It can be said that a meal at Ralph’s makes for an historic experience. The cuisine is a classic American take on Southern Italian cooking with a menu that offers a wide variety of well known Italian dishes. Think spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, veal parmigiana, and liberal helpings of deeply flavored red sauce (“gravy” to some). The staff is Italian as well, South Philadelphia Italian that is – perhaps a little rough around the edges but highly passionate when it comes to the food. The décor is reminiscent of the days when Frank Sinatra, who provides the ubiquitous soundtrack, was frequenting favorite gin joints with the Rat Pack. This is Italian comfort food at its best, and they’ve been doing it their own way at Ralph’s for over a century.
History plays an important role in everything at Ralph’s, from the food to the atmosphere to the singular family that’s owned the restaurant since the start of the 19th century. Ralph’s is in fact the oldest family owned Italian restaurant in America. It was Francesco Dispigno who opened the restaurant in 1900 and it is the 4th generation decedents who own and run the trattoria today. The recipes are those that were handed down to Francesco, who in turn handed them down to his son Ralph, for whom the restaurant is named. Ralph’s youngest daughter, Elaine Dodaro, serves as president and treasurer of the restaurant while her sons, Jimmy Rubino Jr. and Eddie Rubino, own and operate the restaurant. You’ll also find Jimmy Rubino in the kitchen turning out those time-honored dishes to different but equally eager diners today.
Ralph’s is located on 9th and Catherine streets, just north of the epicenter of the Italian Market. It’s an area with ample street parking and a beehive of activity during the day. In the evening, when the outdoor markets are closed, the neighborhood takes on a quieter, more sophisticated feel. If you’ve seen the training scene in the original Rocky film, you have a good idea of what this part of Philadelphia looks like.
From the outside, save for the slight exterior improvements, the restaurant appears similar to the other multi-story row homes that surround it. But you will notice a sign right off the street, marking Ralph’s historical longevity in this community. Stepping inside, the scene is a little raucous. The lower level dining area is completely full, with families and groups of friends tightly packed at white-clothed tables lining both walls. Servers race in and out from the kitchen in the back of the room, while conversations combine to a lively pitch. The lighting is very dim, providing a warm and homey atmosphere.
After a few quick words with the maître’d, my party is whisked toward the back of the room. Led up a series of tight staircases, we are taken first to the third level, where the temperature is a bit too crisp for our liking. When we ask to move to the second floor where it is warmer, the maitre’d is happy to oblige and takes us back down to a table by the bar. It’s still early in the night so the second floor isn’t full yet, but our server indicates that soon all three floors will be at capacity. Walking around the bustling restaurant, everyone seems to be having a good time, guests and servers alike. There is a reassuring sense of family and belonging here, like the feeling at my Italian grandmother’s Christmas dinners growing up. I’m feeling a little sentimental but my party is clearly hungry and I sense it’s time to focus on the food. Mangiamo!
After ordering, our server brings out the glass of house red that I ordered (only house red and white are available by the glass, and the full wine list by the bottle), with a basket of bread. The glass of red proves to be very sweet and healthily poured.
The bread deserves a paragraph all its own. In Italy, most restaurants serve bread before a meal, typically with a fruity virgin olive oil for dipping. In America, that custom is followed in kind, minus the oil, which is often replaced by butter. Ralph’s is no exception. Accompanying the small packets of butter is some of the best Italian bread I’ve yet to try in the city. The exquisite Italian loaf isn’t produced on site, but comes from Sarcone’s Bakery on the same block. The seeded Italian bread can easily be eaten solo; it’s hearty, a little sweet, and incomparably fresh. It’s even better when dipped into the rich red gravy that comes with most dishes here.
While cherishing the doughy loaf, our Bruschetta appetizer arrives, along with a single small tossed salad. The bruschetta is served on a plate of four large toasted bread slices. Covering each piece is a helping of red sauce made from plum tomatoes, resulting in a sweet taste and delicate texture. Fresh basil is mixed into the sauce and olive oil is drizzled over the top. The salad has a successfully simple design as well. Romaine lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, red onions, and a few beets combine with a light oil and vinegar dressing for a refreshing result. A single order is enough for all three in my party.
After letting our first course settle for just the right amount of time, our entrées are delivered. Having opted for an item off the “Italian Specialties” section, I carefully look over my entrée of Sausage and Peppers. As the name suggests, this is a straight-forward dish full of meaty chunks of sausage and green peppers covered in, of course— red tomato sauce. The peppers are firm but very moist inside, leaving a burst of flavor with each bite. The tender sausage links are hiding a secret ingredient, fennel seeds, which add an aromatic, slight anise flavor to the dish. A side dish of broccoli rabe, well flavored with garlic and olive oil, completes this Italian classic.
One member of my party wisely opts for the house made Baked Lasagna. From a visual standpoint, the mountain of steaming noodles, sauce, and cheese looks a little daunting. Grabbing a forkful, I need a moment of silence to enjoy the savory goodness of the sauce, creamy delicateness of the ricotta, and al dente noodles which give structure to the dish. I can taste the tiniest bit of nutmeg that’s crept into the ricotta filling and am pleasantly surprised to find they’ve snuck in a little sausage to boot. I’m already looking forward to the leftovers.
Treading down another well worn Italian culinary path, my other dining companion heads to the pasture, opting for the Veal and Peppers. Judging by the rapidity with which large sections of the plate have already disappeared, I surmise that it’s a good dish; I guess right. The veal is fork tender and imparts a rich salty flavor to the accompanying sauce. Veal plays a huge role in Italian cuisine and, as it should, has an equally predominant place on Ralph’s menu. A side dish of spaghetti is a meal unto itself.
Bellies almost full, we have left a bit of room for desert and decide to share the Cannoli Cake. Cannoli’s are tube-shaped fried dough pastries filled with sweetened ricotta cheese, which are often filled with chocolate chips and dusted with powdered sugar. The layered white cake that arrives is light and moist, creatively incorporating the key elements of the Italian pastry. Ricotta cheese is added to the cake batter to give the dessert its cannoli flavor. Wedged into the creamy icing is a mini cannoli, which has me pining for a not-so-mini cannoli. The dessert is completed with chocolate chips and powdered sugar, which provide a sweet finish to the relatively mellow cake itself.
A small detail, but one worth noting, is that the coffee we have with desert is not only of the highest quality, it’s also piping hot. As they say, the devil truly is in the details. It is evidence of chef Rubino’s mantra to maintain the uppermost level of consistency possible, so that the dish you have today will be just as good twenty years from now. Considering its very loyal customer base, it’s a philosophy that has clearly worked.
Ralph’s customer base is not only loyal but often quite distinguished too. The restaurant’s modest tables have been filled by politicians like Teddy Roosevelt, singers such as Sammy Davis, Jr. and Sinatra, and all manner of Hollywood stars and athletes such as Charles Barkley and Yogi Berra. As we get up to leave, I notice that as promised, the restaurant is now totally packed. For a brief time tonight, we’ve been transported to the past, savoring the food that’s kept Ralph’s on the map for over a century. As Sinatra’s voice lustfully crooning “Luck Be a Lady” over the stereo eases us back out onto the South Philly streets, I feel like the lucky one.