by Len Lear
Last week we drove down the 300 block of Race Street in center city, and I could not help but think of Tony D’Lauro, one of the most interesting Chestnut Hill residents I have ever met and the former owner of DiNardo’s, a seafood restaurant at 312 Race St. for the past 38 years that has always specialized in crab dishes.
D’Lauro grew up in Chestnut Hill. He graduated from Our Mother of Consolation School, Roman Catholic High School and Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism in Philadelphia and Villanova University. From 1952 to 1953, he served in the Navy in Hawaii and Alaska and remained in the Navy Reserve, stationed at Willow Grove Navy Air Station, for several years.
Tony’s father, Anthony, came to the U.S. from Italy in 1910. He and Tony’s uncle John, who came here in the 1890s, were skilled craftsmen who helped build many of the houses in the lower end of Chestnut Hill while they themselves lived on Willow Grove Avenue. A cousin named Frank helped to build Villanova University Law School and Camilia Hall at Immaculata College in Chester County.
In the 1970s Tony, who was living in Chestnut Hill, was a hugely successful six-figure president and CEO of Rollins Auto Leasing Corp. and Rollins Communications Inc. D’Lauro, who also had lived in Blue Bell and Erdenheim, later opened his own marketing, advertising and consulting firm, the D’Lauro Agency, which soon had over $1 million in billings, until the 1980s. Earlier he had also been an executive for Acme Markets and Brandywine Raceway, but the constant travel and stress eventually turned him into a corporate dropout.
But the son of immigrants was still restless. For many years his favorite restaurant was DiNardo’s in Wilmington, largely because of their legendary crab dishes. So D’Lauro approached owner Bill DiNardo, offering to become a partner in a second DiNardo’s, which Tony would open in Philly, even though he had no previous restaurant experience (except for eating in them).
Because of his lack of restaurant experience, Tony worked for three months at DiNardo’s in Wilmington to learn every aspect of the business. A quick study. Tony then opened his DiNardo’s at 312 Race St. in center city on Valentine’s Day, 1977.
The building was previously Captain Mike’s Bar, a shot-and-beer joint that had not been known for fine dining but for the go-go dancers, Warlocks motorcycle gang members and Black Panthers who hung out there — and for Mike himself, who really was a tugboat captain on the Delaware. The 250-year-old building had also been headquarters for British troops stationed in Philadelphia long before it was a seafood restaurant.
The 300 block of Race Street is a place where you rarely see pedestrians at night, but DiNardo’s was a huge success from day one. Critics from Philadelphia magazine, the Inquirer, the City Paper and even the New York Times have consistently proclaimed DiNardo’s crab dishes as “The Best of Philly.” Restaurant owners can be like Marine drill instructors because of the need for perfection at every meal service, but Tony was described to me by employees more than once as having “a heart of gold.”
In the mid-1990s a manager named Nick Matteo told me that the restaurant would go through 60 to 75 gallons of their secret-recipe vinegary crab sauce in a typical week. Also legendary was the New Orleans-style barbecue sauce, which at one time was made in large quantities by a lady in New Orleans who was in her 90s. It could have gotten customers arrested by the cholesterol police, but it was a sublime, decadent pleasure with dunked rolls and barbequed shrimp.
“I sure did not go into this business to make money,” Tony once told me. “If you want to get rich, do not open a restaurant. It is 100 percent hands-on every day and night of the year, and a million things can go wrong from pipes bursting to a chef calling in sick to major snow falls to people making reservations and then not showing up to buying certain expensive food items and customers not ordering them and on and on. But despite all that, I love it because there is nothing like seeing people enjoying themselves and laughing and having a great time, and you know you were responsible for it. You don’t get that kind of satisfaction as head of an advertising agency. You just cannot put a price on that.”
When Tony was in the corporate world, he used to say he could gauge clients’ personalities by watching them cope with platters of hard-shell crabs, according to a daughter, Jane DiNola. “He was there morning and night,” she said several years ago. “He was a wonderful mentor to employees, many of whom stayed for more than 20 years. He taught them that customers expect the back of the house to be just like their home. You have to keep it clean and keep it fresh.”
In 2004 Tony moved to Florida, but he continued to call the restaurant every day to see how things were going. Always involved in the community, Tony served on the board of Roman Catholic High School and was co-chairman of the school’s building-fund drive. He was past president of Ivy Ridge Lodge 251, Order of Sons of Italy, and served on the executive committee of Blue Bell Country Club. After moving to Florida, he volunteered at Naples Community Hospital.
On Sept. 14, 2011, at the age of 80, Tony died of pulmonary fibrosis at Physicians Regional Hospital in Naples, Fla. He left behind a wife, two daughters, a stepdaughter, a sister, six grandchildren, a great-grandson and countless friends, former employees and admirers and who respected and loved him.
(D’Lauro’s first wife of 46 years, Peggy; a daughter, Carol Ann; a brother, Felix D’Lauro; sisters Rae Arena and Grace, and a grandson preceded him in death.)