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Craig LaBan
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At members-only Palizzi Social Club, South Philly's Italian American food history thrives again

From the art deco bar in front to the vintage cigarette machine and signed black-and-white photos of boxer Rocky Marciano, Palizzi looks and feels like a South Philly time capsule that's come alive again. "A lot of restaurateurs come up with concepts like this," said chef owner Joey Baldino. "But this isn't a concept - this is the real thing."

Guido Martelli, works the front door at the Palizzi Social Club, 1408 South 12th St, in Philadelphia, Thursday, June 8, 2017. ( JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer)
Guido Martelli, works the front door at the Palizzi Social Club, 1408 South 12th St, in Philadelphia, Thursday, June 8, 2017. ( JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer)Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Beyond the red neon sign at the entrance to this innocuous rowhouse on South 12th Street., there's a little vestibule and a door with no handle. We press the antique buzzer, and a narrow window slides open to reveal doorman Guido Martelli's friendly face: "Membership card, please."

The reedy tunes of a live accordion filter past him through the opening on a stromboli-scented breeze as he inspects my nervous host's paperwork. Then the door swings open toward us, the club rules are noted (among them, "No … reviewing"), and we're allowed to pass through the curtains into the checkerboard-floored wonderland of Italian American history that is the Palizzi Social Club. From the art deco bar in front flanked by colorful vinyl swivel stools to the vintage cigarette machine and signed black-and-white photos of boxer Rocky Marciano and Frank Sinatra and a portrait of Frank Rizzo (of course), Palizzi looks and feels like a South Philly time capsule, save for the lavishly tattooed and bearded young crowd sipping amari and stellar cocktails tinged with an Italian accent.

A round of Negronis, everyone? Wooden bowls brimming with perfect Caesar salad topped with croutons of fresh-baked semolina bread? There are hot little triangle fritters stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies that light our appetites. Grilled links of fresh fennel-scented sausage are served over mounds of broccoli rabe beside a torch-shaped Calabrese pepper. And then, as accordionist Ralph Salerno hands his tambourine to a gamely young woman at the bar beside us, she finds the rhythm – ching-chinga-chinga-ching – and a spirited rendition of "That's Amore" surges through the room just as bowls of spaghetti with crab gravy appear.

When the world seems to shine like you've had too much wine, that's amore … 

"A lot of restaurateurs come up with concepts like this. But this isn't a concept – this is the real thing," says chef Joey Baldino, the 39-year-old son of South Philly who recently inherited the 99-year-old social club from his uncle Ernest Mezzaroba and has given it a very special new life.

There were once dozens of private clubs like this across the city, founded by immigrants who wanted to preserve a taste of home and forge support networks for community gatherings, life events, late-night drinks, and funerals. A few others still exist, like the Messina Club on South 10th Street, and the more than century old Little Lit Lithuanian Club in Port Richmond, which is still known for its crabs. A black-and-white photo here from the 1920s shows men from the Abruzzo town of Vasto who founded Palizzi in 1918 exclusively for descendants of their community, naming it in honor of the artist Filippo Palizzi, who was the town's most famous resident.

"You don't have to be from Vasto anymore," says Baldino, though he notes, "I had to change the charter for that."

But it's still members-only. And rules are rules. So, out of respect for my law-abiding hosts, this is not a rated review, even if Palizzi's $20 membership fee, sold to as many as 10 sponsored newcomers a night, is far more accessible than, say, the Union League.  But few new eating experiences in Philly have struck such a meaningful chord in me lately, in part because it's so deftly rooted in a disappearing local heritage. In a city that has let far too many of its old food ways wither, there's immeasurable value in such a talented young chef taking tradition under his wing. You've had escarole and beans, but probably not as silky as these. I've not tasted a crab gravy more profoundly steeped with that briny deep-sea sweetness than this one. (Scroll down for recipes.) The semolina poufs of baked gnocchetti come beneath tender beef braised with Nero d'Avola and leeks. Slow-cooked ribs are glossed in a bittersweet glaze of Chinotto soda. And a giant spinach raviolo "Vasto" as big as the plate oozes with a runny yolk when sliced through its delicate middle, enriching the saucy shine of brown butter and sage.

Baldino, who cut his teeth under Marc Vetri, is already well-known for exceptional authentic Sicilian cooking at Zeppoli, his BYOB in Collingswood. But there's an extra soulful resonance to the food he's serving to the members-only crowd at the Palizzi Social Club, because it goes well beyond the familiar clichés of South Philly's remaining red-gravy restaurants, with a knowing touch for recipes handed down by his mother and grandmother, from the Locatelli-crusted stuffed artichokes to the tender pink calamari with silky peas cradled in tiny shell pastas to the crispy loaves of stromboli dough pinwheeled around sweet mozzarella and zesty pepperoni. "I want everybody to taste my culture and see how the people who came before me used to eat."

That's also a good thing for those curious to experience what is one of the best new cocktail bars in town, where the spot-on classic Negroni also comes in a citrusy white milk-punch variation, the prosecco cocktails are stuffed with plumes of basil, and the bracing martini is infused with the peppery brine of Ursini olive oil. With chunks of salt cod and tiny gianchette fish crisped in such an airy Peroni beer batter for a fritto misto to nibble on, another drink is always a given — especially late at night  and into the early-morning hours, when the room fills with a largely restaurant-industry crowd.

"My happy place," says Aldine co-owner Jennifer Sabatino in an Instagram post of Palizzi's illuminated front door.

"Have you been to Palizzi yet?" pizza king Joe Beddia wrote me in a text. "It's perfect."

It's no wonder that finding a generous Palizzi member within your extended circle of friends has suddenly become a popular Philly sport.

As though on cue, Salerno's accordion and tambourine appear beside my table just as dessert arrives – a tricolor bar of fresh spumoni that Baldino makes from sweet creams infused with pistachio, vanilla, and strawberries frozen into an ice cream version of the Italian flag. Who knew this old trope of trattorias gone by, usually mass-produced and freezer-burned, could suddenly be so vivid, so real, so sublime?

Ching-chinga-chinga-ching … That's amore! 

Yeah. It was pretty much perfect.

Palizzi Social Club
1408 S. 12th St.,
Thursday and Sunday, 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, until 3 a.m.
Members only, though 10 new memberships are sold for $20 at the door each night when sponsored by existing member.