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Saturday, November 3, 2012

Neighborhood Delight in Port Richmond

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Oct 24, 2012

By Thom Nickels

Not a single day goes by when I don’t find another menu in my front door. Generally these are Chinese or pizza/hoagie/cheesesteak menus where the emphasis is on predictable foods. As they might say in Kazakhstan: "It’s all the same ol’ stuff buddy, but I’m looking for a little variety!"

More than a little variety can be found at Villagio Pizza and Café at 2533 E. Clearfield Street. Don’t let the ‘Pizza’ in the restaurant’s name fool you. Villagio may look like a one horse restaurant, but it is anything but. I’ve been going to Villagio for some time now so I’ve been able to taste almost everything on the menu—I say almost because I don’t eat veal or (very rarely) chopped steak. I’m a vegetarian-in-progress and have come to appreciate what a vegetarian niece of mine says when asked what she likes in terms of food: "I don’t eat anything with a face."

While I can’t say that (if you look hard enough, even broccoli has a face), I’ve come to be fearful of the hazards of too much red meat. In fact, I took to heart a recent 60 Minutes segment on the vegetarian monks of Mount Athos who live to be 90-years old and over (with no reported cases of cancer, prostate cancer or Alzheimer’s) by sticking to a Mediterranean diet of fruits, dark veggies, olive oil, fish, rice and red wine. Of course, the monks pray a lot and get up at the crack of dawn, and I’m sure in terms of health it helps to have the Aegean Sea nearby.

While Villagio is no Mt. Athos, part-owner George Vasiliou knows what good eating is all about, and it’s not about consuming too much pizza either, despite the fact that Villagio has a booming takeout pizza business (Villagio’s six or seven delivery guys are on pizza high drive 24/7). George’s heart is with the restaurant’s dining room. As a regular diner, I can tell you that the people who pick up their takeout orders invariably peek into the dining room as if looking into another world. Many takeout customers are perhaps unaware that there’s life beyond pizza, namely crab cake, turkey, flounder, and chopped steak platters with two sides, salad, and a dessert—plus a complimentary glass of red or white wine. The price for all of this is well under nine to twelve dollars, a throwback to Center City dinner prices in the year 1959. Today in Center City, a glass of wine will cost you anywhere from five to twelve dollars.

I sat down with George Vasiliou recently to get his story and to find out how the restaurant is faring in the still-ailing economy. Villagio opened in September 2011, so the restaurant is celebrating its first anniversary.

"It took the restaurant about a month to get off the ground. You know, people were curious about the place. They would come and look around. It was okay," George says reflectively, adding that business has been slow for the last month or so. "Even deliveries have slacked, and suppliers are complaining how slow it’s been. Other restaurants also say things have been slow. People aren’t buying the way they used to buy. They say it is slow because people are waiting for the election," he adds, shaking his head.

George shrugs and says in his Greek accent, "Why do you have to wait for the election to eat?" It’s not like there are rules about fasting for your candidate. People are still shopping for food at Thriftway, after all. "I don’t know what this is all about…every time an election comes, business slows down."

George was born in northern Greece, where Mount Olympus and Mount Athos are located, and where Alexander the Great once called home. At age sixteen he joined the merchant marines. Compare this to a kid in 2012 who stays home all day and plays games purchased from GameStop until he’s in his twenties.

George traveled the globe for seven years until he had an argument with the captain of a ship that had come into the Port of Philadelphia from Sydney, Australia. It must have been a big argument because when George told the captain that he was leaving, the skipper told him in no uncertain terms that he was staying put. "You’re going nowhere," he told George.

"I got my luggage and walked out," George said. "I didn’t know anyone in the city but I started to hang out in a Greek restaurant at 2nd and South."

George eventually met some friends although his career options were limited. "I didn’t have any choice but to become a dishwasher. Then I became a busboy, then a short order cook, and then I decided to open my own place." At 34 years old in 1985 he had already brought his brother over from Greece and opened his first place at 21st and Oregon for $4,000.

Business there was so good he bought another property on Washington Avenue, sold the first place, then leased the new place while he bought yet another. "Every year we were building up another place," he says, including a small diner (The Eagle) in Princeton, New Jersey.

George met his business partner Andy about a year after he got off the boat. Andy, a quiet kind of guy, works in the Villagio kitchen.

Life took an unexpected turn when George’s brother died in an automobile accident; shortly after this his wife and then his mother died. The deaths occurred within a three year period. A devastated George attempted to soldier on but found that his heart wasn’t in the business. "I was depressed and decided, ‘What’s the use?’" For five years he says he did nothing, but then the Phoenix stirred.

He and Andy set their sights on East Clearfield Street.

George sees Villagio as his last stand. "There will be no more after this," he says. "I am getting up there. It’s too much work to rebuild and move from place to place. It’s comfortable here. It’s a nice neighborhood. People keep their houses nice here." George says his ultimate dream is to have Villagio become so successful that customers have to stand outside in a line—a long line.

"We’re doing very well in the neighborhood, but we could do better. When I got here I wanted to expand the menu because, you know, the middle class people like variety. They do not only want pizza, pizza, pizza. I like to cook, and I like people to come inside, relax and eat."

George’s philosophy is to always say hello to diners. "I tell my people to do that too. Talk with people, don’t just look at them," he says.

To that end, one of the servers, Rachel, brings me a glass of wine, even though it’s the middle of the afternoon.

In my mind, I make a solitary toast to northern Greece.