Like most Philadelphians in 1976, I thought Rocky Balboa was our greatest homeboy since Benjamin Franklin. He talked funny like us. He swaggered like us. He could take a beating, bleed like hell and then get up and take some more. (Absolutely nothing like us, but, gosh, we respected him for it.)
In a city that had recently established an “Anti-Defamation Agency” to combat pejorative jokes with Philly as the punch line (no joke), “Rocky” made us feel good about ourselves. The movie’s star and writer, Sylvester Stallone, was like our Barry Levinson, except Sly could obviously kick the “Diner” boy’s ass.
Before the movie came out, not even Stallone, actually a New York native who attended high school in Northeast Philadelphia, suspected it would have the impact that it did. Created for a paltry $1 million and filmed in 28 days, it went on to win three Academy Awards— including Best Picture. And tough but likable Rocky was forever linked with the City of Brotherly Love.
Rocky turns 30 this year and on Dec. 22, the Italian Stallion returns to the big screen once again with “Rocky Balboa,” aka, Rocky VI. In the film, a 50-something Rocky, hard up for cash, comes out of retirement to take on the current heavyweight champ, played by real-life boxing champ Antonio Tarver.
In honor of Rocky’s last round (hopefully), we present this Rocky Tour of Philadelphia. Even if you’ve never seen a Rocky flick— or if you were secretly rooting for Clubber Lang in “Rocky III”— all of these sites are worth a visit on your next trip north.
Italian Market Start your tour where Rocky started his famous early morning jog. Known as the Ninth Street Market to locals, this open-air bazaar spills out from storefronts onto sidewalks covered by canvas awnings— just like the ones you’ve seen in pictures of immigrant markets from the early 1900s. It’s a fascinating, messy stew of culinary flotsam and jetsam, a sort of post-apocalyptic Dean & Deluca.
Discarded cardboard fruit and vegetable boxes litter the street, animal carcasses dangle in butcher shop windows, fires burn in metal trash cans to keep the vendors warm. As far as I know, it’s the only place in town where you can buy live chickens.
The market doesn’t quite percolate with as much activity as it did in 1976 (one block is almost completely vacant) and it’s more a melting pot of Italians, Latinos and Asians these days, but it remains one of the most interesting and colorful neighborhoods in town.
Scenes from the new film were shot in P & F Giordano, a 100-year-old produce and meat market, on the corner of Ninth and Washington streets, near where my father used to buy smoked turkey butts when I was a kid. (This was before his heart attack.)
If you visit on a weekend, ask for Harry Giordano, who, as a young boy, tossed an orange to Stallone as he ran by in Rocky I. Giordano, now 37, remembers the experience as “miserable.” “It was so cold and he missed it so many times,” he recalls. “We had to do it over and over again.” Giordano says several people, oblivious to the cameras, started running after the then-unknown Stallone when he began jogging through the market. “People thought he had stolen something,” he says with a laugh.
Must-stops along the market include DiBruno Bros. House of Cheese (930 Ninth St., 215-922-2876), a fragrant assortment of more than 400 cheeses from around the world; Isgro Pastries (1009 Christian St., 215-923-3092) for cannolis and pignoli cookies; and any of the Old World butchers (D’Angelo Bros. at 909 Ninth St., 215-923-5637, sells cuts of every beast from boar to yak). For her “$40 a Day” TV show, food celeb Rachael Ray dined at Villa di Roma Restaurant (936 S. Ninth St., 215-592-1295) and declared its chicken Sicilian “yummy.”
Pat’s Steaks For lunch, walk south to Pat’s “King of Steaks,” supposedly where the cheesesteak was invented in the 1930s, and where Rocky wolfed down one “wit” onions in the original flick. There’s a plaque on the sidewalk commemorating the spot.
Pat’s are, along with Geno’s across the street, the most touristy cheesesteak emporiums in the city. (You may recall Geno’s made national headlines last summer, when owner Joseph Vento posted a sign in his window demanding his customers order in English.)
Truth be told, I find the steaks at both Pat’s and Geno’s to be skimpy on meat, far too greasy and mediocre at best. I prefer equally touristy Jim’s Steaks (400 South St., 215-928-1911), or neighborhood-y Dalessandro’s at 600 Wendover Ave. in Roxborough, 215-482-5407. Even better might be the hoagies from Sarcone’s Deli (734 Ninth St., 215-922-1717), a block north of the Italian Market. The sublime rolls (key to a good sandwich) come from Sarcone’s 89-year-old bakery, seven doors down. Ask fourth-generation owner Lou Sarcone Jr. about his own Rocky VI cameo. “You sound more like me than me,” Stallone said of his South Philly accent.
The Philadelphia Art Museum Steps
Fortified on greasy meat and Cheese Whiz, now you’re ready for a workout. And a sprint up the Philadelphia Art Museum’s steps is just the thing.
