Florence Ruggiero still remembers her and her siblings having to take off their skates before entering Termini Bros. Bakery, to avoid damaging the black and white floor tiles.
That was over 70 years before this week’s overcast Friday morning, which saw Ruggiero among the many lining up outside the iconic South Philadelphia bakery, waiting to pick up one of those very tiles. “A little piece, not only of their history, but mine,” the 80-year-old told Billy Penn.
Over the summer, third-generation owners and brothers Joseph and Vincent Termini Jr. announced the pending floor renovation mainly to inform customers of a temporary closure. In response, they received a flurry of comments from customers asking for pieces of the tile about to be pulled up, citing a range of memories connected to them.
For Ruggiero, those memories include family trips to the bakery every Sunday after church to pick up donuts — “three for 15 cents” — throughout the 1950’s. There were the women behind the counter, who fascinated her with the blades strapped to their littlest fingers, to faster cut wrapping ribbons. There was her wedding cake, provided by the bakery in 1961.
And there was her brother, 10 years younger, who’d stand in Termini’s infamous Christmas eve line for the family each year. “He recently passed,” Ruggiero said, “I came for the tile to give to his son, my nephew.”
The giveaway was planned to start with doors opening at 9 a.m. but the queue had already stretched down a block-and-a-half to Tasker Avenue well before then, with customers whose personal connections to the bakery span generations, state lines and, in some cases, international borders.
Every birthday, every holiday
First in line and waiting since 7:45 a.m., Vanessa Jackson said she and her husband fell in love with Termini’s shortly after their move from North Carolina for his job two and a half years ago. It’s been their go-to since.
“I’m so excited to own a little piece of history,” Jackson said. “We’ll definitely put it in a special place because it does hold a special place in my heart.”
Further down the line, Delia and Bijan Khosrowshahi had considered a kitchen wall frame for their tile — at least for one of them. “We’re gonna purchase separately so we get two sets,” laughed Bijan, 62.
The couple returned to Philadelphia six years ago, after having first arrived here in 1989. That was the year Bijan got his first birthday cake from Termini’s, a tradition that’s been upheld for every family birthday since, even when the Khosrowshahis moved overseas.
“We used to travel with Termini’s cakes to Japan and to England as carry-ons,” said Delia. “They got delivered to our children in college, always, for their birthdays.”
As one of eight children, Liz Fratoni MacIntyre told Billy Penn “there was always a birthday” to celebrate. Like all the year’s holidays, they were marked by Italian cream cake from Termini’s, brought home by her father.
“When I heard the floor was being replaced, I was one of those people that messaged them on Instagram and said I had to have a piece,” MacIntyre said. “Because this is the floor that my dad stood on, like, once a month.”
Standing in line outside the bakery on Friday morning, memories of her father were at the forefront of her mind. He would’ve been 113 or so now, she said.
“I’m going to treasure that tile,” said MacIntyre. “I’m going to frame it and hang it someplace with honor.”
Coincidentally, it seemed, twins Marion and Jennifer Leary, 45, shared the same plan for their tiles — a place on their respective mantelpieces adjacent to granite keepsakes that had been given out from the original Love Park.
“It’s part of Philly history. It’s part of our history,” said Marion, in line with her first-generation Italian-American mother, who helped make Termini’s a “staple” of her and her sister’s lives.
The historic appeal is why Susan Jakiela left her house in Collegeville at 6:30 a.m. to get to South Philly in time for a tile, even though it’s only the 69-year-old’s second time to Termini’s.
Others drove further, like Gianni Payne, 40, who came from South Jersey to pick up a tile as a “little keepsake,” told Billy Penn. “My grandparents took me here as a baby, I’ve been coming here ever since.”
Payne called it “a piece of our Italian history” he wants to show his grandfather, who can no longer leave his house. “And it’s the best cannoli in town, so you can’t beat that.”
‘Nobody’s like Termini’s’
Termini’s cannoli might be its biggest draw, but Joanie Natale’s attachment to the bakery centers on another of their pastries, the sfogliatelle, or lobster tail.
It was her father’s favorite, she explained. Now 70, she recalled bringing the pastry to him when he was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. “He couldn’t chew, he couldn’t swallow,” Natale said. “But I brought it to him and just put it in his mouth.” He passed away a few days later.
It’s a story she shared with owner Vincent Termini Sr. when she ran into him some time after at his restaurant across the street, Mr. Joe’s Cafe, telling him “how he made my father’s last couple of days very happy.” They talked for a bit longer, Termini excused himself and returned shortly after with a sfogliatelle on a dish. “In honor of your father,” she recalled him saying. “So that’s the kind of people these people are.”
The people running the 122-year-old company return the sentiment.
“We just have a really good customer base, where we consider them more as family,” said COO Drew Carballo, shortly after opening the bakery’s doors at 9 a.m. sharp and welcoming patrons in groups of four.
After the tiles were pulled up in July, it took the Termini team some time to decide how to best distribute the pieces, Carballo said. The decision for a with-purchase giveaway was followed by conversations on tile sizes and packaging.
“We wanted to make sure it felt special,” he said. Different options were reviewed, a photo selected for the cover. “There’s a nice little cool insert as well from a gentleman that lives in the neighborhood that just wrote a really special handwritten letter [about] how important the store was to him.”
That gentleman is retired chef Bruce Giardino, a lifelong neighborhood resident who grew up in a house where his “parents had some problems,” and from which Termini’s was a haven.
“He was a very special man to me,” Giardino said of Joseph Termini, Sr. “[And] to the neighborhood.”
An avid autograph collector who arrived at Friday’s line with memorabilia signed by various members of the Termini family, Giardino said the letter “just spilled out ”— a response to rare change coming to a space so consistent throughout his life, and a way to show love to the family who’ve kept it running.
“Nobody can compete with the tradition of this place,” Giardino said. “Nobody’s like Termini’s.”
Didn’t make it out? Termini Bros. is offering keepsake tiles with online purchases while supplies last, according to an Instagram post.