Most of the visitors of the Italian Market neighborhood of South Philly are there to experience Pat’s and Geno’s, two competing cheesesteak restaurants with several decades’ worth of storied rivalry. This fatty food battleground is dominated by the restaurants’ neon presences. Their overwhelming light fixtures serve as beacons signaling the potent and uniquely American combination of spirited competition and the “Use Sparingly” category of the food pyramid. But, in the shadow of these shrines to what some might view as American excess is a more dimly lit coffee shop that has similarly enticing offerings. However, there’s little fluorescence to attract you there.
RIM Café could easily get lost in the touristy hubbub near the corner of 9th and Federal. Very little indicates what exists inside its shadowy exterior. RIM’s walls are wooden and well–loved, plastered with countless pieces of memorabilia in place of wallpaper. Plants are scattered around the space and an ATM by the door has a colorfully–lit sign that provides a surprising proportion of RIM’s light. Behind an L–shaped marble counter stands a short, somewhat stout man in a hat fondly cleaning out a glass with a rag. He has distinctively French features and his mustache and fedora don’t hide them. This is René Kobeitri.
René summons me over with a sweep of his hand, gesturing for me to sit down opposite him on a barstool. The counter is packed with sauces, glazes, confections, fruits and all sorts of other adornments. My right elbow scrapes the edge of a pile of hazelnuts, and my left rests inches away from being inside a bowl of chocolate shavings. The menu that’s mounted behind René is short but remarkably uniform: everything on the menu, whether drink or dessert, has chocolate.
“You must like chocolate,” I observe. “No, I love it,” he responds. It’s not hard to picture René composing long love letters to his adored foodstuff, or perhaps contemplating asking for its hand in marriage. He sees me scanning the menu and suggests the “Lover’s Cannoli,” describing it as “oh my god,” which is apparently his favorite invented adjectival phrase. When you order a cannoli at RIM, you’re also ordering a performance, complete with yelps and theatrical gestures. Perhaps it’s this animation that has over the years earned him the nickname “The Godfather.” Now, René has fully adopted “The Godfather” as his alter ego and several photoshopped posters hang on the wall with René’s face covering up the cinematic Don’s.
As he starts preparing my oh–my–god cannoli, René tells me how he ended up in South Philadelphia. As he does this, he grates a shocking number of ingredients onto my dessert. One of these is a chocolate wedge that René refers to as “God Only Knows Chocolate” because he was drunk when he made it. Another is what he calls “Obama Chocolate,” for its pattern of alternating black and white stripes. Somewhere on his 30–year journey to today, René fell in love with the Italian Market neighborhood of South Philly.