by Len Lear

One of the oldest Italian restaurants in the city, Portofino at 1227 Walnut St., which has satisfied customers for 38 years with classic Italian cuisine while hundreds of others have come and gone, has overcome recessions, changing trends and mega-buck chain competitors, but one opponent that might have proved to be the toughest of all is Mother Nature. In August of this year, Hurricane Irene did so much water damage to the building that Portofino had to close its doors.

The Walnut Street Supper Club will offer the classic Italian dishes that made Portofino a success in center city for 38 years as well as American favorites at reduced prices.

“Despite everything,” said owner Ralph Berarducci, whose restaurant was named for the picturesque village in the province of Genoa on the Italian Riviera, where Ralph grew up, “we were holding our own this year until that happened. The weather was just a killer.”

Nevertheless, although Berarducci, who is 70-ish, was understandably devastated at the physical damage to his beloved restaurant, he now concedes that it might have been “a blessing in disguise … It forced me to re-examine the future of the restaurant. Although we were doing decent business, there are so many other fine Italian restaurants in center city and South Philly, this crisis forced me to think about taking this place in a new direction, which I would never have done if not for all the physical damage.”

As a result of a four-month renovation and the forced re-examination by Berarducci and his general manager, James McManaman, the name Portofino has been retired. Instead, on Wednesday, December 28, after two nights of dry runs with friends and family, the Walnut Street Supper Club will make its debut at 1227 Walnut St.

The interior facelift now has the property resembling a 1940s-era supper club. There are already two restaurants in South Philly that occasionally have young opera singers who perform when they are not waiting on tables. But the Walnut Street Supper Club will be the only restaurant in the city that will also have servers, bartenders, hostesses and even busboys who, seven days a week, will be singing “The Great American Songbook,” i.e., classic pop songs originated by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Darin, Judy Garland, Perry Como, etc. For several weeks, Ralph’s staff held auditions to find the best singers in the area who also have experience in restaurants.

“We will have a pianist at a baby grand piano backing up the performers,” said Ralph. “I think people will love hearing those great songs that bring back so many wonderful memories. And there will be no minimum fees or cover charges, even on the weekend. Our goal is to provide a unique dining experience in a place where celebrations are memorable and all at a good value.”

Concerning the food, the Walnut Street Supper Club will offer many of the classic Italian dishes that Portofino was known for, but there will also be American staples like steaks and seafood dishes. The menu prices have also been lowered “to coincide with the current economic conditions.” Homemade pasta entrees will start at $17, for example, and baby back ribs at $18.

Ralph Berarducci, who is well known for all of his charitable endeavors, will have the only 1940s-style supper club in the area providing fine dining as well as live entertainers singing “The Great American Songbook” seven nights a week.

There will be both floor and mezzanine seating, overlooking the stage where singers will perform. Discounted parking is offered at 1201 Walnut St., less than one block away, and theater and sports event ticket holders will also receive a discount on their meals. For New Year’s Eve, the restaurant will feature its regular a la carte menu with no additional prices for the holiday.

He never wants me to mention it, but Ralph Berarducci, in addition to his stellar reputation as a restaurateur, is one of the most generous and charitable businesspeople in the Delaware Valley. Every Thanksgiving he feeds between 500 and 700 impoverished and homeless people with a complete turkey dinner, and during the Christmas season he always provides countless free dinners to many nuns in the area. And throughout the year he is always a soft touch for any legitimate charitable cause. For more information, call 215-923-8208 or visit www.walnutstreetsupperclub.com. (When this article was turned in on December 19, the website was not up yet except for the home page, but it may be by the time the article runs.)