When the haze of cigar smoke finally drifted away at the end of a century-long era inside Messina Social Club, the card tables were gone and the air was clear, but a sense of history was still palpable.
What South Philly history, you may wonder, can be gleaned from such modern whimsies as a spiced fillet of tilefish topped with a creamy cloud of whipped polenta? Or a carrot “mole” made with cocoa and gochujang to accompany duck? Or the rye-flavored gnocchi sardi that evoke a vague but wonderful vision of a Polish deli beneath its tangy “beet Bolognese?”
No, these contemporary creations from Messina’s new chef and operator, Eddie Konrad, are a million undreamt miles from anything that has ever been associated with this 112-year-old private club at 10th and Tasker. Its culinary history has stood largely on the marinara pots, crab gravy, and escarole-meatball soup that simmered in the kitchen. Meanwhile, legendary hosts like Anthony “Tut” Barbuto and his successors would serve the likes of “Richie Guns,” “CSI Gary,” the neighborhood priest, and standouts from the Messina-sponsored 6-foot-and-under basketball team at nearby Palumbo Park.
If you want to taste the most compelling straight line to that brand of South Philly red-gravy club history, head nearby to the still-awesome Palizzi Social Club, where chef Joey Baldino has lovingly restored — and even burnished — the Italian American dishes passed down from his mother and grandmother.
But Messina had no such obvious heir. By 2018, when Inquirer columnist Mike Newall chronicled the final days of that chapter in the history of Messina, a club that had its roots in charitable works for the Sicilian immigrant community of 1909, the neighborhood simply no longer had the crowd to organically sustain it.
That’s how Messina ended up being sold later that year to Jason Cichonski — the former Lacroix chef, Ela owner, and Top Chef contestant — who went on to buy the building. His subsequent partnership with Konrad, another Top Chef alum and former Laurel chef de cuisine, sealed its kitchen’s stylistic shift into the 21st century once the club officially reopened last summer for inside dining.
Distinctive dishes such as the gnocchi sardi have proven to be an effective draw as Konrad’s culinary personality begins to emerge — his proficiency with cutting-edge techniques honed in upscale French and Italian kitchens but also informed by the spirit of his upbringing in a Polish-Italian Port Richmond family.
That personal history is brilliantly revealed in those gnocchi, whose grooved pasta nubs are infused with caraway and rye, then topped with a sweet-tart relish of ground beets (the “Bolognese”), then finished with a pop of kombu-pickled mustard seeds, a nose-tickling whiff of fresh horseradish, and the crunch of pumpernickel bread crumbs.
And yet the history of an old rowhouse tavern can be so powerful that it transcends the life cycle of mere menus — it settles into the walls. The exposed bricks, hung with a buffalo head that gazes over the original heartwood pine floors and a vintage carved mahogany back bar, where the club’s 1909 charter still hangs, surely have stories to tell (if bricks could talk). There’s even a photo of Tut peering down from the club’s ceiling amid the jumble of framed old pictures, album covers, and posters assembled into a montage.
There is also the timeless air of an unmistakably Philly space, a conviviality that pervades this intimate one-room hideaway when diners fill the cushy blue-velvet banquettes in the small dining room and the dozen bar stools that date to the 1930s. Of course, the drinks have been fully updated for 2021, with beverage director Melissa Pellegrino (Laurel’s former wine director) mixing summer martinis spiked with dill-infused vermouth and capered green strawberries, apple cider horchata for fall, and also her Keystone Martinez, a blend of Pennsylvania spirits and spicebush and sumac bitters she foraged herself.
The most enduring old venues ultimately must evolve to remain vital, and, in many cases, it is the history of personalities and chefs that write the most crucial chapters. Cichonski is the one who saved this club, rehabbed and revived it with his partners at Ampere Capital Group before the pandemic, keeping the membership fee reasonable ($25) so it could be relatively accessible to the public. But we’ll likely remember the new Messina most as the place where Konrad got his first real showcase.
Konrad, 35, was one of the best Philly cooks most people had never heard of until he landed on Season 16 of Top Chef. He’d worked nearly 10 years as a lieutenant for Nicholas Elmi at Le Bec-Fin and Laurel, with a stint at New York’s Del Posto in between. He had his own restaurant lined up in Center City until the pandemic killed that opportunity one month before construction was slated to start. After a year of cooking private dinners, he went foraging for ramps with Cichonski who, already preoccupied with Attico and his Little Noodle Co., offered Konrad a managing partnership deal.
Konrad brought along Pellegrino and manager Andrew Boerckel (Fork, Cadence), whose service team delivers an appealingly warm manner of down-to-earth sophistication, removing any pretense from the formality of the club’s easy membership process.
The gnocchi is thankfully one of the few remaining standards on a menu that has changed frequently since Messina officially reopened in August, initially with a $95 tasting menu to accommodate its shorthanded staff, but has now expanded to also offer a la carte. The recent addition of galumpki — stuffed with lamb and sushi rice then roasted in lamb fat before it’s served with a cinnamon-scented tomato ragù — is another inspired nod to Konrad’s Polish roots. (Cichonski heartily approves from the sidelines.)
There will be some modern pierogi riffs in the near future, too. But Konrad doesn’t intend to be thematically limited, and his repertoire roams far beyond simplistic definitions to incorporate seasonality and a worldly curiosity that channels multiple techniques and creative whims.
Fresh seafood has inspired some of the most intriguing dishes, from poached mussels coiled inside ribbons of shaved zucchini on the summer menu to recent bay scallops, lightly poached in a cider-infused nuoc cham garnished with refreshing Honeycrisp apples, celery root, and shiso.
Bluefin tuna tartare has become fairly common lately, but this is the first time I’ve ever had it paired with “Squac.” Never heard of Squac? Me either. That’s Konrad’s guacamole-like treatment of coal-roasted squash, mashing it with lime juice and jalapeños before topping it with diced tuna marinated in a spicy peach kosho. Add pops of black tobiko and toasted pumpkin seeds, and it’s truly fantastic.
There were numerous other memorable dishes, from slow-roasted Arctic char with multiple preparations of ají dulce peppers to that polenta-topped tilefish glazed in a reduced corn-cob syrup infused with smoked paprika. Ringed by a fermented blueberry sauce and served with corn succotash, it essentially distilled the essence of summer on a plate. A deep-purple Lambrusco was one of Pellegrino’s many perfect pairings.
If you also have a chance to try Konrad’s duck, get it. It changes seasonally, too, and his crispy-skinned breast is always spot-on, the duck sausage a savory bonus. But the compositions are often wild, including his recent take with carrots very loosely inspired by mole. He charcoal-burns the roots before blending them with cumin, cocoa nibs, honey, and gochujang (Korean mole?!) then mashes it all into an umami bomb paste, dolloped onto the plate across from a green puddle of a carrot-top emulsion. Of course.
Such elaborate ministrations are clearly the product of a talented chef, but also a pent-up one, finally stretching his chops to craft his identity after so many years of cooking in other people’s shadows. We’re just at the beginning of Konrad’s story here as a promising new star, but to watch it play out as part of the revival of the historic Messina Social Club is welcome and delicious.
Messina Social Club
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
1533 S. 10th St., 267-928-4152; messinasocialclub.com
Tasting menu served for members (and up to three guests) 6-9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. A la carte menu available Thursday until 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.
Reservations highly suggested, but walk-ins accepted, space permitting. Membership is required for party host, but is available to the public for $25 and can be purchased online or in person no fewer than two days prior to meal.
All major cards accepted.
Street parking only.