Monday, May 28, 2012

The Center City Photo Scout

The corner of 18th & Locust

Rittenhouse Square

227 S. 18th Street, Rittenhouse Square

Parc 227 S. 18th Street

Saint Mark's Church steeple

Bike Stop Exterior S. Quince Street

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Center City: The Overview

Gaetano’s restaurant is located in the heart of Center City just southwest of Philadelphia’s City Hall. Anna Fontana DeMarco and her two sons Marc and Domenic run the landmark eating establishment. It’s difficult to imagine the Center City landscape without its remarkable cuisine or the formidable Anna at its helm.

She became sole owner after the untimely disappearance of her twin brother Gaetano for whom the locale is named. She wants to become de facto sole owner and have him declared legally dead. Gaetano Fontana had no direct heirs and sister Anna is his closest living relative. There is a lot to be said for life insurance.

There has been much speculation regarding the circumstances of Gaetano’s disappearance. He was in debt to many both in the city as well as outside the city limits. Never one to be deterred Anna held on to the property and paid back every debt enlisting her sons, former priest, Marc and Saint Joseph’s University graduate Domenic to help in keeping and running the restaurant.

The Fontanas, Anna’s parents, are originally from the paese Troina and became denizens of South Philadelphia. Without the living presence of Gaetano Fontana—who had not returned on a day that he’d gone to market for the catch of the day—they are the source of much local gossip. Nothing has been proved.

While there had not been a mob shooting there like other well known locales in nearby South Philly, Gaetano’s history or alleged goings on give the place something of a celebrity aura. The food while not by any means haute cuisine was excellent and based on Fontana family recipes from Sicily. It is genuine. They even make their own sausage. Anna is particularly proud of the mussels and the Sicilian foccaccia, vastedda.

The restaurant features live music almost every night. Its most acclaimed band is “Rittenhouse,” named for the City Square where the restaurant is found. Focusing on standards and music from the past, the widely popular band’s lead singer, Valerie Festa, is a young woman wise beyond her years, possessing a profound knowledge of the musical past. She is a single mother of Italian and African descent. Her mother is the majestic Marlena Hightower, her father is Gianni Festa, a well known musician and singer. She is drawn to Domenic, but has obvious fondness for sensitive Marc, the former priest.

Marc and Domenic’s father, Nicky (Nicola), divorced their mother as soon as Domenic graduated high school. He hasn’t been around much since. It will change soon. Unlike many South Philly divorces the De Marcos did not remain friendly. Nicky De Marco was a charming man with little rancor but a lot of libido. It was a very loud divorce with more than one broken dish.

The atmosphere in Gaetano’s is warm. Its d├ęcor indicates much of the city’s other cultural influences; it almost looks like a Pub in that it has a prominent bar, but if Anna were to hear anyone refer to it as a bar or a tavern her chilling response would immediately inspire a search for a different definition. References such as restaurant and locale were acceptable—sometimes club, often piano bar or cabaret.

Her sons were close to each other, but two very different types of people, especially in the way either of them related to her. The ex-priest, Marc’s reactions and responses to Anna were based on guilt and something akin to intimidation. His departure from the priesthood for reasons still unknown to his mother will create a ruckus second only to Anna’s divorce. Although Anna is not a particularly religious woman, she is angry about the embarrassment, but she still loves him. Her impatience with his life gets in the way. It would be more acceptable to her had he segued into a marriage or a relationship, but both remain to be seen.

Domenic, on the other hand, stands up to his mother, speaking his mind and disagreeing with her when it is called for (contradicting, is Anna’s word for it). Domenic is well educated but maintains the “attitude” of the old neighborhood (South Philly) and is one of Center City’s best bartenders.

Both men are dedicated to their mother and, consequently, to the business all three run together. It is more than a livelihood, it has become their identity.
It’s not easy working with Anna.

Monday, May 7, 2012


(l-r Kiely Williams, Tristan Colton, Chase Coleman, Ilene Kristen, David A. Gregory, Matt Walton)

To hear the words and to have the characters come to life is a very satisfying experience. Last Sunday's workshop/reading was also very rewarding with the invaluable feedback that took place. Anna De Marco and her sons, Marc and Domenic interacted with Tommy, Mike, Valerie and Marlena in what is supposed to be the first episode of Center City. To have been in the presence of intelligent and talented people gave the project more life.The feedback was invaluable not only in the constructive critique that came forth but also in the positive reception of all the participants. Another similar experience in Los Angeles will no doubt bring more enlightenment.