The image of Rocky sprinting up the art museum’s 72 steps and leaping for joy at the top— after failing earlier in the movie— is the film’s defining moment. It’s a scene that has become so ingrained in our national consciousness that 30 years after the film, tourists are still making the climb. The phenomenon has even spawned a book, “Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps” (Paul Dry Books, 2006) by two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists from the Philadelphia Inquirer, reporter Mike Vitez and photographer Tom Gralish.
The book includes interviews with both fierce and casual Rocky devotees, including a guy from Connecticut who believed that “Rocky IV” (in which Rocky defeats Russian fighter Ivan Drago) helped end the Cold War to rapper Flava Flav (who is romantically linked with Stallone’s ex-wife and “Rocky IV” star Brigitte Nielsen). What all of them have in common, says Vitez, is that, just like Rocky, they’ve overcome something in their lives and running the steps is a manifestation of their joy— whether they realize it or not.
“Many people start out doing it as a corny, hokey touristy thing to do,” says Vitez, who says he never ran the steps until he found a publisher for his book. “But then a surprising thing happens. Their hair stands up on the backs of their necks and they really get into it. They are celebrating their own lives, dreams and accomplishments. … As Stallone has said, it’s a tangible thing you can do. You can’t wear Superman’s cape or use the Jedi’s sword, but you can run those steps and find that same expression of joy.”
To properly “rocky,” Vitez’s invented verb for running the steps, start along Benjamin Franklin Parkway humming the opening trumpet blasts to Bill Conti’s seminal “Gonna Fly Now” and take the 72 steps at an even sprint. In the movie, Rocky did it in just over 10 seconds, bounding up four steps at a time. Once at the top, thrust your fists in the air and dance around like you’ve just conquered the world. Look down and you’ll find the bronzed soles of Sylvester Stallone’s Converse sneakers set in the cement, along with an imprint reading “ROCKY.” Oh, and you’ll certainly want to do one thing Rocky didn’t: Go check out the museum. The Greek temple-like, 10-acre building contains one of the best collections of ancient and contemporary art in the world. (For upcoming exhibitions, see http://www.philamuseum.org.)
The Rocky Statue Rocky may have united the city in civic pride, but this past fall, it was his 8-foot-tall bronze statue, as seen in “Rocky III” and V, that divided it. In one corner was Philly’s Art Commission, a mayor-appointed board of artists and designers who oversee public art. This group believed that the statue was not art but a “prop” and therefore, should not stand anywhere near all those Rodins and Calders along the Parkway. (Remember, this is a city whose most recognizable piece of public art is Claes Oldenburg’s 45-foot-tall clothespin.)
In the other corner, were most Philadelphians.
The statue had been at the top of the steps for two brief periods before being moved to a spot outside the city’s sports stadiums in South Philly. When those arenas were demolished, the statue, by sculptor A. Thomas Schomberg, languished in storage before making a brief return to the steps during the filming of “Rocky Balboa.”
Clearly, Bronze Rocky needed a home.
In the end, a compromise was reached and the 2,000-pound behemoth resides permanently in a grassy square just north of the museum. Stallone, who attended a Sept. 8 dedication ceremony, even picked up the tab for its relocation.
The Victor Cafe For dinner, Rocky (and opera) fans will want to head to this old-world, South Philly Italian restaurant that stands in for Rocky’s restaurant, Adrian’s, in the upcoming film. Stallone actually purchased the restaurant for 17 days of filming (to avoid liability issues) and returned here in June to celebrate his 60th birthday. (Sly, reportedly a good tipper, ordered a steak.)
The storefront was originally the site of John DiStefano’s Gramophone Shop, where opera lovers would gather to hear the latest recordings over an espresso or spumoni. In 1933 upon the repeal of Prohibition, the shop became The Victor Cafe, the “Music Lover’s Rendezvous.” These days, DiStefano’s grandson, Rick, runs the place and it remains a haven for opera fans. Photographs of famous divas adorn the walls and every 20 minutes or so a waiter or waitress rings a bell, introduces an aria, and accompanied by piped-in music, bursts into song. The singers, mostly professional opera between gigs, are pretty good, as is the homey Italian food. (1303 Dickinson St., 215-468-3040)
If you still haven’t gotten enough of the Italian Stallion, then head to these other sites for die-hard fans only:
The Legendary Blue Horizon This venerable North Philly fight club never appeared in any Rocky films, but it’s the kind of place where he would have fought. For a schedule of fights, see http://www.legendarybluehorizon.com. 1314 N. Broad St., 215-763-0500
The Philadelphia Zoo Rocky asks Adrian to marry him in front of the zoo’s Carnivore House in “Rocky II.” 3400 W. Girard Ave., 215-243-1100, http://www.philadelphiazoo.org
St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church This active parish served as the setting of Rocky and Adrian’s low-key wedding. 1719 Morris St., 215-334-2312
J & M Tropical Fish This was the dingy neighborhood pet shop where Adrian worked in the first “Rocky.” Thirty years later, it’s still a dingy neighborhood pet shop. 2146 N. Front St., 215-423-6700
For tourism information, hotel packages and restaurant information, visit http://www.gophila.com or call 800-537-7676.