Something had been nagging at Anthony Renzulli for months. It was at the back of his mind while playing the weekly poker games in the polished back parlor of the Twin Smoke Shoppe, his South Philadelphia cigar joint, clouds of smoke hanging over the card table.
It was there between him and Maria, his wife, while they dined alone on her homemade escarole and meatball soup and crab gravy at the social club next door, the Messina, which he took over last year. It was there in the silence of Amy, the bartender, wiping down an empty bar and polishing glasses no one was clinking.
It was time for new blood.
"Because there's no old blood here no more," Anthony thought. Unless you're counting the Messina itself, founded, according to the charter on the wall above the original bar, in 1909. It was once a members-only club for the flood of Italian immigrants in the neighborhood — specifically the ones from Messina, a harbor town in northern Sicily. A club that helped new Philadelphians establish a foothold, practice English, secure jobs, contacts, and friends.
And then, once those generations rooted themselves firmly in South Philadelphia around 10th and Tasker, it became a place to live a little more dangerously: a place to write a few numbers, play a few cards, maybe take out a loan. In that place and time, they were not alone.
It was packed, then, with men and women, lines curling out the door. Sometimes it was so crowded you'd have to leave. This is what the Thursday night regulars tell Anthony, the guys from the cigar shop, most of whom grew up in the neighborhood and remember the Messina in its heyday. (The club is open Thursday to Sunday; Thursday is cigar night.) These days they meet every week for Maria's gravy and long drags on cigars the size of stickball bats.
There's Joe Julia, who has a nickname that he refuses to share outside the confines of the Messina, who doles out pieces of neighborhood lore and well-timed wisecracks. When a neighborhood priest walked in one Thursday night, Joe, grinning around his cigar, introduced him to the club as "the only priest who doesn't work Sundays." The good reverend responded with something short of a blessing.
There's Richie "Guns" Major, a mild-mannered guy from the Main Line who moved to South Philadelphia to be closer to his grandchildren and for the neighborhood feel and found, like transplants of yore, community at the Messina. No one on the Main Line ever thought to call him "Richie Guns." There's CSI Gary, a retired cop, a handsome man who the guys say likes to remind himself of it: "He's the only guy who goes through a red light to get his picture taken," Anthony says.
There's Little Tom Lofaro Jr., who runs another neighborhood anachronism, a baseball card shop on 11th Street. And there's Ralphie Squillace, who used to play on the 6-feet-and-under basketball team the Messina sponsored at Palumbo Park and who remembers how membership here was bestowed by Anthony "Tut" Barbuto, the gracious, if firm, longtime chef and host.
"He had a reputation — not to be messed with," Ralphie said.
So did the old waitresses. Dottie and Frieda and Sarah, who would serve pasta e fagioli with a cigarette dangling from her lips. When her ash fell on the table, she'd brush it off.
"Them days are gone," Anthony said. And now, the newest members of the neighborhood walk by the club that was once too crowded. They peek in the window, give a confused smile at Amy behind the bar, and walk off. This worries Anthony. Perhaps they wanted to come in, he thought, but didn't know if they could.
"Believe it or not, this place has a little stigmata around it," he said, searching for the words. "People thought, like, with the mob, or whatever the mind-set." Ever a gentleman, he concluded the new folks were just operating on misconceptions.
And so a consensus was reached at the Thursday night table. The weight that had been pulling at Anthony lifted. There's lots of new young blood in the neighborhood, and the Messina would love to have some of it.
Anthony made a sign, and carefully taped it in the front window on a recent afternoon:
"Accepting new members," it said. "Apply inside." ($10 a year. You can bring a guest.)
So I went inside and signed up. They greeted me warmly.