Development

Mysteries Revealed as Old Philip’s Restaurant Eyed for Redevelopment

December 11, 2023 | by Kyle Bagenstose

Phillip’s Restaurant at 1145 S. Broad Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The flashing neon signs adorning various buildings in South Philadelphia have always meant to alert passersby to what’s inside. Bar. Billiards. Furs. And yes, something about a cheesesteak or two. But it is timeworn vestiges like the neon sign adorning the long-shuttered Philip’s Restaurant on South Broad that perhaps attract the most intrigue. Just what is going on inside that old ghost?

Philadelphians may soon have an answer for the intriguing Philip’s building. Fresh activity in the City’s permitting system shows that the owner of the three-story brownstone, located at 1145 S. Broad Street, is seeking a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals to redevelop the property, adding increased residential space at its rear and restoring a restaurant use for the first time since Philip’s closed in 2001.

In its heyday, Philip’s was a neighborhood institution, with tuxedo-clad waiters serving guests fine Italian cuisine. Perhaps most legendary was its eclectic interior. A 1980 Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant guide noted the restaurant looked like “a piece of the old world, with gilt mirrors, rococo-style paintings and sculpture.” An accompanying photo shows two proprietors seated at the restaurant’s bar, surrounded by statues of cherubs, an ornate candelabra, and checkered floor.

“It’s the kind of place they have a portrait of the Virgin Mary hanging next to a nude,” former Temple University President Peter Liacouras quipped in a 1987 Inquirer article, in which he also named Philip’s his favorite restaurant.

But the restaurant has now sat dormant for more than two decades. In 2007, former owner John J. Muzi passed away in an apartment above the restaurant. His wife, Phyllis, never reopened it and told Hidden City in a 2011 interview that she fielded calls from prospective buyers at least once a week, but promised to never sell it as long as she was alive. “I could sell it tomorrow, but I don’t want to,” she said.

Phyllis and Emilia Muzi post inside Phillip’s Restaurant in 1980. | Photo: Gerard C. Benene, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 22, 1980

Online records suggest Phyllis Muzi passed in 2018. City records show that the same year, individuals representing her estate sold the property to a company called 1145 Broad Street LLC. Revealed through a review of public records, the listed business address for the LLC is a second property owned by William Bonforte, who is also owner of the regional brunch chain Green Eggs Cafe. That lends credence to other clues accumulated throughout recent years that Bonforte had purchased the building.

In 2019, the new ownership of Philip’s was granted a use permit by the City to once again operate a restaurant on the first and second floors as well as a residential unit on the third floor, but it appears nothing came to pass.

Records then indicate that the owner requested a permit for a significant alteration of the building. It is unclear exactly when that application took place. But according to Bruce Bohri, a spokesman for the city Planning Commission, the permit was denied because the proposed alterations do not “cohere to the zoning for the parcel.” The current owners of Philip’s have appealed and have a hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment to potentially obtain a variance, scheduled for February 7.

Details are scant, but a brief description of the application provided by the City shows current ownership is still seeking to use the first floor and a portion of the second floor of the building for a sit-down restaurant. The proposal also includes a plan to erect additions to the rear property. With the building’s side profile currently tapering in a stepwise fashion, the new construction would fully frame out the building’s footprint to an entirely three-story construction. That would create a total of three dwelling spaces for a multi-family residential use.

The project description states “No sign on this application,” a reference to the fading neon marquee currently adorning the front facade. “The reason it says [that] is because signs need separate permits,” Bohri explains. “This is just to clarify that the sign is not covered in the application. It doesn’t automatically indicate that anything is happening to the Phillips sign.”

Several attempts were made to contact Bonforte to confirm his ownership and inquire about his plans for the building, but he did not respond.

