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Pavarotti With a Pizza Pie.

November 14, 2011

Text by Kim Maialetti. Images by Jessica Griffin.

Wearing a navy blue apron and sporting a tan fedora on his otherwise bald head, Franco Borda takes a break from tossing pizzas to take the stage at his restaurant, the High Note Café.

He shakes his tambourine and leads diners in a sing-a-long that starts with “That’s Amore” and ends with “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” with a few bars from “Hava Nagila” in between.

It’s Friday night in South Philly and the Singing Chef entertains diners just as he has been since his days hawking soft pretzels decades ago.

“Freeeeeeeeeesh pretzels,” Borda sings during a recent interview, demonstrating how, as a 7-year-old, his pretzel aria would bring people out of their rowhomes for a taste of his song – and a pretzel.

“That was how I started,” says Borda, who was born and raised in South Philadelphia, just a few blocks from where his restaurant at 13th and Tasker streets is today.

His parents were poor, Borda explains, and he needed to work to help make ends meet. As soon he was tall enough to see over a shopping cart, he would fill it up with pretzels from Federal Pretzels and push it through the neighborhood streets until it was empty, sold out for the day.

At home, while his Calabrese mother cooked, Borda would steal away to his room to put on his father’s Mario Lanza records and try to imitate the sounds of the famous tenor who also hailed from the streets of South Philadelphia.

“Opera is like broccoli rabe,” Borda says. “You either like it or you don’t.”

And Borda liked it.

In fact, he liked it so much that on weekends, while his cousins played half ball, he headed to the record store to pick up the latest Luciano Pavarotti.

“I used to hide them under my shirt,” recalls Borda. “I’d be embarrassed.”

Eventually Borda got over his embarrassment and graduated as a drama major from South Philly’s Creative and Performing Arts High School during the school’s inaugural year.

He went on to study voice at Settlement Music School and the Bryn Mawr Conservancy. After Bryn Mawr, he studied at the Curtis Institute of Music and began performing with the Bel Canto Lyric Opera.

At the same time, he also worked in the restaurant business, and 17 years ago opened Pastaria, now the High Note Café.

“I thought I was going to be another Caruso,” says Borda, referring to the acclaimed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. “I realized in my early 30s, I just wanted to be a good singer and make a living.”

Today, Borda lives in Chalfont in suburban Bucks County with his wife, Teresa, and two children, Anthony and Maria.

The walls of the High Note Café are covered with autographed photos of Borda with glitterati ranging from Pavarotti himself, to the stars from The Sopranos, to Mayor Nutter.

A baseball cap emblazoned with “Borda for Mayor” hangs above black and white family photos from the Old World, and an accordion player warms up diners who study the menu, contemplating the evening’s specials.

The food at the High Note Café is standard South Philly Italian – chicken Parmesan with a side of spaghetti, broccoli rabe, ravioli, meatballs and pizza.

And while the dishes reflect solid, home-style cooking, the atmosphere and entertainment are what make this place stand out.

In between taking orders and delivering plates, servers also deliver performances that make guests stop mid-chew to listen.

“I enjoy singing,” says 21-year-old Anna Saurman, a voice performance major at Temple University and waitress at the High Note. “It’s cool to be able to combine what I want to do with a job. I’m basically practicing.”

Borda prides himself on providing a space for beginning musicians to hone their talents and for established artists to share their gifts, especially in a city where the number of live jazz performance venues has steadily declined over the years.

“I want to share it (the stage) more than I want to be on it,” says Borda, who explains that his long-term plans are to bring singers from all over the world to perform at the High Note in residence, housing them in one of the residential properties he owns in the neighborhood.

“That’s a retirement dream,” says Borda, 50. “I have a desire to expose people to Philadelphia.”

For now, Borda hosts live jazz nights at the High Note on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Friday nights are Italian song nights. Saturdays and Sundays are ballad nights.

He also regularly holds opera dinners, with the next one – La Boheme – planned for Tuesday nights in December.

Borda says hosting jazz nights at the restaurant has helped him develop a greater appreciation for that style of music.

“Jazz has opened my eyes,” he offers, noting that he advises artists play songs that people know but interpret them differently.

He also wants to inspire younger artists – like the neighborhood kid who just started playing trumpet – and make them realize that performing is “cool.”

“It’s what I wanted for myself,” he says.

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