Presenting: Best of the River Wards 2012!
Star is proud to introduce the winners of the Best of the River Wards 2012 readers' choice contest.
Well, you did it.
You chose the best people, places and businesses in your community by casting your votes during these past few weeks.
Each vote was a token of support for the hard work of local restaurants, shops, bars, galleries, salons and more. All those businesses and individuals and individuals have kept trucking alone, each and every day, in an economic climate that isn’t easy for anyone.
That hard work has paid off in ways Star is proud to recognize.
Inside, you’ll read words from the winners—words that offer a unique look into the inner workings of the places and people you might see every day.
Maybe you’ll even learn of your new favorite place.
There is one overwhelming commonality in those words, though: every winner was grateful, most of all, to the community,.
That’s what makes this contest just so great. It’s proof that communities are strong and vibrant places in which people support one another.
What could be more important these days?
Star is thrilled to present The Best of the River Wards 2012.
Congratulations to the winners!
Best Breakfast or Brunch: Winner: (Tie) Mercer Café at 2619 E. Westmoreland St. and M&M Restaurant at 2736 E. Allegheny Ave.
Omelets stuffed with crab, asparagus and mozzarella or pancetta, tomato and onion. Mascarpone French toast. Salty, buttery creamed chipped beef.
Stomach grumbling yet?
These are but a few of the breakfast and brunch options Mercer Café serves up, and according to owner Tom Woltjen, every single menu item is prepared fresh daily.
Open since May 2000, Mercer Café is a true family business. Woltjen’s wife, daughter and brother are all a part of the operation, and the family grew up in the neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of ‘Mercer babies’ we’ve watched grow up,” Woltjen said. “We’re always chatting with everyone. Everyone’s part of the family.”
The café offers seasonal as well as daily specials, and Woltjen said it’s always packed on the weekends, when brunch runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays.
With diverse breakfast, brunch and lunch offerings, it’s unlikely anyone who stopped in to Mercer Café would go hungry. Plus, the staff members clearly love what they do.
“It feels good to serve the neighborhood,” Woltjen said.
Call Mercer Café at (215) 426-2153.
Though not named for the candies with the chocolate shell, the offerings at this diner seem to be considered just as delicious.
M&M stands for Marian and Maggie Cudnik, the husband-and-wife team who have owned the Port Richmond café for 19 years.
What’s so good on their menu that readers voted M&M the best place to go for breakfast or brunch?
“Everything is good, no choice,” said Marian Cudnik. “But people really like the chipped beef and the omelets.”
With its very simple yet classic diner style, complete with counter seating and vinyl booths, M&M is just what you’d expect from a small town joint.
The menu is packed with breakfast and brunch staples like eggs any style, breakfast sandwiches and bacon, as well as Polish favorites like potato pancakes and pierogis.
“All my neighbors, I know everyone that comes here. Many people come even from the Northeast,” said Maggie Cudnik. “The neighborhood is really nice.”
M&M is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day of the week. Call the café at 215-423-4990.
Runner Up: Ida Mae's Bruncherie at 2302 E. Norris St.
Winner: Primo Pizza, 2563 Trenton Ave.
What makes Primo Pizza the best in the River Wards?
Owner Jim Duffy’s lips are sealed.
“What, you want me to give away our secrets?” he said lightheartedly.
But even if he’s not going to divulge his recipes, it’s clear that the pizzas at Primo reign supreme.
For over 19 years, Duffy and his crew have been making pizzas in the small shop on Trenton Avenue across the street from Pop’s Playground.
“We’ve seen the transformation of this area,” he said. “We’ve seen all the changes.”
Asked the shop’s specialty, Duffy said hungry readers should try the “mega pie,” a 24-inch pizza that Duffy said is great for parties.
“Bigger is better,” he said.
Duffy pointed out that Primo Pizza wouldn’t have won if it weren’t for such a hardworking team of employees.
“We are happy, thrilled really, to win” he said.
Duffy said that with the readers’ votes pushing Primo Pizza’s pies to the top, the next step is clear.
“What else can I say? If you haven’t tried us yet, now’s the time,” Duffy said.
Primo Pizza can be contacted at 215-426-8885.
Runner Up: Santucci Pizza, 2313 E. Venango St.
Winner: Campbell Square, Belgrade Street and Allegheny Ave.
Walk past Campbell Square on any typical sunny weekend and you might see a few things - a group of old friends, a pair of mothers pushing their young children in strollers or a neighborhood resident with a green thumb tending to the flower beds.
