In the final days before Christmas, the line outside Isgro’s bakery will stretch down the block and around the corner by the time Gus Isgro will arrive at 3 a.m.
“People-wise,” Isgro said, “it’s literally hundreds.”
It goes without saying that the holidays are a big time for most retailers. But there are places around the country that have something unique to offer about the shopping experience itself – like Philadelphia’s Italian Market.
It’s a narrow corridor in South Philly that’s been serving Italian specialties for more than 100 years. And in the weeks before the holidays, businesses say shopping there is still joyful, long lines and all.
Isgro’s bakery, which proudly states it's been serving pastries since 1904, has glass cases full of cannoli and cookies.
It’s such a Philadelphia institution that it filled an order for the pope when he was here in September. The Secret Service came to pick it up.
Gus Isgro is the third generation of his family working at the pastry shop — his sons are the fourth.
“The people that wait in line on the holiday are the people that have been waiting in line for years. Traditionally their great-grandparents came, their grandparents came. Their mom and dad came. They waited in line with their mom and dad. Now they’re taking their children and grandchildren,” Isgro said.
Around Christmastime, Isgro’s bakes more than 300 pans of cookies a day. November and December can represent 40 percent of business for the year.
That’s because the holidays are about the family table, Michele Gambino said. She grew up eating fresh ravioli from the market at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“Every year we used to walk down here and get the raviolis, because you want that taste. Like, that’s what you’ve created — that tradition in your house, and your family, and your friends, and everybody who comes over to share that expects to have that,” Gambino said.
Gambino started working in the Italian Market for the business association 15 years ago. She points out that many shoppers now return to Philadelphia from the suburbs or even from out of state. So every Christmas season, she watches the business owners ramp up.
“Everybody gets, like, just crazy like high," she said. "Everybody’s, like, running around and, like, there’re lists to be done, and people are stocking up.”
Some of the Italian groceries with names like Di Bruno’s and Claudio’s will have started ordering their imported products from Italy back in the summer for the holiday rush. Come this time of year, some keep trucks parked nearby with the products that won’t fit in their tiny storefronts.
Dave Brown is the general manager of Talluto’s, which will also have a line down the block. He said the holiday crowds have “the feeling of a pilgrimage. People make a party out of it. I’ve had people waiting in line, and they have their wine, and they’ll buy some prosciutto or something to sit out there and enjoy it.”
The store specializes in freshly made pastas. Leading up to Christmas, Brown works a 90-hour week to keep the store running smoothly.
“I actually rent a refrigerated trailer,” he said, “and I keep it for two weeks, and I park it outside here. That’s what I need to get by with extra refrigeration space. I couldn’t function without it.”
Because the very worst thing, after somebody spends time in a long line, would be to get up to the counter and find what they’re looking for is out of stock.