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

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)

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.

Patrons at the Palizzi Social Club. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

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.”

Spaghetti and crabs at the Palizzi Social Club. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

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.”

A drink called the DiCicco, an olive oil martini at the Palizzi Social Club. ( JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer)

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.

The homemade spumoni at the Palizzi Social Club. ( JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer)

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.

Solo Accordionist Ralph Salerno, left, plays while patron Maura Gallagher, center, plays the tambourine, at the Palizzi Social Club. ( JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer)

Palizzi Social Club
1408 S. 12th St., palizzisocial.com
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.


Palizzi Social Club stuffed artichokes with garlic aioli

8 serving(s)

The stuffed artichoke at the Palizzi Social Club.

INGREDIENTS

2 lemons, halved
4 large artichokes
4 cups bread crumbs, torn from 1 medium loaf crusty Italian semolina bread
½ cup Locatelli cheese, shredded
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ bunch of parsley, finely chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup white wine
2 tablespoons olive oil, for garnish
Roasted garlic aioli for garnish (see note), if desired

 

DIRECTIONS

1. Squeeze the lemon halves into a large bowl and fill the bowl with cold water. Trim the bottom off each artichoke. Trim off the tough outer leaves. Cut the tips off the top leaves. As each artichoke is cut, place it in the acidulated water to prevent discoloring. 
2. In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs, cheese, garlic, and parsley and season with salt and pepper. Pull each leaf open slightly from each artichoke and stuff a little filling into the opening. Place the artichokes snugly side by side stem side down in a large pan with a tight-fitting lid.
3. Add the wine, and enough water so it rises one inch in the pot. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Steam until bottoms of the artichokes are tender, 35 to 45 minutes; a knife should insert easily. Add water to ensure it doesn’t boil dry. 
4. Serve with garlic aioli, or olive oil, lemon dusted with freshly grated Locatelli.

For garlic aioli: Whip 2 egg yolks and the juice of 2 lemons in a high-speed blender. Drizzle in 11/2 cups olive oil slowly until eggs are emulsified. Fold in two heads of roasted garlic, 1 clove of garlic (minced fine) and 1/2 cup parsley. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. If too thick, thin with a couple tablespoons of water. Add 2 tablespoons capers, if desired. 

Chef Joey Baldino of the Palizzi Social Club.

Per serving (without aioli): 413 calories, 16 g protein, 54 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 14 g fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 999 mg sodium, 12 g dietary fiber.


Palizzi Social Club crab gravy with spaghetti

8 serving(s)

The spaghetti and crabs at the Palizzi Social Club.

INGREDIENTS

12 blue crabs, cleaned, but heads on (have fishmonger do this)
1/2 cup olive oil, divided into two 1/4 cups
2 white onions, julienned
2 chiles de arbol
5 garlic cloves, sliced
1 teaspoon anchovy paste
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ cup white wine
1 pint clam juice
1 28-ounce can La Valle whole tomatoes (or San Marzanos), crushed, seasoned to taste with about 1 tablespoon salt, a pinch of sugar (if necessary), pepper and oregano to taste. (See note)
Large sachet of rosemary sprigs, parsley, basil and five bay leaves tied in a bundle inside cheese cloth
1 cup fresh picked lump crab meat, for garnish
basil leaves, for garnish
2 pounds spaghetti

DIRECTIONS

1. Method: In a large rondeau braisng pan, heat 1/4 cup of olive oil until very hot and sear all crabs brown shell side down until bright red. Remove crabs and seat aside. Drain Oil.
2. Add a fresh 1/4 cup of olive oil. Add onion and chiles. Cooking in stages to sweat slowly each ingredient. Then add garlic, anchovy paste and tomato paste. Simmer on low heat. Add seared crabs back to pot. Use white wine to deglaze seasoning and add to pot with clam juice. Reduce clam juice by half, then add tomato and herb sachet. Put lid ¾ covering pot and cook partially over low heat to cook until sauce is sweet and full of crab flavor, about two hours. Careful to fold the crabs gently when stirring to not break them in sauce.
3. Allow to cool to room temp and remove crabs and shells. Push sauce through sieve or food mill to create sauce. Pick crab meat from whole crabs and fold into the sauce. Add extra fresh-picked crab to the sauce.
4. Serve with your favorite spaghetti, al dente, with fresh basil for garnish.
(Note: tomato cans available in winter typically are more acidic and might require sugar adjustment).

from chef Joey Baldino of Palizzi Social Club

Per Serving (based on 8): 574 calories; 24 grams protein; 82 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams sugar; 21 grams fat; 117 milligrams cholesterol; 1,674 milligrams sodium; 4 grams dietary fiber.


Palizzi Social Club Chinotto spare ribs

8 serving(s)

The Chinotto-braised ribs at the Palizzi Social Club.

INGREDIENTS

For the brine:
1 onion, halved
1 head garlic, halved
1 orange, halved
2 bay leaves
2 chiles arbol
1/2 bunch parsley
1 sprig rosemary
4 sprigs sage
20 black peppercorns
3/4 cup salt
81/2 tablespoons sugar
1 gallon water
2 racks spareribs
For the braise and sauce:
1 onion, halved
1 head garlic, halved
1 orange, halved
2 chili arbol
2 bay leaf
4 sprig sage
1 sprig rosemary
1 cup water
1 six-pack of 6.75 fluid ounce cans of Chinotto soda, divided
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

DIRECTIONS

1. Prepare the brine: bring up all the brine ingredients to a boil, take off heat, cool. Brine the ribs in refrigerator for 48 hours.
2. For the braise: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Put vegetables and liquids in bottom of a roasting pan, place ribs on top, cover ribs with parchment paper, wrap tightly in foil, and place in oven for 3.5 hours, or until tender. Cool ribs in liquid overnight. Remove ribs, discard fat, reserve the liquid.
3. For the sauce: Reduce the remaining five Chinotto bottles in a pot until syrup. Add the ribs liquid to the syrup, add honey, black pepper and white vinegar to taste.
4. To finish: fire up the grill and grill the ribs while brushing with the sauce, and cook until just caramelized. Serve with thick wedges of orange and more sauce.

from chef Joey Baldino of the Palizzi Social Club

Per serving: 924 calories, 67 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams sugar, 70 grams fat, 280 milligrams cholesterol, 316 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.