Chef Joey Baldino revives an old-school Italian hangout for a new generation.

By Adam Erace
Updated August 10, 2017
Credit: Jason Varney

At exactly 6 p.m. every Thursday through Sunday, red neon letters blink to life above the glass door of an unassuming row house in South Philadelphia. That’s your cue. Ring the brass doorbell and flash your membership card for inspection.

At Palizzi Social Club, this speakeasy two-step isn’t a shtick; it’s been standard since 1918, when immigrants from Vasto, a seaside village in Abruzzo, founded the place. “It was a smoky joint where you could play cards and drink,” says Joey Baldino, whose uncle Ernest Mezzaroba started managing the club in the 1950s. “But it was also a support system for the community.”

As a kid, Baldino hung out in the kitchen, slinging roast pork sandwiches after church on Sundays. He’d go on to log 10 years at Philadelphia Italian stalwart Vetri before opening his own Sicilian restaurant, Zeppoli, in the quiet suburb
of Collingswood, New Jersey. It quickly became a cult favorite among local chefs. But Baldino always maintained a close connection to Palizzi, even as the area’s Italian social club culture faded. “The tradition was dying,” says Baldino—and so was his uncle. “When he asked me to take over, I was honored.”

Credit: Jason Varney

So, after giving Palizzi a subtle 21st-century refresh, Baldino reopened it last winter, with a menu inspired by his mother’s and grandmother’s home cooking. He dug deep into the family recipe box, bringing his culinary skills to bear on food that tugs at the heartstrings: Fritto misto is feather-light; tripe is braised in cinnamon-tinged tomato sauce; artichoke petals are packed with lemony stuffing and sprinkled with salty Pecorino Romano. He rewrote Palizzi’s outdated charter to be more inclusive—20 membership cards are available for purchase at the door every night ($20), and there’s always space for Baldino’s hungry industry friends. On a recent Sunday evening, Michael Solomonov of Zahav rolled in for crabs and spaghetti. On another it was local sushi talent Jesse Ito of Royal Izakaya. One night Questlove stopped by for a taste of Baldino’s classic stromboli. “I want to expose people to my heritage,” Baldino says. “This is my neighborhood. This is how I was raised.”

Credit: Jason Varney

Other than the charter, Baldino changed very little. He resurrected an old cigarette machine and updated the bar, introducing craft cocktails like a silky Negroni milk punch. Because of its social club license, Palizzi can serve booze until 3 a.m.—an hour longer than most places in Philly—doubling down on its popularity as a post-shift destination for chefs. They linger late, toasting in the faux-pine-paneled room, while “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” warbles over the speakers.

But the spirit of Palizzi is the same as it ever was. Case in point: Delores Marshall. The longtime Baldino family friend is an ambassador of the old guard. She works the floor, delivering plates of sfingi, anise-sugared doughnuts, and planting kisses on diners’ cheeks. The food may be better and the drinks more polished, but at Palizzi, thankfully, some things never change.

Palizzi Social, 1408 S. 12th St.,