Peer closely at the row of glossy bar stools at Palizzi Social Club, the Eater Award-winning members-only restaurant tucked away in a South Philly rowhome, and you might notice a taped-up rip or two. But owner Joey Baldino has no intention of replacing them. He’s keeping up a tradition, which includes the normal wear and tear of a spot that’s been feeding members for 100 years.
When it opened in 1918, Palizzi was one of several social clubs in Philly formed for immigrants from a specific area. At Palizzi, it was residents of the town of Vasto in the Abruzzo region of Italy meeting at the club to talk politics over a drink or share a meal. As the years went by, the membership was expanded to include Italian-Americans from other parts of the boot, like Baldino’s family from Calabria and Sicily.
In the 1950s, Ernest Mezzaroba, Baldino’s uncle, took Palizzi over, adding a bigger kitchen that allowed the club to host bigger community events: baptisms, gatherings after weddings and funerals. Last year, Mezzaroba fell sick, and offered the club to Baldino.
Like his uncle, Baldino expanded the kitchen, and then the membership criteria. But that’s just about all he changed.
Eater: Tell me about how Palizzi went from a private club the public didn’t know about to a restaurant everyone wants to get into.
Baldino: Before my uncle passed, he asked me if I wanted to continue the tradition. So it’s not really a restaurant, or a bar. It’s somewhere in-between. It’s a social club, and it’s been the same since day one. There’s really nothing that I changed. Everything that’s in there was there, from the tables to the cigarette machine to the pictures and the charter that are on the wall. I just want to continue a tradition that means so much to Philly and especially to my culture — it’s something really special that I hold dear. And that’s part of the reason I didn’t want the blogging and the reviews and the critiques, because to me it’s a special place and I don’t want it to be judged in that way.
People did write about it anyway, even though you set up rules to guard Palizzi from publicity — no blogging, no reviewing, no social media. Have you relaxed the rules since it opened?
I can’t stop people talking about it. But once they start reviewing, that’s where I draw the line. I just don’t think it’s about that. If you want to explain to people what it is and what it’s meant to Philly and my culture, and the people who came here and started it, that’s really special and I think it’s great, but as far as a restaurant review — I just want people to go there and step into a different place and time. Before there was social media, there were social clubs. A place where people can gather and talk and have a good time. And that’s what I want for this place. It’s not a restaurant and it’s not a bar — it’s hard to explain. But I’m trying hard to continue the rules.
Speaking of the rules, is there a board who had to approve changing the club charter to open the membership to everyone?
There’s an assembly with members who vote on these things, and it was a unanimous decision. It’s really a special place and everybody should be able to be there, not just Italian-Americans.
Did you expect Palizzi to get this much attention, and why do you think it’s been such a hit?
It took me off guard. It’s been a little bit of a crazy ride. I definitely didn’t think I was going to be as busy as I was off the bat. I think it touches people. Even the photos on the wall, when I see those original eight guys who started the place, they’ve got to be so proud of what it’s become and what the community has become. So I do it for them. And I think people really feel that. They know it’s genuine — it’s not a concept; it’s the real thing.
And the food is part of that. It’s traditional food that I would eat in my house, that my mom and my grandmother make, and the guys at the club would make. The fritto misto, the Italian sausage with broccoli rabe, the escarole and beans. The stromboli is my mom’s recipe. All that food is a dying art, but it’s home food that Italians know. I think Palizzi feels like a true place, and that’s why it’s resonated so well with people.
You must have made some changes since taking it over.
I painted a couple of walls. We had to get new plumbing and electric, because the building was getting old. But other than that, all the photos, the bar, the stools, the tables and chairs, the checkered floor — everything is original. It was a treasure trove of all this old stuff when I went in there, and I was like, “this is awesome.” We just cleaned it up.
Does it ever feel weird that people want to come to Palizzi but they can’t, since it’s limited to members? And now it has gotten so popular new memberships aren’t being offered.
I like it because we’re able to keep quality and control and not make it such a scene. We have people who come who really feel like this is their club, so I’m happy with the people we have, and with the crew. We will open memberships up again, eventually, but right now we’re at a point where we’re just putting smiles on a lot of people’s faces. And that’s the goal of the social club, back then and now. For the people who want memberships, I would say: Just hang in there.