I ate at the oldest Italian restaurant in the US, and it was one of the best dinners I’ve had in a while

Ralph’s is the oldest Italian restaurant in the US. Frank Olito/ Insider
  • Located in Philadelphia, Ralph’s opened in 1900 and is the oldest Italian restaurant in the US.
  • On a Saturday, I scored a reservation and had one of the best dinners I’ve eaten in a while.
  • The chicken Parm reminded me of my Italian grandmother’s home-cooked meals.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Growing up in an Italian family, all my family gatherings were centered around food. My grandmother taught me at a young age what a good sauce is supposed to taste like and how to properly salt a pot of water for pasta.

Throughout the years, it has been a challenge to find great Italian food at restaurants that can rival my grandmother’s cooking, so when I stumbled upon Ralph’s, a restaurant in Philadelphia that claims to be the oldest Italian restaurant in the US, I was sceptical.

By the end of the meal, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find a delicious, home-cooked meal in the heart of a big city.

In January, two friends and I took a weekend trip to Philadelphia and struggled to find a place with space for dinner.

A street in Philadelphia. Shutterstock

The weekend we went to Philadelphia happened to be the first weekend the city allowed indoor dining again. With restaurants only open to 25% capacity, we had a lot of trouble finding a place to eat on Saturday night. We called countless places around the city, and all of them said they were booked for the night.

After an hour of trying, we finally got a reservation at Ralph’s located in South Philadelphia.

Later that night we arrived at the restaurant, and it didn’t look like what I was expecting.

The exterior of Ralph’s. Frank Olito/ Insider

Since it was the only restaurant in the city that would take a last-minute reservation on a Saturday night, I didn’t have high hopes for the dining experience, but I was instantly surprised that Ralph’s was clearly a legitimate restaurant on a busy street.

Once inside, the space felt a bit empty, which had me worrying again.

The empty restaurant. Frank Olito/ Insider

The general rule is that a packed restaurant means it’s a great restaurant, so the emptiness of Ralph’s made me a bit sceptical again. There were only four tables in each corner of the room and only one of them had people eating. I reminded myself that there is a pandemic and this limited seating and empty atmosphere is normal, even preferred for my safety.

I later learned that there was a second floor with additional seating, but I wasn’t allowed up there because of COVID-19 safety concerns.

Finally seated at the table, I learned the surprising history of Ralph’s, which dates back to 1900.

The place mat. Frank Olito/ Insider

There was a paper place mat laid out in front of me, and the first words on the paper read: “You are dining at the oldest Italian restaurant in America.”

As I continued to read on, I learned that Francesco Dispigno and his wife, Catherine, immigrated to the US from Naples, Italy, in 1893. They settled in an Italian neighbourhood in Philadelphia and opened the country’s first Italian restaurant in 1900, naming it after their son, Ralph.

Over 120 years later, the restaurant is now run by the fourth generation of Dispignos and operates out of the same building. Throughout the years, notables like Taylor Swift, Frank Sinatra, Patti LaBelle, and many others have all dined at Ralph’s. According to the restaurant, President Joe Biden was even a frequent visitor when he was a senator – and I quickly learned why.

I started to feel embarrassed for prejudging the restaurant and now felt lucky to even have scored a reservation at this historic restaurant.

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Our meal started with some red wine and bread.

The bread and the wine. Frank Olito/ Insider

As someone who has a deep love for bread, I am always looking for restaurants that have the best starter bread. Unfortunately, Ralph’s bread was a bit dry, and I had to dip it in olive oil.

For my entrée, I ordered the chicken Parm and was seriously impressed.

The chicken Parm. Frank Olito/ Insider

The menu had a ton of pasta options, including penne alla vodka, ravioli, and lasagna. There were also a few seafood options, but the star of the menu was the variety of chicken dishes. One of my friends and I ultimately decided to get the “Ralph’s Famous Chicken Parm” for $US22.

For me, a great chicken Parm comes down to three characteristics: a thin piece of chicken, a crispy breading, and a great sauce. Fortunately, Ralph’s “famous” chicken Parm checked all three boxes. The best part of the dish was the sauce, which tasted perfectly sweet and reminded me of my grandmother’s home-cooked meals back when I was young.

I didn’t know if it was the fact that I hadn’t had a great Italian meal in a while thanks to the coronavirus lockdown or if it really was that delicious, but my entrée was one of the best dishes I’ve had in a while.

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When I finished my chicken Parm, I moved onto my side dish of spaghetti.

Eating the spaghetti. Frank Olito/ Insider

Since the spaghetti was covered in the sauce that I already loved, I had no complaints about the delicious side. It was the perfect complement to the chicken Parm.

Another friend ordered the chicken florentine with a side of broccoli, and she loved her meal as well.

The chicken florentine. Frank Olito/ Insider

The chicken florentine had spinach, artichoke hearts, mozzarella, white wine, and butter, and it cost $US22. My friend said the sauce was the best part of the entire dish.

For dessert, we all shared a cannoli, and it was worth every cent.

The cannoli. Frank Olito/ Insider

Despite the fact that we were all full from the meal, our server convinced us that we had to try Ralph’s cannoli for $US8. When it arrived, I knew we weren’t going to be disappointed because it had chocolate chips, whipped cream, and chocolate syrup drizzled on the plate.

The cannoli was perfectly baked and the filling was deliciously sweet.

As we left the restaurant, I felt lucky to have eaten at a historic establishment that has survived so much.

The full meal. Frank Olito/ Insider

After enjoying a delicious dinner in Philadelphia, I took one last look at the exterior of Ralph’s. This restaurant has survived the Great Depression, two world wars, and is now facing a devastating pandemic, yet it still stands and continues to serve anyone who walks through the door.

Although I was just one customer in Ralph’s 120 years, I was honoured to get just a taste of this delicious history.

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