Twice, the bakery almost took the Villari brothers' lives.

First Joe, nine years ago, on a delivery a few blocks from their shop on 10th Street, as picture-perfect a time capsule of old South Philly as you could find, from its screen door to its minimal decor — rosary beads, a picture of the pope, a cross, and a statue of Charlie Chaplin. If Joe, behind the counter, ever beaming, didn't remember your name, he remembered you: "My friend!" he'd yell, in his rolling Sicilian accent. "God bless!"

Peer past Joe, 76, and you'd spot Sal, 73, in the back in his flour-coated apron, hefting 100-pound bags into a mixer that looked like a small submarine.

But back to Joe, and what was almost his last delivery. His balance had escaped him, but he finished the delivery anyway, and his shift, wobbling home, where his wife, Charlotte, made him go to the hospital. Triple bypass. He went back to work a year later.

Joe the baker always offered a tomato pie on the house. “My friend, you take it,” he’d say.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Joe the baker always offered a tomato pie on the house. “My friend, you take it,” he’d say.

Then it was Sal, earlier this year, in the midst of one of his 16-hour shifts. He felt tired. He lay down on his baker's table. When he awoke, he couldn't feel his feet. He finished his shift. He called his daughter. A stroke.

A little one, he's quick to point out.

But big enough that after 47 years, the little bakery at 10th and Winton Streets is closing. Sal can't work. And Joe would never work without him.

When factories made customers

In the old days, Villari Brothers Bakery hummed — how could it not, when there were seven Sunday Masses at Epiphany down the block? In 1971, the now-shuttered factories still pumped out jobs and people hungry for the Villaris' bread, their tomato pie, raisin bread, garlic bread, pepperoni bread, Italian loaves, dinner rolls. Their Easter bread, the most famous in South Philly.

The brothers — younger brother Phil also worked the kitchen in the early days — sent them to parties at Veterans Stadium, to the restaurants around the neighborhood, to the hoagie shops and delis and dinner tables of customers who still came in speaking Italian.

And even as the neighborhood changed around them, the Villaris resolutely stayed the same.  Joe would eye your order and declaim his price, as if conjuring it from thin air. Five bucks, say, for enough tomato pies to feed an army, and a free one to boot. "My friend," Joe said. "You take it."

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Knock on the side door at 3 a.m. and Sal, whose dear wife Caterina passed away in 1999, would greet you with a hot roll. The old-timers will tell you that if you needed a place to store your lemon tree in the winter, the brothers would carefully place it in their storefront, where the heat of Sal's ovens kept precious lemons alive.

As cantankerous as the ovens were — they had to be 100 years old, Joe said, left over from the original owners, from whom the brothers purchased the place after they moved from Sicily — the Villaris refused to buy new ones.

You change the oven, Sal's dictate went, you change the bread.

The Villari brothers can abide a changing neighborhood. They cannot abide changing loaves.

A sign in the window

The new South Philadelphians, as much as they could with their stressful jobs and their travel, embraced the bakery, Joe likes to point out. (He is nothing if not optimistic.)

Like Jennifer Zavala, once a chef, now a stay-at-home mom, who would drive her hot-pink food truck up to Villari's. Joe would greet her with a grin. "He just loved something exciting, this crazy tattooed woman," Zavala joked. And no matter what she ordered, she always left with a tomato pie, on Joe.

But on recent drives by, she would notice the bakery was quieter and quieter. Joe sat alone at his counter. And that made her sad, because places like Villari's are why you move to South Philly.

Brothers Joe and Sal Villari have finally said goodbye to their bakery. Sal can’t work, and Joe would never work without him.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Brothers Joe and Sal Villari have finally said goodbye to their bakery. Sal can’t work, and Joe would never work without him.

This time, Joe and Sal couldn't put off change, even if it felt forced. "We can't lose you in that bakery," Sal's daughter, Maria, told them.

The neighbors held out hope, but the place never reopened after Sal's stroke. The brothers finally hung the For Sale sign a few weeks ago. But Joe still comes daily. To greet the customers who stream in to say thank you, and goodbye. To offer one last "God bless."