A neighborhood landmark celebrated the grand opening of a new informational destination.
Meandering around people and stands stacked with fruit and produce along South Ninth Street is typical for South Philadelphians. Known as America’s oldest and largest outdoor market, the South Ninth Street Italian Market has become synonymous for being a one-stop shop with recognized stores selling everything from poultry, meats, cheeses, coffee and spices to trinkets and souvenirs.
But not until recently was there a single place where neighbors, tourists and merchants alike could go for information or to purchase signature Italian Market items. With a soft opening in May during the street’s annual festival, the Italian Market Visitor Center, 919 S. Ninth St., started operation, and this past weekend, the $10,000 venture, funded entirely by the Italian Market Merchant’s Association, marked its official grand opening.
“With Saturday being American Express Small Business Saturday, there was no better weekend to open a business than this weekend,” Michele Gambino, business manager for the South Ninth Street Business Association, said. “It’s a perfect fit for a grand opening weekend.”
The Italian Market always had a very active merchants’ association, she said of the organization that conceived the center in 2010. When the pavements and awnings were refurbished and the festival was revived over a decade ago, a breath of new life was brought into the association.
“Once they became active, we set up a mission statement, vision, goal and objectives and one of those goals was to open up a visitor center,” Gambino said.
After five years of being aggressive and keeping an eye out for the perfect space, a former phone store became available in March.
“Obviously our big thing is to be a center, a place for information where people come to be greeted into the Italian Market,” Gambino, who has been the business manager for the past five years, said.
The store’s windows — inscribed with the signature Italian Market, red, white and green lettering and a large sign hanging above — announced the grand opening. Author Linda Milanese-Kerschner stood behind a table out front to debut her book, “Pizza Friday,” about growing up in an Italian family and making pizzas on Friday evenings. On Sunday, Christina Pirello held the same spot to showcase her newest book, “I’m Mad as Hell, And I’m Not Going to Eat it Anymore,” both of which are on sale in the store. A Toys for Tots box was assembled next to the table while veteran accordion player Ralph Salerno took turns playing inside and outside of the shop.
Inside, Dave Brown from Talluto’s Authentic Italian Food, 944 S. Ninth St., passed out small bowls of a fresh mozzarella cheese and tomato salad while customers also sampled olives and meats from a Di Bruno Bros., 930 S. Ninth St., antipasto tray or a sweet treat from Anthony’s Chocolate House, 915 S. Ninth St., all while learning about the visitor center, picking up a shopping map brochure or browsing the goods for sale. Since May, the association has learned through trial and error what works and what doesn’t in regards to items for sale. Gambino said the group plans on restructuring to become a visitor center gift shop in the coming year.
In the middle of Saturday afternoon, passers-by were called to come in and experience a little bit of the Italian Market. And they could purchase items such as a spaghetti spoon from Talluto’s, measuring cups from Fante’s Kitchen Wares Shop, 1006 S. Ninth St., olive oil, homemade pasta, Italian aprons and shirts, toy accordions and more. From Friday through Sunday in celebration of the grand opening weekend, the business association organized a sleuth of entertainment including “Ask the Merchant” where owners Emilio Mignucci of Di Bruno Bros. and Tina Grassia of the Italian Market Spice Co., 949 S. Ninth St., conducted tastings. Customers even joined in singing with the accordion player while merchants set up and decorated the Christmas tree and nativity scene directly across the street.
Other activities included macaroni art for the kids, a meet and greet with artist Tessa Meier and a Mummers’ trio. Meier, owner and founder of Featherstone portraits, created a series of paintings depicting moments in the Italian Market including exchanges and interactions among merchants and customers, unique landscapes and colors of produce to describe just a few, all of which are on display in the visitor center. A resident of the Italian Market neighborhood since ’03, she even introduced a few new pieces.
As a whole, the Italian Market merchants seemed pleased with Saturday’s turnout.
“I think it’s the greatest thing that we have done as an association,” Brown said.
Six part-time employees help manage the self-sustainable nonprofit entity. More than 70 of the association’s active merchants were influential in getting the 300-square-foot, ground-floor visitor haven off of the ground and chipped in for the grand-opening festivities.
“It’s for the betterment of the street, it’s cleaner and nicer,” Brown said. “It’s all to give the customer a better experience.”
Felicia Ottobre, of 13th and Dickinson streets, stopped in with her friend after purchasing a pizzelle iron at Fante’s as a gift and agreed.
“I think it’s a great idea,” she said while her friend browsed the selections and reiterated the same sentiment.
The store has a little bit of everything, Gambino said. It acts as a center point or association office of sorts for merchants and a neighborhood location as well.
“It has become this place that people are sort of attached to,” she said.
“I wouldn’t say we’re stronger than ever but I would say we’re working on being stronger than ever, and we’re working on making our market more customer-friendly so that the customers that used to come down, and don’t anymore, will revisit the market,”