Weeks after Philly's Italian Market Festival, no one has taken down the cheese and meat from the greased pole

Mike Newall, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Lifestyles

PHILADELPHIA -- The melting cheese and rotting meat dangle like a dare from the greased pole high above the Italian Market.

It’s been nearly four weeks since the market’s storied festival, where people from all over the city compete in one of Philly’s most-treasured traditions: climbing a lard-covered pole to claim plump provolone balls and cured sopressata, then hurling them down to crowds below. There are always a few prizes that remain out of reach and never get plucked. The market usually takes them down with the help of a crane lift on the festival’s last day.

But this year, in a nose-wrinkling twist, organizers forgot to claim the orphaned treats. They realized their mistake one day later. But life intervenes in the Italian Market, like it does everywhere. And as of Tuesday evening, no one has had the time to rescue them.

And now, 25 mostly very hot days later, they twirl in the sun, like the world’s worst wind chime. And add a new duty to the job of the utility man who maintains the piazza where the pole sits.

“I’ve been praying it doesn’t hit anyone,” said Jibri Lee, squinting up at the pole.

Michele Gambino, who produces the festival as head of the Italian Market Visitor Center, usually oversees the removal of the competition’s unclaimed goodies.

“It kind of got away from us this year,” she whispered, and not without some guilt.

The end of the festival is always stressful, she said. This year even more so, with a day of misty rain delaying the crowds and leading to even bigger numbers on the second day of the weekend festivities.

At first, Gambino had been worried the crowds wouldn’t come. Then, watching the greased-pole competition, she noticed even the most intrepid climbing teams could barely lay a fingertip on the highest meat and cheese, donated by Di Bruno Bros. at the Italian Market.

“Oh, my God, I think we hung the strings too high,” Gambino recalled thinking.

But the festival went on, and climbers claimed most of the prizes, except for a handful at the pinnacle of the pole.

Communications got scrambled, Gambino said, taking full responsibility. Market crews that usually clean up the pole afterward went home without doing so. And so did the rented crane.

More pressing priorities were handled, Gambino said, like cleaning up the street and readying the market for its daily routines.


“I didn’t even think about the pole,” she said, as she winced.

In the days since, the rigmarole of getting the crane back into the market has proved challenging, especially when tending to the daily needs of a historic, fully-operating food market that has been the symbolic heart of South Philly for more than 100 years.

“I got a new lift this morning,” Gambino said Tuesday, adding that the weeks old cheese and meat will be gone before the weekend. A Di Bruno Bros. sign for the piazza, which normally decorates the pole, will also be rehung, she said.

In the meantime, a market that never lacks for charm or character, has just a little bit more, stinky as it must be, blowing in humid South Philly breeze, some 30 feet above the sidewalk. The elements have taken a toll. Swollen as softballs back in May, the netted cheese balls have shrunken down to the size of golf balls. The wrapped meat leaks oil in the heat.

Marketgoers have taken notice.

Brie Diehl, a cheesemonger at Di Bruno Bros., said she jokes with the curious customers who ask about the forgotten cheese.

“It’s funny,” she said. “I tell them, ‘Leave it up there. We’ll see how long it lasts.’”

At night, Lee, the maintenance man, tries to dissuade the drunken revelers who clamber up the now-ungreased pole, hoping to nab the aging prizes.

“No one has gotten more than three-quarters of the way up,” he said. “I tell them to be careful.”

Some market regulars have grown accustomed to the sight of the still-adorned pole.

Griffie Clark, who works at the visitor center with Gambino, said the left-behind cheese and meat have only added to Philly’s charm with tourists who no longer need to ask if the pole outside is indeed the famous greased pole.

“People are like, ‘Oh my God, they keep the meats and cheese up there all year,’” she said.

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