A Landmark for Little Italy

Prominent Italian-American businessman Charles Carmine Antonio Baldi in 1907. | Photo: Family Collection via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Historical records show a colorful past for the Philip’s building, located at the corner of Broad and Ellsworth Streets. The property dates to the turn of the 20th century. A September 1893 Philadelphia Inquirer article announced that permits were issued to A.C. Townsend for construction of a “brick back building” at the address. In 1906, a lost and found section of the paper declared someone at the address had lost a “red-headed parrot.” “If gentlemen who picked it up at Thirteenth and Federal Streets… will return the parrot,” the notice read, “he will receive a reward of $5.”

While the building’s original use and occupants isn’t clear, records show it quickly took on a political purpose for South Philly’s growing population of Italian immigrants. A July 1917 notice in the Inquirer announced that approximately 250 “prominent Italians” were gathering at the building to form an “anti-Baldi” organization. That was presumably a reference to Charles Carmine Antonio (C.C.A.) Baldi, one of the most prominent Italian-Americans in Philadelphia history.

At that time, Baldi would have been 54 years old and a top leader of Philadelphia’s Italian community. After immigrating from Italy at the age of 14, Baldi began operating a lemon stand, a humble start that he eventually leveraged into great success in industries as diverse as produce, coal, banking, real estate, publishing, and politics. In 1924, he became the first immigrant named to the School District of Philadelphia’s Board of Education, a role which he held until his death in 1930.

Today, Baldi’s name lives on in Philadelphia through the Baldi Funeral Home at Broad and Reed Streets, as well as the C.C.A. Baldi Middle School in Bustleton. His most global legacy is undoubtedly pop superstar Taylor Swift, who is Baldi’s great-great-granddaughter.

But back in 1917, it appears other Italian-Americans in Philadelphia gathered at 1145 S. Broad Street took issue with Baldi and political machinery in the city’s Little Italy. “The determination of the Italian reconstruction committee, or ‘anti-Baldi’ faction of ‘Little Italy,’ to have no boss rule, was shown at a meeting last night when announcement was made that no specific chairman or president would be chosen,” read a July 1917 notice in the Evening Public Ledger, under the headline, “Boss Rule is Resented.”

Owner John Muzi collaborated with Mural Arts on the restaurant’s north-facing party wall. Muzi would pass away in 2007 before the painting was completed. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Instead, the organization’s seven vice presidents would take turn as chair: Frank Palumbo, president of the South Philadelphia State Bank, Mr. Lombardi, president of Sons of Italy Bank, Joseph Di Silvestro, grandmaster of the Sons of Italy, as well as Frank Roma, Frank Travascico, Henry di Bernardino, and Dr. J. De Vecchia.

The building’s address then remained out of the papers until a word of a new era arrived in 1940. In October of that year, a fresh Inquirer notice stated that Philip Munzi and Teresa Teodori had received a business license for Philip’s Restaurant at 1145 S. Broad Street. The Munzi name was apparently a misspelling of Muzi, the family name that became synonymous with the restaurant. Philip Muzi would pass just five years later, leaving the restaurant’s operation largely to his wife Amelia Fascetti Muzi and son John J. Muzi who later ran the restaurant with his own wife Phyllis until its closing.

Over the years, newspaper advertisements give a sense of offerings at Philip’s. In 1968, one such ad promised “magnificent Italian cuisine,” in “intriguing environs,” within a “handsome old brownstone home.” Dishes such as Maine lobster fra-diavolo, veal scallopini, and calamari were offered up as top attractions. In 1980, the Inquirer noted, the Muzi family was pleased to have received a surprise “rave review” from a traveling food critic, Richard Collins of the New Orleans Times Picayune.

Upon John Muzi’s death in 2007, an obituary further reminisced about the glory days of Philip’s. Guests to the restaurants had to ring a bell to enter, the obituary noted. “Once inside, they found themselves amid Mr. Muzi’s staggering piles of paintings, ceramics, corkscrews, swords, hand-carved chests, a six-foot wooden crucifix, a wooden parrot, a Renaissance painting hanging next to a mirror with a likeness of Elvis, a multitude of cherubs, and other wonders,” it continued.

