted on plaster, and years later they just crumbled. But the tin ceiling, the floor, the walls, the back painting of Venice, all original.

You recently celebrated 115 years in business with a special dinner with the Vetri crew. How did that come about?

My son is a big fan. He went to the original Vetri for dinner one night, and they knew who he was - evidently, they Google every guest that comes in. Which I think is a great thing to do! Ryan couldn't believe they made a fuss over him, he loved it. The GM asked him at one point, "Would you guys ever be interested in doing an industry night?" He said of course.

So we did the industry night at Amis, and it was a big success. Marc himself was there, and there was great chemistry. Ryan had the idea of asking him to collaborate for the 115th anniversary, so I said, "Go talk to him!" He said, "Dad, I gotta be honest, I'm a little star struck." I said, "I'll take care of it." So I ran after Marc and posed the idea, said we would be honored. And he looked at me and said, "You would be honored? Dude, I would be honored. Done." He called Brad [Spence] over, and Brad said, "Let's make it happen." Awesome guys. I love them.

What was your most memorable night here?

Gotta be the night I met Frank Sinatra. I was young. He would come in all the time. When he performed at Palumbo's, he used to come here after. But he would also bring his entourage into Ralph's during the day, because he and my grandfather got really friendly. I remember standing in the bar next to some guy, with him patting my head, and everybody making a fuss over him. Eventually I realized who he was.

Have other celebs come through?

Yes, nonstop. The vice president, he was in. Every day for the whole week beforehand the Secret Service came here, checking out the place. He finally came and ate dinner, upstairs, and they had a hundred security guys all over the place. It was pretty cool. And then what's her name - that singer who was here last year - Taylor Swift; that caused a big stir.

How did Taylor Swift pick your restaurant, do you know?

What happened was, she was doing a concert here so she Googled "Italian restaurants in Philadelphia." We were one of the first to come up. The head of her security that night was the same guy who's the Eagles' head of security, and he's a regular customer of ours, so when she asked if he knew this place and he said, "Of course!"

So he called and said: Here's what she wants to do. She wants to come in after you guys close - she's been touring for two years, hasn't seen her family (she's from Reading). They're all gonna be there, like 30 of them. We said, absolutely, let's do it.

Somehow it got out - maybe one of my employees knew she was coming and tweeted it. Next thing you know, the media went crazy - they had to have police come and block the street. TMZ was here, trying to take pictures in the back windows, it was insane. But it worked out. She was a sweetheart. She left a $500 tip, which actually made it onto Jay Leno - he mentioned our restaurant on his show.

Where did the idea to open in King of Prussia come from?

My best friend, Eric Davies, is part-owner of the hotel, the Sheraton Valley Forge. Two years before they even started construction, he was really on me about opening Ralph's there. I was like, "Eric, at this stage of the game, I worked hard my whole life, we did the other thing with Ambler, know if I'm ready to do this."

Wait, what was in Ambler?

I opened another Ralph's in Ambler. We opened in 2002 and sold it in 2005. We had investors, and they spent a fortune building the restaurant - $2 million. My brother and I worked for 2 years with no salary, trying to make it work, but it just wasn't enough. It was before the renaissance that Ambler is going through right now. So we sold it.

Back to KOP. You didn't want to do it, but Eric convinced you?

Well, he kept asking. Meantime, my son Ryan graduated from college with a marketing degree, and after working in New York City for a couple of years, decided he was going to come back here and learn the business. He knew Eric was on me about KOP, and he would be in my ear: "Dad, why don't we do it, why don't we do it?"

At one point, Eric took me to a hotel convention in New Orleans to try to sweet talk me into the deal. We're having a few drinks and I text Ryan, "Eric's [bugging me] about the KOP again." So Ryan writes back, "You know what dad, enough is enough, you're [messing] with my future by not doing this." And at that very moment, I had a realization. Like, wow, who am I to say no, just because I selfishly don't want to do this. It would be holding back the future of my children, and even their children!

So you did it.

Yes. I put Ryan in charge of negotiating the deal and it went phenomenal. Everybody was so happy - and here we are. The restaurant opened in 2012 and it's doing wonderful.

What about the future of the original - will Ryan eventually take this over as well?

Probably - he's here a couple nights a week. But we've got a couple other things going on. We may be franchising. I don't mean franchising like Olive Garden. We're gonna do it with quality, and with respect - we're going to do it right. It's not about money; it's about opportunity.

Wow. How far along in that process are you?

We've done all the groundwork. [To offer franchise licenses] you need something called an FDD - a Federal Disclosure Document. It's like 600 pages - I'm telling you, no stone unturned, everything has to be disclosed. So that document's done, and we just put the website together.

We also have the concept, the color schemes and everything. We hired a designer - Josh Otto. Following Ryan's idea, he designed something that looks almost like the old warehouses on Washington Avenue. Like where Italian Market vendors would store produce, or where the slaughterhouses were. It's an industrial-looking design. I wasn't sure about it, but when I saw the renderings, I was blown away.

So will the franchise be Ralph's of South Philly, like the KOP spot?

Just Ralph's. Because they're going to be outside this [immediate] area, so we thought we would skip the South Philly tag.

Where will they be; do you think?

We hired a franchise company called SMB. It's Steve Beagelman - he's the reason why Rita's has 800-something stores - a genius. He advised us to stay in the tri-state area, to start, because God forbid a franchisee needs help, we could get in the car and drive two hours, not have to fly to Seattle or California on a plane.

What about a sauce product line to go along?

It's funny you say that. Because Ryan was like, Dad, if we're going to a do it, we should go all the way and do sauce. We went to Maryland about three weeks ago, and met with the people at Mama Vida, is the name of the company [that will produce it]. We're going back soon to test the recipe, and then we're going to sell it just out of both restaurants at first. Then little by little, we'll see where that process goes. Everything I've thought about doing over the years, maybe half-heartedly, Ryan is now making happen. It's great.

Ralph's Italian Restaurant

760 S. 9th St., 215-627-6011

Hours: 11:45 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11:45 a.m. to 10:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday.