The Sunday dinners at 63rd and Grays Avenue
● By J. Chambless
Mark Spena brought 38 years of culinary experience to the recently re-opened Landenberg Store. (Photo by Richard Gaw)
By Richard L. Gaw
To hear Mark Spena rattle off the
surnames of those who sat around the tables of his childhood in South
Philadelphia – and ultimately, to hear the first chapters of what
became a life spent in the love and preparation of food -- is to be
invited into a scene from a movie about a large and very extended
Italian family, and kindly asked to pass the noodles.
We begin at the Spena home at 63rd and Grays Avenue in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is Sunday morning and the five Spena kids rustle around the home, preparing to attend mass at Our Lady of Loretto. They listen to homilies, sermons, take Holy Communion, and come back home to see their mother Rita in the kitchen, with a pot of her Sunday gravy on the stove and hand-rolled pasta on the counter, enough to fortify a small army for days.
It is a childhood crowded and blessed and flavored by faces, personalities and proximity. Family by family, they entered the Spena castle and took their place around the table. The Rienzis. The DelVecchios. The Manginos. The Alvinis. It has been a short walk; all of them, every cousin and niece and nephew gathered, lives within a four- or five-block walk from the Spena home.
With the words from Our Lady of Loretto still fresh in their minds, they ate with respect to the food and the people around them. The texture of the pasta. The sweet tanginess of the gravy. The consistency of the fresh bread from the local bakery down the street. The salad after the meal, always made with red wine vinegar and olive oil. It was their Eucharist, their banquet of life, their unbroken harmony.
“We were a typical Italian family, because everyone lived within walking distance of us,” Spena said from the Landenberg Store, where he has been its proprietor since it reopened in late July after a three-year hiatus. “I had my grandfather, my aunts Louise and Adele and Nancy, and my Uncles Joe and Anthony. They had a zillion kids, so I had an amazing amount of cousins.
“Every time we got together, we always overdid it, and we always ate together as a family, whether it was a large Sunday dinner or whether it was just as an immediate family. I really miss those days, so much so that I took those feelings and emotions into my own marriage, so even now, we eat together as a family.”
In many ways, the new Landenberg Store is a day-to-day reflection of what Spena saw at his childhood dining room tables, both at 63rd and Grays and later, when the family moved to Delaware County when he was a teenager. Glance at the daily feast of meat and fish entrees behind the counter, rummage up and down the aisles for the pasta, and admire the chunks of cheeses from all nations chilling in the front of the store. In a few short months, the store has become a nightly stop-off point for residents who take home full entrees and sides like eggplant parmigiana, chicken cutlets, spicy carrots, beef hummus, chicken piccata, sushi grade tuna, Angus flank steak, Angus prime rib, roasted garlic basmati rice and baked salmon broccoli rabe.
“Being Italian, I always had an interest in food, but when I was younger, there was really no place to expand my palate,” Spena said. “To my mother, there was American food and Italian food, and little else really mattered.”
In order to quench a growing thirst to know more about food – and get to hang around young women – Spena and a buddy or his chose to enroll in a home economics class at Ridley High School. Both friends were hooked for life: Spena's friend later attended the prestigious Johnson & Wales Cooking School, and Spena began what began a decades-long college of food, whose classrooms were located in sauna-hot kitchens at restaurants and hotels. While attending Delaware County Community College, he worked from Philly to DelCo, at rib joints and Italian restaurants and nearly every type of eatery in between – as a short-order cook, a corporate dining chef, a head chef, and operating a lunch truck outside the Temple Law School, preparing hundreds of dinners at banquets in what he calls “Guerrilla Cooking” – all the while learning every facet of the industry. Translated, it was the experiential equivalent of earning several degrees from a top cooking school.
At every stop, Spena collected a growing batch of complimentary letters he received for his work.
“As soon as a I learned what I needed to learn, I was moving on,” Spena said. “ I realized that if I wasn't lucky enough to attend cooking school, I was determined to learn as much as I can from actually working in restaurants. I learned that when it came time to doing things right in the kitchen – ordering, preparing, plating – no one really cares if you have a degree from Johnson & Wales or the Culinary Institute of America.
“I had guys coming out of culinary school working for me, and I would tell them, 'I don't care about where you went to school. Now go prepare 15 pounds of shrimp.' When I hire someone, I never ask what school they went to. I ask them, 'Where did you work? What did you do there?'”
Most recently, Spena spent the last 13 years as the executive chef and director of host ministries at the Traber Center at Camp Sankanac in Spring City, Pa., a non-denominational Christian Camp and retreat facility. In 2018, after several months of prodding by Landenberg Store owners Bill and Beth Skalish, Spena became the store's new proprietor.
It has become the latest chapter in a life spent with food, and the chapter has started off well; many days, Spena will post a photograph of one of that day's entrees he has prepared on the store's social media page. By the time the store closes in the early evening, everything in that photograph will have ended up on a Landenberg dinner table.
“Bill and Beth were very generous for what they did for me,” he said. “When they offered me the opportunity to bring this store back, I told them that I had 38 years of experience and a passion for food. That's a rare thing to find in a 58-year-old. Most of the chefs that age were burned out from the restaurant and food industry 25 years ago.”
Some of the complimentary letters Spena has received over the years are posted throughout the Landenberg Store's kitchen and in the small office he works out of at the store. Occasionally, he reads them, if only for affirmation.
“If I had not received accolades for what I do during those 38 years, I may not have stayed in the industry for this long,” he said. “I have always believed that food should be taken very seriously, and I'm going to give people the very best I can. God created us to do our best, so wouldn't it be a shame if I were not to give it my all?
“The good words of customers. The love of food. That's what I live for.”
Roll film. Start the gravy.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com.