Palizzi Social Club, the speakeasy-style bar and restaurant set in a South Philly rowhome, turns 100 on November 12. In some ways, it’s changed a lot over a century — but in other ways, the members-only destination is exactly the same as it’s always been.
Palizzi, named after an Italian painter, opened in 1918 as a gathering spot for immigrants from the town of Vasto in Italy’s Abruzzo region. Members met at the club at 12th and Reed — one of several in the area at the time — to share a meal or talk politics over a drink. As the years went by, Palizzi’s membership expanded to include Philadelphians from other parts of Italy, like current chef-owner Joey Baldino’s family from Calabria and Sicily.
In the 1950s, ownership of Palizzi fell to Baldino’s uncle, Ernest Mezzaroba, who added a bigger kitchen. But eventually, it was used less and less, until no one was hanging out at Palizzi anymore.
A couple of years ago, Baldino, known for his Sicilian BYOB Zeppoli in Collingswood, inherited Palizzi from Mezzaroba, and decided to see if he couldn’t give it life again. He swept the black-and-white checkerboard floor, dusted off the vinyl bar stools, straightened the photos on the walls, and expanded the membership criteria. But Palizzi proved so popular so quickly that even though in theory anyone could apply for a membership, they almost immediately became impossible to get.
As for how many people currently hold the $20 membership card, that’s top secret, Baldino says — “That is a classified number that is only known by the voting assembly and approved by the president.”
Here are seven things the chef will reveal about Palizzi Social Club:
1. The decor is so perfectly retro it may look like it was obsessed over by a vintage-minded designer— but it’s all authentic.
“Everything was there, including the furniture and decor; I just cleaned it up a bit. But it’s all original. The building, however, was old — so we installed new electric and plumbing, along with up-to-code cooking equipment. But that’s about it,” Baldino says.
2. The doorman has been known to turn down bribes from people hoping to gain entry.
“People ask for memberships every night. They show up at the door, and even try to bribe the doorman!” Baldino says. “We had to stop selling memberships because we are really happy with the amount of current members we have. But I’m sure they will soon be available again, as we have a vote on reinstating memberships coming up next year. I would just tell folks to keep an eye on our website and Instagram for any updates on that.”
3. Around 45 to 55 members show up on an average night — which means most of them aren’t getting Palizzi’s most popular dish.
“The most popular dishes change from week to week and season to season. But the most consistently popular dish is our raviolo Vasto: a giant ravioli stuffed with ricotta, spinach, and egg yolk. It’s the combination of the soft egg and the brown butter that makes it irresistible,” Baldino says. But there’s a caveat: “We only make 15 to 20 of these per night, so when they’re gone, they’re gone.”
4. The recipes come straight from Baldino’s family.
“Calamari and peas, crabs and spaghetti, stromboli, tripe, brasciole, escarole and beans…these are the dishes that I grew up with, cooked by my mom, grandmom, and aunts,” the chef says. “It’s the food of my neighborhood, and it’s the food of my culture. It’s who I am —and what the club is about.”
5. The cocktail list, with each drink named after a previous president of the club, is inventive. But the Negroni, that classic Italian cocktail, is the biggest hit.
“There are so many great cocktails on our menu. But the most popular is the Negroni, hands down. I think people love it because it is a true Italian classic. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but our members love that bitter-yet-sweet, refreshing flavor,” Baldino says.
6. The chef even has a hand in the club’s throwback soundtrack.
“It’s a collaboration between myself and my manager, Guido Martelli,” he says. “When you step into Palizzi, you kind of get transported back in time, and our playlist emphasizes that.”
7. Palizzi’s runaway popularity was very unexpected.
Baldino says surprise “is an understatement” when it comes to his reaction to the national attention the club received. “I didn’t know what to expect with a members-only club that had been around for 100 years, and I was nervous that people wouldn’t understand it or embrace it,” he explains. “But they did, and I think it’s in part because of its history and its importance to this neighborhood. They seemed to understand that Palizzi is not just a random concept — it’s actually the real thing. The real deal.”