The park has had problems in the past with litter, vandalism and drug users, but it has steadily improved thanks to concerned locals and members of The Friends of Campbell Square.
Now the group hosts events each month in the square and Mayor Michael Nutter even officiated the wedding of Philadelphia Police Officer Samuel Tribuiani in the park in May.
Star spoke to Friends of Campbell Square secretary Susan Ongirski in June for a story about her work in the park. Here's what she had to say:
"It's gorgeous now. There are four or five new gardens [in the park] and we've had a historical sign and benches put in," she said. "To see the park being used makes me feel so good. I am proud."
To learn more about The Friends of Campbell Square's work in the park, visit www.facebook.com/campbellsquare.
Runner Up: Frank Glavin Memorial Playground (A&W) at E. Westemoreland Street and Almond St.
- Mikala Jamison
Winner: Primo’s Hoagies, 1501 E. Susquehanna Ave.
Primo’s Hoagies’ owner Frank Pospieck said he thinks that the sandwiches at his shop might have won over so many others in the neighborhood thanks to good old-fashioned customer service.
“I care that you get what you want,” he said. “I care because you’re a paying customer. You deserve to get it right.”
With over 25 years of experience making sandwiches, Pospieck said that he’s proud to serve the community, and he’s excited that locals felt the hoagies at Primo’s were the best in the area.
“I live in Port Richmond and I work here in Fishtown, and I’ll never leave either one,” he said. “I love these neighborhoods, and I just want to say thank you so much. This is so greatly appreciated.”
Along with his own experience in the industry, Pospieck said that he’s backed by hardworking staff members, including his wife and son.
“I’m lucky, I’ve got good guys on my staff,” he said. “This is just a great neighborhood. I’m happy.”
When asked if he had a specialty sandwich or a favorite hoagie, Pospieck said he’s eaten so many of the sandwiches, he couldn’t possibly pick a favorite.
Maybe that task is best left to Primo’s customers.
Primo’s can be contacted at 215-425-2350.
Runner Up: Slack's Hoagie Shack, 2499 Aramingo Ave.
Best local business owner
Winner: Faith Mendez, owner of StarLight StarBright Play and Learn Daycare, 2424 Studios, 2424 E. York St.
Faith Mendez insists that her win has less to do with her and more to do with the staff she values so deeply.
“We’re not a business, we’re a family,” said Mendez, who said most people know her as ‘Miss Fay.’
When Mendez started StarLight StarBright Play and Learn almost two years ago, she said her motivation was simple.
“I started it because I love kids,” she said. “You could have all the degrees in the world, but if you don’t love kids…”
The daycare, which is open to children six weeks to five years old, brings in children from many Philadelphia neighborhoods, Mendez said.
The studio space, now a bustling daycare open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days per week, was just a shell before Mendez took over.
Once Mendez and her family members stepped in—her staff includes four daughters and four nieces, and her young granddaughter is a daycare student—she said creating a happy environment was the first order of business.
“You gotta make it fun,” she said of her work. “It takes good parents and good people.”
As 12 of the daycare’s students graduate this month, Mendez said it breaks her heart to see them go. For her, it’s like saying goodbye to family members.
“I don’t want it to be ‘best business owner’ this year,” she said. “I want it to be ‘family of the year.’”
Call the daycare center at 267-455-0588 and visit the Facebook page by searching for “StarLight StarBright Play and Learn.”
Runner Up: Kelly Krecko Albano, owner of Kiddie Garden Daycare, with three locations. Contact at 215-634-2570.
- Mikala Jamison
Best Gift Shop
Winner: Sweets & Treats, 3138 Richmond St.
Though the store’s only been open on Richmond Street since December, Sweets & Treats has quickly gained a significant following as a sweet spot to pick up some treats to give as a gift—or keep for yourself.
Co-owner Wayne Bullock said he believes it’s the unique candy offerings and custom gift baskets that make the store stand out.
In fact, he said his shop is one of the few places where locals can get Turkish taffy and “flying saucers”: candy-filled pouches made of sweetened unleavened bread. Customers can also get a taste of Hershey’s ice cream for a cool $1 per scoop.
As a new resident of the community—he moved with his family to Port Richmond to help open the store—Bullock said the area has been welcoming, and he hopes to return neighbors’ kindness by providing an open, friendly atmosphere at his shop.
