Joey Baldino feels blessed to be running the Palizzi Social Club, which since 1918 has been preserving, sharing and promoting Italian culture in South Philadelphia.
The founders – all tracing their heritage to the Abruzzese village of Vasto – “wanted to become Americans and assimilate into our culture, but they wanted to keep their traditions, ethnicity and pride in being Italian,” he said. “So for me to continue what they started is an honor and a privilege.”
Baldino has the perfect background, ticking off the boxes of culture, community and cuisine in multiple ways. His heritage is Calabrese. He lives in South Philly. His Aunt Mary married Ernest Mezzaroba, club president starting in 1975. His grandparents and uncle for 34 years ran Al Mazza’s, a restaurant next door. For decades, he worked in restaurants, including Philadelphia’s Vetri. He milked goats and picked wild fennel while studying cooking in Sicily. He created Zeppoli in Collingswood, N.J., which Bon Appétit in 2012 declared to be one of America’s best new restaurants.
So in 2016 he took over the challenge of updating the club’s physical space (including a hole in the floor that Uncle Ernie had fallen through) and modernizing the menu (Bon Appétit in 2017 anointed the club as one of America’s best new restaurants) while retaining its cultural foundation (Italian music on Thursdays and wartime artifacts on the walls) and its traditional ambience (he calls it “a time capsule”).
“It’s not just the place,” said Baldino, the club’s owner, president and chef. “It’s the neighborhood, where you can hear the church bells ringing and smell the Sunday sauce coming from the homes.”
The club is in a rowhouse at 1408 S. 12th Street, with a dining room that seats 28 and a bar serving a dozen more. It’s open Thursdays through Sundays (look for the neon “open” sign and ring the bell). The house rules end with “Eat a lot, drink more, and mostly be social.”
It began as the Filippo Palizzi Societa di Mutuo Soccoroso di Vasto, to honor a painter born in Vasto, but it shortened its name and expanded its $20 membership eligibility beyond Vasto. Except memberships are now closed, he said, citing state rules that also limit Mummers brigades’ buildings.
The club menu is nicely curated: four starters, four grilled items, four pastas, four specialties and three desserts (What – you don’t have room for dessert?). The tasting menu is $55. The Zeppoli menu is a little longer – five salads, five pastas, five entrees and six desserts – with $55 and $75 tasting menus. By contrast, “Dinner at the Club,” Baldino’s beautifully photographed and mouthwatering 2019 cookbook and memoir, is extensive with 70 recipes, with him sharing why he loves so many.
Among those loves are escarole and beans, stuffed artichokes and spaghetti and crabs (“quintessentially South Philly things” that are the club’s most popular); pasta and ceci (growing up, a classic cold-weather dish); parmigiano crespello en brodo (a club dish that became the first course in every holiday meal for his family); cioppino (what his mother makes for his birthday); bracciole
(his mother’s Sunday go-to meal); and whole roasted suckling pig (the ear is his favorite part).
Cookbook recipes “are not fancy and, for the most part, not complicated.” Some are “prepared exactly at my family home. … But I’m a chef, too, so I’ve sharpened, tightened and upgraded” many.
Baldino, who’s 44, grew up a block from the club. “Everybody in my neighborhood was Italian, and everybody I went to school with was Italian, so I thought everybody was Italian,” he said. “It wasn’t until I went to high school where I got to see different ethnicities and different types of people. It opened my eyes, and it also gave me the perspective into how lucky I am to be brought up in Italian culture, food and art – all that stuff that Italians hold so dear and what the country gave to the world.”
He’s visited Italy a dozen times, starting as a freshman in college, and his travels have infused his desire to showcase quality ingredients in recipes close to his heart. “Sometimes, the best food is the simplest, with the smallest number of ingredients,” he said, rejecting trendy foams and flowers in favor of Italian traditions, which he calls “the first soul food.” The ultimate compliment is when diners use crusty selections from their bread basket to scrape the last bits of sauce from their plates.
TRY THIS AT HOME
This Club Rub is used on many meat and seafood dishes at the Palizzi Social Club. Recipe from “Dinner at the Club,” by Joey Baldino and Adam Erace.
2 cups loosely packed fresh parsley leaves
2 garlic cloves
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Finely chop all the ingredients, mix and store in an airtight container.
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