At the time of Muzi’s death, Mural Arts was in the process of painting a large landscape of Tuscany on the side of the restaurant that still stands today, a fact that his widow lamented at the time, for Muzi had helped design it, she said.

A Fading Legacy

The first floor dining room of Phillip’s Restaurant looking towards the entryway. | Photo courtesy of the late Phyllis Muzi

In 2001, Philp’s closed its doors. In 2005, John Muzi’s mother, who helped open the restaurant in 1940, passed away at the age of 90. Her son John Muzi followed her less than two years later. That left his wife Phyllis.

By 2011, the neon “Philip’s Restaurant” marquee, which also advertised its cocktail lounge and air conditioning, was already fading and rusting. That year, Phyllis gave an interview to longtime Hidden City contributor Rachel Hildebrandt, now director of the National Fund for Sacred Places program of Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia nonprofit that supports the congregations of historic sacred places.

Phyllis revealed that original proprietor Philip Muzi had given his first name to the restaurant, and not his last, due to anti-Italian sentiment during World War II. She also said that the restaurant’s interior had remained untouched since closing, and that she held no plans for the site.

In a recent email, Hildebrandt said she became friends with Phyllis about two years earlier. Hildebrandt worked at the Circle Thrift store a few doors down where Phyllis would often visit. When Hildebrandt left the job, she’d visit Phyllis at Holt’s cigar lounge on Walnut Street in Center City, where Phyllis worked as a hostess. She recalled Phyllis as a “lovely person” and “super elegant,” and said the widow gifted her several possessions from her younger years: “leather pants, leopard print house dress, one of John’s tobacco smoking pipes.”

An advertisement for Phillip’s Restaurant from the 1960s. | Image: The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 27, 1968

Hildebrandt believes that Phyllis may have lived in the apartment above the restaurant until her final days in 2018 and was adamant about never selling. “That bothered some people, but, in my opinion, she was a South Philly legend and that was both her right and also understandable,” Hildebrandt said. “I desperately wanted to see the restaurant space, but she would push back on that.”

Muzi appears to have been true to her word and never sold. Over the the ensuing decade, redevelopment of the property was such an enigma that it became Aprils Fools-worthy material for real estate websites.

But the 2018 purchase and new zoning application raise fresh mysteries. What remains of Philip’s eclectic interior? Will the redevelopment come to pass. If so, what restaurant will open there? And perhaps of most interest to the public: will the old Philip’s sign remain or will it join many of its neon kin in fading fully into the past? Only time will tell.



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About the Author

Kyle Bagenstose is an independent journalist based in East Mt. Airy. Previously with USA Today, he writes primarily about environmental and urban topics.

7 Comments:

  1. Alex Thompson says:

    Great read, used to live on 12th and federal and was always Intrigued by the location but never knew anything about it!

  2. Margarete Larese-ortiz says:

    Great story about phila

    1. Joe Passanante Jr says:

      When it opens, maybe they can persuade Taylor Swift to do a few tunes for the Grand Opening??

  3. I hope the new owner restores the neon sign. It’s a South Philly treasure!

  4. Nancy Strano says:

    Phillip’s Restaurant was the first restaurant my parents took my brother and I. I remember how formal and beautiful it was. Eating there was a wonderful and unforgettable experience!!!

  5. I lived at the restaurant in 1958with Aunt Amelia and family. The three floors were very interesting.First floor was the restaurant and I helped my Aunt seat people for dinner .second floor was mostly storage and we lived on the third floor. I enjoyed working and learning in the kitchen in the mornings when Louie was the chef. He taught me so much.i miss my aunt,cousins and the restaurant and enjoyed my stay in Philadelphia

  6. Eno Beaumont says:

    It would be cool if some aspects of original interior could be kept

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