“When we first looked at the neighborhood, we thought, ‘It’s all families, but they have nowhere fun to go,’” he said. “The neighborhood has been great. Everyone has been welcoming.”
Since the shop has opened, they have added an ice cream cooler and a counter for Asher’s brand chocolates.
Bullock’s favorite part of working in the River Wards? The people, he said.
“We have people come in from Fishtown. They walk all the way over here with strollers and everything,” he said. “It’s just been so much fun.”
Sweets & Treats can be contacted at 215-425-3771.
Runner Up: AFI Flowers, 3065 Richmond St.
Best Coach or Teacher
Winner: Officer Ernie Rehr, director of Rizzo PAL, 2524 E. Clearfield St.
Ernie Rehr said he has a very large family.
That family isn’t just made up of his wife and two kids, he said, but of the thousands of Port Richmond kids he’s worked with coaching golf, wrestling, bowling, basketball and more.
“I’ve been to lots of weddings and communions,” he said with a laugh as he thought back on all the events he’s been invited to by his “PAL kids.”
Now in his 22nd year of work at the PAL, Rehr discussed all the activities the center offers to the neighborhood, like a girls’ positive image program, an after-school homework program, karaoke nights, self-defense classes and community service opportunities.
“School, PAL, church, we all have a part in kids’ upbringing,” Rehr said, adding that parents are an enormously important part of the PAL’s success, and thanked them for making PAL of part of their kids’ lives.
He added that his philosophy is that empowering children leads to endless possibilities.
Rehr would know—the recreation room at the PAL is filled with trophies and banners celebrating the wins of the various teams and groups to which Rehr dedicates his time.
He said the work keeps him young.
“I know in my heart I’m helping to develop better citizens for Philadelphia, and the country,” he said.
Visit the Philadelphia Police Athletic League online at phillypal.com, and call the Rizzo PAL at 215-426-6583.
Runner Up: Pat Cain, soccer coach at the Fishtown Athletic Club, www.fishtownac.com
Winner: Narducci’s Deli, 2402 E. Dauphin St.
Though the shop might be a little hard to find if you don’t know where to look—the sign out front blew away in a storm — Star readers remembered Narducci’s Deli in this year’s contest.
The deli has been serving locals since 1984, and in that time, said Angie Naducci—daughter of owner Tony Narducci—the family-owned and operated deli has been supported by a group of regular customers she said she’s proud to call friends.
“We have a lot of regulars. Some of them we see every day,” she said. “You end up knowing so much about each other. You know their personal lives, and they know yours.”
While the deli offers sandwiches and hoagies, Narducci said that the most popular items in the shop are the pizza bagels and pizza pretzels that they make fresh.
“That’s what we sell the most of,” she said.
When the family learned they were selected to win the award thanks to readers’ votes, Narducci said she was flattered and thanked the community.
“Everyone here is so nice,” she said with a grin.
Narducci’s Deli can be contacted at 215-634-1177, and found on Facebook by searching for “Narducci’s/Tony’s.”
Runner Up: Best Deli, 2616 E. Lehigh Ave.
Best Coffee Shop
Winner: Coffee House Too, 2514 E. York St.
Coffee House Too is all about the extras.
Derick Warren, owner of the coffee house that’s called the Fishtown area home for about a year and a half, said customers get a complimentary mimosa with every breakfast order on the weekends, and a free glass of wine with every lunch sandwich.
Not to mention that any lucky dogs that come in with their owners will snag a slice of bacon.
“No matter how busy it is, we treat each person like they are number one,” Warren said.
One of the coffee house’s best sellers, he said, is the “Hangover Hoagie,” a three-egg monster sandwich sure to tackle any morning blues with cheddar, hash browns, garlic butter and choice of meat on a long roll.
The coffee house also makes its own potato chips as well as smoothies, protein shakes and specialty drinks in addition to coffee.
Though the coffee shop only offers takeout, customers hang out and chow down at tables on the shop’s sidewalk.
Warren said he and his staff truly care about keeping Coffee House Too a friendly place.
“We’re all dysfunctional, there’s no cliques,” he said. “We’re all real.”
Visit Coffee House Too online at coffeehouseco.com and call at (267) 324-5888.
Runner Up: Rocket Cat Café, 2001 Frankford Ave.
Winner: Tony’s Pizza, 3128 Belgrade
The three Ditri brothers—John, Sal and Mario—have been proudly making sandwiches at Tony’s Pizza on Belgrade Street for over 30 years.
