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Billy Penn illustration

New Philly food and drink

Hot new South Street bar has a backstory, from Mafia hangout to sex club

Quite a lot went down at 712-714 South Street.

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Billy Penn illustration
danya

Next time you’re at Banh Mi & Bottles, tip one back for Little Nicky Scarfo.

You can be forgiven if you don’t, since Scarfo, who died in prison last weekend at age 87, was a mob boss known for his uneven temper and ruthless brutality.

Instead, just take note that the hip bar where you’re enjoying bamboo skewers and French Sazeracs is at the very same spot where the late mafioso likely enjoyed one of his last meals before getting put away.

And it turns out that’s not the only interesting thing about the space known as 712-714 South Street.

The Mars Restaurant: 1982-87

We’ll pick up the story in 1982, when a man named Arthur Pelullo opened The Mars Restaurant there.

Pelullo, who usually went by “Artie,” wasn’t an official member of the Philadelphia mafia, but was what’s referred to as an “associate.” Google him and you’ll reach the Wikipedia page for Michael Matthews — a former mayor of Atlantic City who ended up in prison for extortion, thanks to his dealings with Scarfo.

Where’d the two discuss business when not at the shore? Yep, on South Street.

As noted in the NJ State Commission of Investigation’s 1995 report titled Organized Crime in Bars, Part II, The Mars Restaurant “served as a meeting place” for Matthews and the Scarfo crew. The report describes The Mars as “a place where members and associates of the Family used to meet to discuss Family business and to socialize.”

In 1985, the bar almost changed hands. Pelullo apparently wasn’t able to pay back a $200,000 loan to the mafia sharks fast enough, so he offered up The Mars to help settle the debt. He was refused, however, because Scarfo and pals were aware the restaurant had other liens already attached to it.

All this is on record thanks to the testimony of Philip Leonetti, Little Nicky’s nephew, who was flipped by the FBI and eventually helped put his uncle behind bars.

Senor Rattler’s Cantina: 1988-1990

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delacarte.blogspot.com

After Scarfo went to prison, The Mars closed down. It was replaced, briefly, by a Mexican restaurant — and a decent one, at least by Philly ‘80s standards.

A 1989 Daily News review (buried in paid archives, sorry no link) noted the “big restaurant with the silly name has much that will please Philadelphia’s legions of Mexican food fans.”

Critic Maria Gallagher specifically recommended the fundido — a melted cheese dish that she said “tastes like delicious little grilled ham and cheese sandwiches” — and the chingalingas, a rolled and fried tortilla situation she described as kind of like an egg roll. The “South Street-style South-of-the-Border” mood was set by a colorful wall mural by artist Cathy McClelland.

But although the Philadelphia City Paper also gave the place a shout in a 2006 recap of its “back pages,” noting Rattler’s was a place staff went in 1989 “when we felt like eating out,” not many others must have felt the same, because the restaurant closed shortly thereafter.

Club Kama Sutra: 2000-2005

The Rattler’s sign, however, lived on — and became the identifying landmark for new members looking to get into a semi-secret society.

In December 2000, a pair of enterprising entrepreneurs took over 712-714 South and decked out all three floors with sleek bars, elegant tables, fancy wall decor…and plush mattresses.

Club Kama Sutra was on the cutting edge of what turn-of-the-millennium society referred to as “the lifestyle” — aka a lifestyle where married or paired-up couples freely and openly engaged in sexual activity with other people.

In a 2004 City Paper cover story called “Sex and the Witty,” journalist Amy Webb recounted how business at Kama Sutra boomed from the very start.

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Philadelphia City Paper

“In just three years,” Webb wrote, “their active membership has grown to more than 8,000 couples and hundreds of singles who come from as far away as New York and Virginia.”

The cost to participate in the evening activity, which included dinner and drinks but also consensual sexual activity in mostly public spaces fitted with mirrors and peepholes, were relatively low: A $50 per-couple annual member fee was supplemented by an entrance fee of $100 per party.

And Kama Sutra flourished — until TV producers discovered it and deemed it worthy of an expose.

In 2005, CBS3 went into the bar with undercover cameras, and broadcast a segment that made obvious what kind of activities that went on there. They also showed their video to officials at L&I, who subsequently raided the joint and shut it down for code violations.

As then-Daily News gossip columnist Dan Gross pointed out, the cease and desist order wasn’t “for hosting consensual-sex parties between willing adults, [but] for not having the proper permits to operate as a restaurant and private club.”

Proprietor Alan Tizer disagreed, telling Gross, that “Club Kama Sutra has been operating for five years with the full knowledge and approval of all governmental authorities” and opining that “[a]ny business in the city, subject to a secret midnight raid, would probably turn up a few code violations.”

Frank DiCicco campaign office: 2007

Despite Tizer’s protestations, he was not able to reopen. For a couple of years, the space sat empty and unused — exactly the kind of spot that’s prime real estate for a temporary endeavor like a campaign office.

In financial filings, an organization called Neighbors United to Re-Elect Frank DiCicco listed 712-714 South St. as its official address, and the DiCicco campaign used the location to coordinate South Philly efforts to re-elect the longtime 1st District Councilman.

DiCicco went on to win what would be his last term before stepping down, and the office was disbanded.

Bottom of the Sea: 2008-2012

A seafood restaurant was next up for the storied locale.

Relative to its predecessors, this incarnation was relatively tame. The food was so-so — three stars on Yelp, with comments like “tasty but nothing extraordinary” and recommendations to “[c]heck this place out if you haven’t eaten in a few days and want some cheap seafood.”

The most excitement Bottom of the Sea generated was right after it closed, when Eater reported it was up for a sheriff sale and intimated that it would make a great home for whatever restaurant Top Chef star Jennifer Carroll might open after her departure from 10 Arts.

Banh Mi + Bottles: 2016-present

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Facebook/Banh Mi + Bottles

Carroll did not heed Eater’s advice, however, and instead took her game to DC, where she partnered with fellow Top Chef icon Mike Isabella to open French-Mediterranean Requin.

And so 712-714 sat vacant again…until 2013, when Naked Philly noticed paper in the windows and discovered the building had been sold for $710,000. Interior demolition permits had also been pulled.

And now, of course, there’s a new incarnation, where so many other spots have been.

A few months ago, after a visit to the combo Vietnamese restaurant, bar and bottle shop from owner Tuan Phung, we agreed that Banh Mi + Bottles had the potential to live up to GM Philip Search’s claim of being “the best bar in Philly right now.”

Why? It serves great cocktails at affordable prices, a beer selection that mixes rare finds with local standbys, and a menu that mixes modern takes with Vietnamese classics based on recipes honed at an authentic Washington Avenue pho joint.