Thursday, August 25, 2011

Time Marches On

I used to go to Philadelphia regularly on business. It was a sweet gig. The customer loved us, and treated us like royalty. When I went there I stayed at one of the most luxurious hotels in the country. But for me, the best thing about the hotel was its location. It was within walking distance of an old Italian neighborhood, just like you see in the mafia movies, with brownstones, fresh produce stalls, small neighborhood taverns, and the old folks sitting on the front stoops and chatting in Italian.

During one of my rambles through the area I stumbled across what is now called "ground zero for cheesesteaks." I'd never had an authentic south Philly cheesesteak before, and here were two of the best, right across the street from each other. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

Pat's and Geno's have been around for decades. They're family-owned, family-run small businesses. They're not fancy, as the pictures below show, but they've stayed true to their roots.


Each has it's loyalists who are passionate about their choice. Me, I love 'em both, although I do prefer Pat's. And it's not just about the food. You gotta love the people that built and run these places. They are the stuff that made this country great. Just check out the picture below.

Since then I've eaten cheesesteaks from around the world. I've yet to find one that comes close to the originals.

Sadly, the guy pictured above, Joey Vento, just died.
Joey Vento, the owner of a landmark south Philadelphia cheesesteak stand who told customers to order in English, has died at age 71.

Longtime friend Domenic Chiavaroli told the Philadelphia Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer that Vento had been at the cheesesteak stand Tuesday morning, as he was every morning before opening, but went home to Shamong, N.J., later in the day and told his wife that he wasn't feeling well.

"I've been coming here since 1967," Chiavaroli said. "Joe was a good guy. He always tried to help everybody."

According to Geno's website, Vento learned the cheesesteak business from his father, who had opened Jim's Steaks in the early 1940s. The site says Vento opened Geno's in 1966 "with $6 in his pocket, two boxes of steaks and some hot dogs."

Geno's and its chief rival across the street, Pat's King of Steaks, have become the focus of an area described as "ground zero for cheesesteaks," a traditionally Italian community that has grown more diverse with an influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America and is a popular tourist destination.

In June 2006, Vento and Geno's made headlines over two small signs posted at the shop stating, "This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING 'PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH.'"

Vento said he posted the signs because of concerns over the debate on immigration reform and the increasing number of people who couldn't order in English.

Vento said he never refused service to anyone because he or she couldn't speak English, but critics argued that the signs discouraged customers of certain backgrounds from eating at the shop.

Amid extensive publicity, the city's Commission on Human Relations began looking into whether Vento was violating Philadelphia's ordinance banning discrimination in employment, public accommodation and housing on the basis of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The following year, the commission found probable cause against Geno's for discrimination.

The case then went to a public hearing, at which an attorney for the commission argued that the signs were about intimidation, not political speech. The matter then went to a three-member panel, which ruled 2-1 in March 2008 that the signs didn't violate the ordinance.
I haven't been back there in years, which I guess is just as well. It sounds like the neighborhood has changed, and not for the better. Maybe it's best to live with the memories of cherished people, places, and things, rather than confront brutal reality.

RIP, Joey.


Anonymous said...

I lived in North Jersey for most of my life and visited Philidelphia on occasion. It was a great, safe and welcoming city in the 1950's and early 1960's.

Then the worm began to turn with the riots in the late 1960's.

The city of "Brotherly Love" bagan to turn into the city of "Yo Brother got sme ice?"

Now most of the city is a no-go zone even at high noon.


CenTexTim said...

TJ - It was the late 70s-early 80s when I spent time there. I felt pretty safe for the most part, although there were definitely parts of town that we were warned to stay away from. Today, however, you're right. I wouldn't go back unless I could go armed.

It's such a shame to see things deteriorate like they have.