Driftwood RV

A Little Bit of South Philly at the Shore

DENNIS TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Back from the pool, the ladies buzzed around the kitchen, preparing a late lunch - nothing special, they said, just some chicken cutlets, London broil, tomato salad, and fried dough.

The kids were at the game room playing Dance Dance Revolution, or maybe getting slushies at the general store.

The men sat under tall trees by the fire pit overlooking the old-time pavilion and ball fields, drinking their first beers of the day. Just as it always does, the chop-busting started early.

There was Frankie Buono. The big guy hates to sweat and hasn't been to the pool in 10 years.

And then came Richie Nawalany. Don't get him started on Philadelphia politics.

They call John Latanzo "Blah-Blah" because he's always chatting up new friends.

Where was Ronnie "Depot" Tini? Where else but at Home Depot.

Maybe later somebody would break out the karaoke machine.

For the gang from 10th and Oregon, it was another Saturday afternoon at the Driftwood Camping Resort.

For 23 summers, this tight-knit group of South Philadelphians has brought its neighborhood fun to the rustic roadside camping ground on Route 9 in Cape May County, just miles from the beaches at Sea Isle City and Avalon and 20 minutes from the Wildwood boardwalk.

The Driftwood, with its comfortable, ranch-style mobile homes, is an escape from concrete backyards that, unlike island rentals, doesn't break the bank.

"It's a hidden treasure," said Latanzo, 42, a union electrician who grew up at Ninth and Oregon and now lives near the Italian Market. He has come down with his wife, Tara, and sons, Johnny, 11, and Alex, 10, for more than a decade.

"You can't beat it," he said before heading off to shoot some hoops with the kids.

The Driftwood is one of many summer campgrounds that line routes to the Shore. On its wooden roadside sign is the image of man snoozing in a cabana shirt.

There are about 700 mobile homes and trailers, most of them spacious and updated with additions and decks and aluminum siding. Nearly all are sited, year-round, in rented lots.

There are a lake and tennis courts. And the recreation pavilion offers talent shows and Quizzo nights.

On this afternoon, there was a dog contest at which the Latanzos' chocolate-Lab-and-pit-bull mix, Cole, won "biggest dog."

"What's that mean, 'biggest' dog?" needled Buono, 43, as Cole jumped on him. "That's like winning for darkest dog. Come on."

Homes at the park, which is open March through November, cost roughly $30,000 to $90,000. Owners pay an annual site fee that tops out around $4,500, said Driftwood staff member Nancy McCandless.

Smaller trailers and cabins can be rented daily.

"For a working man, it's perfect," said Joe Folino, 36, a groundsman at Widener University. On his lap was his 16-month-old daughter, Anna Lucia, the newest member of the contingent.

Latanzo's parents, Frank and Sue, found the Driftwood in 1987. Word spread, and now about 10 families from the neighborhood make the trek.

"It's a little slice of South Philly," said Buono's wife, Joy, 40. They own a place just a few lanes over from the Latanzos. Her husband, who owns a trucking company, calls it his "cave" - that's how dark and cold he keeps it.

"We're like one big family here," said Nawalany, 64, who works for the Delaware River Port Authority. He was dumping some Rolling Rocks into the cooler in front of the Latanzos' trailer.

"Pick up your pants," his wife, Heddy, told him.

"We've been married 39 years," she said, smiling. "I may kill him before 40."

The gang usually all makes it down by Friday night, meeting by the Latanzos' fire pit for some "Driftwood therapy," said Karen Carter, 35, a nursing supervisor at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Everything is discussed, Latanzo said. The good and the bad of the workweek. Family problems.

"There are no secrets between us," said Tara Latanzo, 39, who works in a dental office. "If one couple is fighting, everyone knows it."

Last summer, when Sue Latanzo died of breast cancer, the gang rallied around her family.

"We miss her daily," Joy Buono said.

Saturday it's either the pool or a trip to the beach. At the Driftwood, the kids are never too far out of sight.

"It's like growing up in South Philly during the summer," Tara Latanzo said. "If my mother went to the corner store, there were always 10 other parents out on their steps. It's the same here."

In the evening, a "no drama" rule goes into effect. "Saturday night is all about fun," Tara Latanzo said.

In summers past, the ladies planned theme parties.

"We had the three-legged races," Joy Buono said, "and the Olympics party, where everyone had to bring a dish from a certain country, and crazy-hat night."

This year, the men were put in charge of entertainment.

"You know what they came up with?" Tara Latanzo said. "Beer pong."

Food is important.

"We have an anchovy gravy night," Carter said, "a crab-and-macaroni night, and a mussels night."

And just like on any South Philly front step, good-natured insults are elevated to an art form.

"You have to see Frankie when he sweats," said John Latanzo with a peal of laughter. "He gets these big sweat circles on his shirt that look like Mickey Mouse."

Buono gives as good as he gets. Last summer, the ladies made T-shirts with everybody's favorite saying.

Buono's saying - which he delivers after a particularly deadly zinger - read: "There, I said it. Now it's going to hurt."

Tony, 48, and Joann Polumbo, 47, of Collingswood, who are just a few lots down from the Latanzos, have become regulars at the pit. Tony Polumbo remembers the first time he saw John Latanzo walking around in black socks and sports sandals.

"They must be from South Philly," he told his wife.

"Now he's one of us," John Latanzo said.

Sometimes, the group likes to visit the Tini family's trailer, which sits on a large corner spot. Ronnie Tini owns a cabinet shop at 24th and Snyder and has renovated his place with a large deck and a white gravel backyard.

The women took an afternoon tour of his new kitchen, which has a seashell theme.

"Oooh, you know how I like seashells," said Dana Gentile, 38, a friend of the group's who was visiting for the day.

A few summers ago, Gentile had a bad experience at another campground. The managers didn't like her and her husband's South Philly friends coming down for parties and staying the weekend, she said.

"I told them to forget it," she said of the other campground. "Now I'm thinking of buying here."

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