A love of food nourishes the body & soul
By Mary Anna Rodabaugh
“Every night is its own memory,” said Greg DiStefano, 65, of South Philadelphia, owner of The Victor Café, a classic Italian restaurant offering live opera performances during dinner.
In 1908, his grandfather, John DiStefano, immigrated to Philadelphia from Italy. Ten years later, John opened his first business on Dickenson Street: DiStefano’s Gramophone Shop, where neighbors and friends could come and listen to operatic arias while sipping fresh espresso. In 1933, when John purchased a beer and wine license, the shop became The Victor Café, “Music Lover’s Rendezvous.”
The Victor Café has remained a family-owned and operated business since its inception. You may recognize it as “Adrian’s” restaurant from the “Rocky” movie franchise. You can even visit the lounge on the second floor to see a corner filled with film memorabilia. Visitors from all over the world enjoy swinging by to take pictures at this historic establishment.
A lifetime of dedication
Greg DiStefano has spent his entire life working at The Victor Café. “I started going down to the restaurant at a very early age, I think I was 7 or 8, and I was working in the kitchen,” he said. “When I came of age, I worked on the floor as a busser, waiter and a bartender.”
Today, you can find him answering phones in the office on the second floor chatting with patrons, or managing the music that plays throughout the restaurant in between live performances.
“My favorite part of the work now, at my age, is coming into the restaurant and doing maintenance of the building,” said DiStefano, who also has over 15 years’ experience as a construction manager. “The building is 120 years old, and there are many little projects that must be done.”
DiStefano admits running a business has stressful moments. “You worry every day and every night (about) what could happen,” he said.
DiStefano considered retiring right before the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, he teamed up with his brother to build a sturdy and sheltered outdoor seating area that kept The Victor Café alive during trying economic times. The outdoor eatery coupled with the special treat of live opera performances on Saturday evenings drew in hundreds of patrons, filling in the 140 seats on both sides of the street.
Singers would perform from the second-floor balcony, filling the evening air with melody and merriment.
While the pandemic endeavors were successful, they were not easy on DiStefano. “The last three years have taken a toll on my body and psyche,” DiStefano said. “I’ve never worked harder, not even during all my younger days in construction.”
When it comes to restaurant work, DiStefano said you have to love it – and he does. His passion for his grandfather’s business is evident in the way he lights up when talking about the café.
“I like to refer to myself as the (café’s) caretaker as we navigate through time,” he said.
Some of DiStefano’s fondest memories include family gatherings at the restaurant, including his children’s birthday parties and holiday dinners.
DiStefano also enjoys late evenings after the dinner crowd has disbursed and only a handful of patrons remain. “Someone may get up and sing a five-minute aria or a duet,” he said. “It is just a moment in time. I’ve had so many of those moments that it is hard to remember all of them. But the best memories have been seeing incredible performances by our staff and customers.”
The Victor Café: Music Lover’s Rendezvous
If you happen to find yourself near 1303 Dickenson St. in South Philadelphia, stop by The Victor Café and say hello to owner Greg DiStefano. The Victor Café is open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, 5-9 p.m.; Saturday, 4-9-15 p.m.; and Sunday 4-8 p.m. The second-floor lounge and bar is open Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m. For more information, call 215-468-3040 or visit VictorCafe.com.
Mary Anna Rodabaugh is a writer, editor and writing coach.
PHOTO CAPTION: Greg DiStefano, 65, of South Philadelphia, owns and operates The Victor Cafe, which his grandfather opened in 1933. (Photo by Mary Anna Rodabaugh)