Nipotina owner Marlo Dilks says she functions well on low sleep. It would be impossible to imagine her existing any other way.
After spending several years and a pandemic trying to get her third business successfully off the ground, Dilks’ Nipotina is a throwback to deli counters of old and her own childhood. Sitting with her youngest daughter, Roma, clinging to her side, it’s clear that this eatery isn’t just a means for Dilks to expand her own legacy, but to continue a family tradition that spans generations.
Her accent is the first clue that Dilks was born and raised in this little corner of Philadelphia and, though she now lives on the Main Line, this hole-in-the-wall café at 21st and Passyunk connects her current life to a childhood in Philadelphia working at her father’s restaurants.
Louis Fioravanti, family patriarch and Dilks’ father, ran even more businesses than Dilks does now, the heirlooms of which still hang on the walls of Nipotina. The counter and dining area of Dilks’ latest restaurant are adorned with decorations, all homages to Fioravanti’s restaurants that existed decades prior.
Cousin’s, Marlo’s Kitchen, Italian Social Club, Club Little Louie and a grocery shop, The Meat Barn, were all owned by Fioravanti throughout his life. At those establishments, Dilks spent much of her childhood cleaning up, bussing and waitressing.
“One Saturday or Sunday morning, my father called me up and said that his waitress at Marlo’s was out and that he needed someone to help the other waitress by cleaning the tables off, and that’s where it all began,” Dilks says.
Dilks described how she went from bussing the tables there at age 13 to eventually waitressing as well. From Marlo’s, she went to Cousin’s, which is not far from where Nipotina is located today.
“Where I got to really fall in love with it was [when] my dad cooked at Marlo’s. He didn’t just oversee things he cooked on the weekends, so I got to cook with him eventually,” Dilks recalls. “So that’s when I really fell in love with being in the kitchen.”
In fact, many of the menu items at Nipotina are directly inspired by the creations Fioravanti made with Dilks in her youth, and each item is tied to her past in some way or another.
“As far as the menu goes, everything is designed based on things that I ate as a kid,” Dilks notes.
For example, the fried meatball sandwich is served without gravy in the style that Fioravanti served it in his restaurants. The breakfast sandwiches are also made the same way his were served.
The peppers at Nipotina are fried, not roasted, as opposed to many other sandwich joints in South Philly. That decision comes from the preference of Dilks’ grandmother, who prepared her peppers in much the same way.
“That’s the way I grew up eating them. That’s the way I like it,” Dilks says.
Now, Dilks’ children are growing up doing the same for their mother as Dilks once did for her father. Her oldest daughter helps out at P’unk Burger and SliCE as often as six or seven days a week, either behind the counter or filling in for delivery drivers.
In Dilks’ own words, it takes a village to raise a family. Just as she continues her father’s legacy in the restaurant business, she also continues his familial traditions.
A little over a decade ago, though, it was possible that those traditions would end with her generation. Dilks always wanted to run restaurants, but she was a new mom with a comfy job as an accountant at Urban Outfitters.
As one of the first in her family to go to college and graduate, Dilks received a golden ticket that few of her ancestors were afforded. Her second child was on the way, she had a clear path through the ranks at Urban Outfitters and a burgeoning restaurant brand in SliCE, which had just opened a second location. Yet when her father become sick in the late 2000s, spending more time with him became a priority.
Dilks left her corporate job and never looked back, despite the salary and benefits that were vital to her as a young mom.
“It’s hard to give up a corporate job and insurance, to also give up a clear path. At SliCE, all the weight falls on you,” Dilks explains. She straddled the fence between her restaurant business and a fate at Urban Outfitters but “the better future for me was with the food business.”
Several months later her father passed away. As Dilks realizes, the blessing Fioravanti left her wasn’t just an escape to the food business, but a family.
“I wouldn’t have seven kids if I was at Urban. At the end of the day here, I answer to myself,” Dilks notes. “I’ll stay up ‘til three in the morning and get the job done if I have to, but then I also get to leave midday and go to see my daughter’s play.”
Now, Dilks lives the best of both worlds. Nipotina is her fourth restaurant location, and it likely won’t be her last, since she’s considering opening a second Nipotina on the Main Line. Montgomery Avenue is a possibility, but there’s still a lot to figure out before that gets off the ground.
Whether or not Nipotina itself has a future, though, is certain. The food is simply exquisite. The restaurant’s namesake, The Nipotina, is one of the most mouthwatering chicken cutlets in Philadelphia.
The chicken is topped with salami, red peppers and chipotle mayo on a soft Liscio’s roll for a cacophony of flavor. The chicken itself is cooked to perfection, juicy on the inside and crispy on the outside, just thin enough to keep the sandwich from falling apart. The fried red peppers add a unique sweetness to the sandwich while the fried salami and chipotle mayo add a much-needed kick. Specifically, the peppers prevent the sandwich from becoming bloated and greasy given all the meats and sauce.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better sandwich in Philadelphia or a harder worker than Dilks, who also serves on her daughter’s school board at Baldwin and commutes daily from the Main Line. And, with her latest eatery now open, it’s clear her efforts have paid off. Nipotina truly is an idyllic little sandwich shop in a quaint corner of southwest Philly.
2238 S. 21st St., Philadelphia
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