Red neon glows from the front door of the South Philadelphia rowhouse.
Step up into the tiny vestibule and bathe in the light. See the framed sign bearing the house rules (No loud, obnoxious behavior. Do not linger outside the front stoop. Exit briskly and silently.)
The inner door is locked. Knock. The speakeasy-style peephole slides open to reveal an eye topped by an inquisitive eyebrow.
Flash your membership card -- or ask to buy one for $20 -- and step back into the classic, old-man 1950s club: brown wall paneling probably from Hechinger, white drop ceiling, black-and-white tile floor, wooden bar topped in marble and bordered in leather, smoked glass mirror, glittery Naugahyde bar stools, linoleum-topped tables rimmed in stainless steel. Framed portraits of Pope Pius XII and Frank Rizzo seal the deal.
An interior designer could have dug through estate sales and scoured old copies of Look for this interpretation of South Philly Midcentury Rec Room.
No, chef Joey Baldino says firmly. It's genuine.
This is pretty much how the Filippo Palizzi Social Club -- tucked into a rowhouse on 12th Street near Reed, where it had served a community of immigrants from the Abruzzese town of Vasto since the end of World War I -- looked for decades.
Baldino, 38, who owns the acclaimed Italian restaurant Zeppoli in Collingswood, lived in a house around the corner, as did three generations of his family, which has run the club since 1952. His uncle Ernest Mezzaroba, who was 82 when he died in December, was the previous operator.
Beginning Friday, in a project intended he insists is more passion than profit, Baldino will open Filippo Palizzi Social Club as a restaurant Thursday to Sunday, from 6 p.m. till the wee hours.
With a few catches.
It's cash only, no reservations, no phone; if the neon is on, it's open. Through the subtleties of the Pennsylvania liquor code, it's still a private club. Potential patrons must buy a one-time membership for $20, which admits them and three guests. (When word got out this week, all memberships were snapped up; more may be made available later.)
The menu is South Philly-style Italian American (braciole, smelts, tripe, spaghetti and crabs, calamari and peas), from Baldino's mom's recipes. The drinks will be stiff and classic. Vincent Stipo, the bar consultant/hospitality broker, set up the bar.
Baldino hatched his idea about a year ago, as his uncle was fading. "I thought that he would be able to see it," Baldino said. "I really wanted him to see the transformation -- from this smoky kind of dingy place that it became over the years, to back to what it was when he took it over in 1952." In his later years, Baldino's uncle opened it only on Sundays after church "for a couple of hours. Three or four guys would come and he would make roast pork sandwiches."
The social club was a crucial aspect of Italian immigrant life, set up to help their countrymen navigate their new world. In 1918, the men from Vasto bought 1408 S. 12th St., naming the club after Filippo Palizzi, a 19th-century painter and townsman.
It was a man's place -- card games and the like. When Mezzaroba took it over, he added a bar, Baldino said.
"If you look at Zeppoli, you feel like you are in Grandma's house, right?" Baldino said. "This place is like you are in Grandpop's spot. So they're two drastically different places. That's what this place was always for -- to me, in my head, this was Grandpop's place. My grandparents owned the bar [Al Mazz's] right on the corner two doors down. After they would close down, my grandfather would come here and drink and they would just drink and have fun." In the neighborhood's crowded rowhouses, the club offered a place for small parties and gatherings -- happy and sad.
Baldino needed to do some legal work in addition to revamping the kitchen. "I had to repeal the charter because it was deemed discriminatory, because you're not allowed to say only a certain ethnic group is allowed somewhere," he said. "That took me months and months to get done." The club's purpose, one of the criteria necessary for its liquor license, is to allow people to enjoy Italian culture.
"I wanted it to be more of a social atmosphere," Baldino said, adding that he wants his patrons to be respectful of the neighbors -- hence the house rules.