Special Thanks:

Ilene Kristen
Matt Walton
Chase Coleman
Tristan Colton
David A Gregory
Kiely Williams
Natalie Hiatt
Steven Bergman

Friday, May 4, 2012


Unlike the other squares, the early Southwest Square was never used as a burial ground, although it offered pasturage for local livestock and a convenient dumping spot for “night soil”.

By the late 1700s the square was surrounded by brickyards as the area’s clay terrain was better suited for kilns than crops. In 1825 the square was renamed in honor of Philadelphian David Rittenhouse, the brilliant astronomer, instrument maker and patriotic leader of the Revolutionary era.

A building boom began by the 1850s, and in the second half of the 19th century the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood became the most fashionable residential section of the city, the home of Philadelphia’s “Victorian aristocracy.” Some mansions from that period still survive on the streets facing the square, although most of the grand homes gave way to apartment buildings after 1913.

In 1816, local residents loaned funds to the city to buy a fence to enclose Rittenhouse Square. In the decade before the Civil War, the Square boasted not only trees and walkways, but also fountains donated by local benefactors – prematurely, it turned out, for the fountains created so much mud that City Council ordered them removed. The square’s present layout dates from 1913, when the newly formed Rittenhouse Square Improvement Association helped fund a redesign by Paul Philippe Cret, a French-born architect who contributed to the design of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Rodin Museum. Although some changes have been made since then, the square still reflects Cret’s original plan.


The main walkways are diagonal, beginning at the corners and meeting at a central oval. The plaza, which contains a large planter bed and a reflecting pool, is surrounded by a balustrade and ringed by a circular walk. Classical urns, many bearing relief figures of ancient Greeks, rest on pedestals at the entrances and elsewhere throughout the square. Ornamental lampposts contribute to an air of old-fashioned gentility. A low fence surrounds the square, and balustrades adorn the corner entrances. Oaks, maples, locusts, plane trees, and others stand within and around the enclosure, and the flowerbeds and blooming shrubs add a splash of color in season.

Rittenhouse Square is the site of annual flower markets and outdoor art exhibitions. More than any of the other squares, it also functions as a neighborhood park. Office workers eat their lunches on the benches; parents bring children to play; and many people stroll through to admire the plants, sculptures, or the fat and saucy squirrels.

Public Art

Like Logan Square, you can see several of the city’s best-loved outdoor sculptures in Rittenhouse Square. The dramatic Lion Crushing a Serpent by the French Romantic sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye is in the central plaza. Originally created in 1832, the work is Barye’s allegory of the French Revolution of 1830, symbolizing the power of good (the lion) conquering evil (the serpent). This bronze cast was made about 1890.

At the other end of the central plaza, within the reflecting pool, is Paul Manship’s Duck Girl of 1911, a lyrical bronze of a young girl carrying a duck under one arm – an early work by the same sculptor who designed the Aero Memorial for Logan Square. A favorite of the children is Albert Laessle’s Billy, a two-foot-high bronze billy goat in a small plaza halfway down the southwest walk. Billy’s head, horns, and spine have been worn to a shiny gold color by countless small admirers.

In a similar plaza in the northeast walkway stands the Evelyn Taylor Price Memorial Sundial, a sculpture of two cheerful, naked children who hold aloft a sundial in the form of a giant sunflower head. Created by Philadelphia artist Beatrice Fenton, the sundial memorializes a woman who served as the president of the Rittenhouse Square Improvement Association and Rittenhouse Square Flower Association. In the flower bed between the sundial and the central plaza is Cornelia Van A. Chapin’s Giant Frog, a large and sleek granite amphibian. Continuing the animal theme, two small stone dogs, added in 1988, perch on the balustrades at the southwest corner entrance.

At Night

Once predominantly a daytime destination, Rittenhouse Square is now a popular nightspot as well, with a string of restaurants — including Rouge, Devon, Parc and Barclay Prime — that have sprouted up along the east side of the park on 18th Street.

So these days, you can take in the serenity of the natural landscape from a park bench in the sunshine and then sip cocktails under the stars at one of many candlelit outdoor tables.

Meanwhile, several more restaurants, bars and clubs have opened along the surrounding blocks in recent years, like Parc, Tria, Continental Midtown, Alfa, Walnut Room, and Twenty Manning just to name a few.