Villa Di Roma

Italian Market
932-36 S. 9th Street
(215) 592-1295

"When in Di Roma, do as Di Romas do," is the oft-repeated maxim heard echoing up and down 9th Street, especially between Carpenter and Christian. Wend your way, along the sidewalk, past mounds of fresh produce boxes, over-filled iron trash bins and stacked empty palettes, all the remnants of a 9th Street open air market sales day. Be embraced by the Italian Market’s gaudy signs alluding to "Roasted Boned Baby Pigs," "Twenty Pound Parmesan Wheels," and "Asparagus By the Bushel."

One enters Villa Di Roma into an elongated room with an argy-bargy mahogany bar controlling its length. The patrons are indigenous and neighborly, catching your eyes as you pass. "Aaeeee," "Yyohhh," "Aaeeyyohhh," are greetings that are quickly stated, quickly accepted and understood as linguistic declivities in lieu of "goodtaseeyuuseguys."

Smoke fills the beery air, so holding one’s breath is not uncommon as you hop past the tappy’s hops-smells, as if barefoot on a bed of coals, toward the smoke-free dining rooms.

Try to be seated in the area to your left; it’s the old original, brick-walled shebang with the huge billboard menu as its omphalos near the tiny kitchen.

A dozen-and-a-half small tables are covered by white linens atop which rest old-fashioned glass chrome-topped condiment containers of salt, pepper, hot pepper flakes, sugar and grated parmesan. Thin stainless steel silverware are purfled and scarified accompaniments.

Oddly, and completely foreign to the atmosphere are three cowboy-Western wagonwheels with five gaslight shades a piece, equally spaced hanging from the drop-ceiling. But the food never wavers from deep South Philly basics.

Appetizers should be ordered for the table: Villa Salad, Escarole or Broccoli Rabe in oil and garlic, and especially "Fried Asparagus," if available (all between $6 and $8 when averaged). The Villa Salad hasn’t changed in decades, and always feeds four. Chopped iceburg lettuce is bathing in a creamy pink sauce reminiscent of remoulade, flavored with bacon bits and tomatoes. Nothing could be simpler. Every deglutition causes flashbacks to the ’50’s. You can almost hear By Saam calling a Phillies game, in between crunches; and swallows are as big and long as a Del Ennis double.

Escarole is steamed to a wilted limpness, the color of the green paperback cover used by West’s Pennsylvania Rules of Court – Federal (2003). Real spikes of garlic glitter and abound on each forkful, creating the first of many gas pocket-parts of the repast. Never attempt to squelch bumptious burping, at the risk of a 3 a.m. heartburn that will make for corybantic restlessness and gaseous deflagrations.

Just as the Escarole is sweetly redolent of garlic bits, the Broccoli Rabe contains a nascent but demulcent bitterness. It is, moreover, erumpent with heated pepper flakes giving your tongue and cerebellum simultaneous kicks. Afterglows of lemon coat your inner mouth.

"Fried Asparagus" is a new Villa specialty. Seven or eight darkly charred crisp cigarillos float motionless in a goldenrod yellow butter pool. Each auriferous spear may be judiciously cut in half so as to easily slide between one’s puckered lips. The entrance is flawless. Notwithstanding, the thickly rich butterbroth left in the bowl seems indented by a sitzmark. The slippery asparagus suddenly slides in a gurgle while your teeth and tongue attempt to stabilize its presence. Biting down brings a verdant whirligig of fried coating’s crackling. There’s no need to swallow; the chewed matter inside your throat has "disaspeared."

I’m not going to turn you away from anything at Villa served with red gravy. (Say "sauce" and you’re tossed.) Veal or Eggplant Parmesan platters are inexpensive, with frantically fresh ingredients, drenched in brilliant crimson liquid of feverishly chopped tomatoes. Sides of pasta are likewise inundated and gratis.

But to have the unforgettable, the infrangible, the almost indecently, deliciously oleaginous, one must order "Chicken Neopolitan." Served in an oblong trough of a plate, cubed plump white chicken-breast chunks gleam gloriously in a beclouded phantasm of bright light butter, redolent of smashed whole garlic bulbs. As you suckle the heavenly heaps of chicken, feel the hairs on your arms and head stretching toward the aforementioned wagonwheels. Your shirt or blouse bustles as hairs emerge on your chest. Scrapes and rashes disappear from one’s skin. Your complexion is anointed and rosy. Inhale a miasma and memento of South Philadelphia’s ponderous puckishness. Catch your breath. Then allow another few chunks entrance. The supple sordidness migrates to your soul. Any Italian grandmother born south of Bainbridge will reverently advise: "If the Lord cooked anything better, She kept it for Herself."

Waitresses here are corpulently gracious and become instant bosom buddies, even if standing nearly three feet from your table. They fill their black pants and black vests with dimpled voluptuousness. These ladies often call you "hon," and mean it. Listen to what they say, as they are learned in the laws of this eatery.

Make certain to reserve the rolls given freely in baskets, to dunk into the gravies. Better than dessert.


Copyright 2004 Richard Max Bockol, Esq. Back