Staring out the window of his cheese shop one slow afternoon, Philip Mancuso declares himself “the last of the Mohicans.”
After almost 70 years on Passyunk Avenue near Mifflin Street, the store’s competition is long gone, along with many of the old-timers who craved Lucio Mancuso & Son’s handmade cheese.
Nowadays, hardly anyone makes homemade anything, Mancuso says plainly, more observation than criticism. Dinner, he says, comes frozen or ready-made.
Then, there’s the flat economy. But Mancuso, 73, holds on, a signpost for the new generation of enterprising mom-and-pops setting up shop.
“Gimme a twist of mozzarella!” customer Pete Jacovini shouts, tracking in slush.
The well-fed Jacovini also orders a half-pound of hot cappacuolo and a loaf of Italian bread for the bottle of red wine awaiting him at his South Jersey home.
Jacovini, 72, who grew up in the neighborhood and runs a nearby funeral home, has shopped at Mancuso’s for 40 years.
“Phil has the best stuff,” he says, “the best bread, the best cheese, and the best advice.”
Mancuso shrugs, saying, “I can’t say I’m a nice guy. Folks have to tell me.”
On the avenue, one of the city’s oldest shopping corridors, Mancuso – married, with three sons – has witnessed waves of revitalization, watching businesses come and go.
In the last year, 19 businesses have opened on the avenue between Ninth and Broad Streets. Drawn by cheap rents and cooperative landlords, the new owners have created an eclectic patchwork of bistros, galleries, and boutiques, joining fixtures such as Di Cocco Family’s St. Jude Shop, where girls for 20 years have bought communion dresses, and Mancuso’s, where mothers once lined up outside to buy handmade ricotta for Sunday dinner.
Such a mix, “it’s what keeps the avenue authentic,” says Adam Erace, 25, co-owner of Green Aisle Grocery, which opened three months ago up the street from Mancuso’s, where Erace remembers shopping with his mother. True to the avenue’s roots, Erace’s neighbor, a seamstress who owns his building, often brings him homemade Italian dishes for lunch.
“It’s a great balance,” Erace says, “and I hope it stays that way.”