If you can make it past the pizza counter at FrancoLuigi's without succumbing to at least one slice (I had two, pork and broccoli), you reach the door of the High Note Cafe, where chef Franco Borda is finishing a salad of shell-like pasta, beans, and vegetables.
I'm not at 13th and Tasker Streets to eat, although sojourns into traditional South Philadelphia at Christmas transport me to another Italian neighborhood, one my grandfather helped create at the turn of the 20th century, when he left his farm in the mountains of Benevento to seek his fortune in America. I'm here to talk real estate, and the fact that Borda, 51, who grew up at 10th and Federal, is moving back from Chalfont after 20 years, to a neighborhood he calls "magic."
"Here, I know everyone by name, and they know me," says Borda, proved later as we stand outside his new house across 13th Street from his pizzeria and cafe. "Twenty years in Chalfont, I don't know anyone. You see your neighbor, and you do this," he says, nodding.
Borda has owned FrancoLuigi's for 30 years, commuting on the Schuylkill every day with "my life revolving around KYW and the traffic reports."
Come spring, however, singers and musicians will entertain customers dining outside the High Note from the second-floor balcony of his house, and he will create culinary masterpieces in a 16-by-50-foot first-floor kitchen designed so 12 to 14 guests can watch.
Between the kitchen and the 900-pound cedar front door, crafted over seven months in Arizona, will be a baby grand piano to accompany Borda, a tenor and opera buff who has always longed to play but learned that it is difficult to do so while singing.
He purchased the house from the estate of Mary Papola, longtime president of the Mario Lanza Society, for $200,000, and plans to spend $400,000 before he's finished. Just one original brick wall remains, with every attention paid to detail, from the double 2-by-12 joists creating 12-foot ceilings, to the deck from which "I'll see the fireworks at Penn's Landing on New Year's and the Phillies games."
Borda has long been in love with this house and recalls offering to buy it from Papola when she was alive "and letting her live there for the rest of her life," sort of like a reverse mortgage.
He also bought a triplex a few doors down from the restaurant for $215,000, and owns neighborhood properties, which he rents "to professionals."
What amazes Borda is how much this area, especially the 19147 zip code, increased in value over the years - even before the housing boom of the middle of the last decade.
"The house my father bought in 1967 for $7,000 is easily worth $300,000 now," he says. "The property I bought for $40,000 in 1982, I sold in 2005 for $325,000. Over the years, I turned down a lot of offers to buy buildings for $50,000. I could kick myself in the head."
Though many people, like Borda, who grew up in the neighborhood have been moving back, a lot of buyers are from New York, Bucks County, and elsewhere, he says, as we look in every direction from his unfinished deck.
"See all the decks," he notes, pointing to dozens of sophisticated structures sprouting from the roofs of nearby rowhouses. "They still want a bit of the suburbs in the city."