In those three decades, some things have never changed. For one, Mario said, the shop’s patrons are of utmost importance.
“We try to take care of the customer,” he said. “Everybody who comes in here is friendly. We get along with everybody.”
What else has stood the test of time?
“We always used the same recipe,” he said of Tony’s signature cheesesteak sandwiches.
It would seem there’s no need for change—inside the small corner shop, the walls are lined with awards, many for wins in previous readers’ choice contests sponsored by Star.
Ditri said that he’s proud that once again, Tony’s Pizza’s version of Philly’s favorite sandwich was selected as the best in the River Wards.
“We won last year, we won this year,” he said with a grin. “It’s so nice.”
Call Tony’s Pizza at 215-427-2090.
Runner Up: Tommie's Pizza, 465 E. Girard Ave.
Winner: Port Richmond Pharmacy, 2512 E. Clearfield St.
Getting the staff of Port Richmond Pharmacy to stand still long enough to pose for a photo was no easy feat.
That might be because each staff member was busy taking calls, filling prescriptions and chatting pleasantly with the pharmacy’s many customers.
Flavia Masino, director of marketing and educational programs at the pharmacy, said that such great customer service is typical.
“We go above and beyond for every customer,” she said.
She also explained that the pharmacy offers free delivery and pickup for prescriptions; staff will remind customers when prescriptions need refilling; someone is always available to answer the pharmacy phone, and the employees can speak many languages to customers.
“We have a diverse population, and we are proud of it,” she said, and pointed to the flags of several countries hanging in the entranceway.
John and Nick Masino have owned the pharmacy since 2004, and Flavia Masino said whether she’s hosting customer education seminars about diabetes or arthritis, or simply ringing up medications and groceries, she sees how important the pharmacy is to the neighborhood.
“We have customers that come in to just say ‘hi,’” she said. “We know everyone’s name…we really focus on taking care of customers.”
Call the Port Richmond Pharmacy at 215-426-5099.
Runner Up: York Street Phramacy, 2334 York St.
Best Beer Distributor
Winner: Philadelphia Beer Company, 2525 York St.
Throughout the River Wards, beer distributors seem to come a dime a dozen. There’s one on almost every block.
That means Philadelphia Beer Company had to overcome a lot of competition to be named “Best Beer Distributor.” What led to its win?
Owner Jim Lee said that he believes the winning qualities are the friendly staff, focus on customer service and, of course, a wide selection of beers—from local favorites to beers brewed in Europe and Hawaii.
“There are so many different beers across the country… we are always trying to bring in something different and I think our customers appreciate that,” he said.
Lee added that he is thankful for the support from the local community.
“This is a great neighborhood. I couldn’t do this without such great neighbors,” he said.
In the nine years the beer distributor has been in place on York Street, Lee said he’s tried to provide a wide variety of beers, while supporting local breweries like Philadelphia Brewing Company and Yards Brewing Company.
“Local beers are something we do really well,” he said. “This really is one of the best neighborhoods I know."
Call the store at 215-426-8113.
Runner Up: Camiel's, 2619 Aramingo Ave.
Winner: Villagio Pizza Café, 2533 E. Clearfield St.
Villagio owner George Vasiliou said the Port Richmond restaurant is much more than just a meal ticket.
After the deaths of both his wife and his brother, Vasiliou, who said he’s been in the restaurant business for 35 years, took ownership of Villagio with two others in October last year.
“It keeps my mind away from bad memories,” he said of his work. “I can move on. I don’t like to stay home. I’m always here.”
As Vasiliou shared details about Villagio, he pulled pizzas out of the brick oven, dashed back and forth for ingredients and said kind words about his staff members. He called his restaurant co-owners his “brothers.”
He said not only does owning the popular restaurant help him personally, but it affords him the chance to give back to the community he calls “beautiful.”
“They support us, we support them,” he said of neighborhood residents.
Villagio’s menu boasts dozens of unique pizzas, platters, Italian and Greek entrees and an abundance of salads, sandwiches and side dishes. Customers can order pickup or delivery or eat in the restaurant’s full-service dining room.
Vasiliou said that thanks to its catering and event services, Villagio also sees its fair share of graduation and birthday parties, and has even played host to a wedding reception.
“People like to celebrate here,” he said with a smile.
Call Villagio Pizza Café at (215) 291-9499.
Runner Up: Aramingo Diner, 3356 Aramingo Ave.