The next generation of Italian Market royalty takes its place behind the counter | Mike Newall
Tragedy struck the sandwich shop. It was a period of double losses for the Vellios family.
There was only ever one George at the sandwich shop. But everyone who came after him at the storefront on Ninth Street has inherited his name, too.
The original George, who came to America from Greece in 1908, slung tripe and veal and barbecued beef tongue sandwiches out of a butcher basement until 1936, when he opened George's Sandwich Shop. He painted his prices on cardboard signs, along with his slogans:
"Once You Try Them, You Will Buy Them!"
"Sandwiches You Will Like!"
These slogans are more effective if you imagine them in George's thick Greek accent, said Jon Vellios, 29, his great-grandson, and these days, the fifth George.
Jon took over last year, after tragedy struck the sandwich shop. It was a period of double losses for the Vellios family. First, Mark Onorato, his uncle and the fourth George, who ran the shop for 30 years. A quiet man, he would watch Ninth Street from the grill at the shop's window. He died, in July of last year, of esophageal cancer.
It was a blow felt down Ninth Street, from St. Paul Parish, where he was a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus, to Betty Ann's flower shop next door, where Betty Ann Mongelluzzo and Cookie Ciliberti, who run the shop, keep a shrine to him behind the counter. The ladies remind themselves that they can't just skip out to share in one of Mark's jokes. Ones not meant for the church crowd.
Then another loss: Next door to the sandwich shop, Jon's uncle, George Vellios — another George, an actual one — who ran the family pizzeria, Lorenzo's. For 40 years, he had worked six days a week, open-to-close, and plastered the walls of the shop with handwritten guides to ordering in different languages. It became a thing with the customers who would bring their own translations to fill the wall.
George died in February, of a heart attack. His son Keith took over. Keith's voice breaks when he talks of his father.
Meanwhile, the sandwich shop sat empty. Jon decided that after 80 years, it was time for renovations.
Earlier this month, the shop window slid open, and a new generation of one of Ninth Street's founding families stood behind the counter.
"More or less, it's just like the next man up, almost like the Eagles," Jon said. Not to mention the many Vellios women, like Aunt Alga, who is in her 90s and for years stewed the tripe, the chewy, stewed stomach muscles of a cow. (No one called her George.)
The place has new polish. But then there is still a sign of debated provenance that reads: "Don't divorce your wife because she can't cook. Eat here and keep her for a pet." It's not 100 percent clear if George, or his son, Jon, his successor, first hung it. It's a sentiment, surely, that hasn't aged as well as the tripe, but one Jon keeps up out of nostalgia, and says he's confident even his younger customers see it as a marker of a more uncouth time and not the store's guiding ethos.
The food hasn't changed. Except for the meatless sandwich for the new customers (they've sold one), and the Roma sandwich, the pork and veal special. Jon named it as a nod to the Roma community that made his family place a culinary hot spot for generations. From back when George's and Willie's, an old sandwich shop across the street that also dealt in tripe, were considered the Pat's and Geno's of Romani cuisine, which favors those big, sloppy sandwiches.
"This is known as the greatest sandwich in Philadelphia that was ever made," intoned Steve Woods, a member of the Roma community from Northeast Philly, perched on his stool.
Roma people from as far Boston and Virginia trek to George's, he said. They share the counter with Joe Van Blunk, a longshoreman and filmmaker, who brings his own cloth napkin to stuff in his collar.
"This isn't dainty food," he explained.
Customers dropped by even when the shop was gutted, asking the work crews, against hope, if there was any tripe. Others barraged the flower shop with phone calls, asking: "Are they open yet?"
They're all coming in to greet another George.
"They have bum-rushed us with goodwill," Jon said, preparing for the holiday weekend crowds.
He's still learning the ropes and got an important lesson Tuesday when a family from Virginia arrived to find the fifth George out of rolls. Bread was retrieved from Villa di Roma. Veal and pork was served. Crisis averted.
Still, he made a note of it: best to double the bread order for Thanksgiving.