Joey Baldino was not looking to take on a project, let alone a rescue mission. “I was totally happy with what I had,” says the chef/owner of Zeppoli in Collingswood—a longtime NJM Top 30 devoted to the cuisine of Sicily, his father’s homeland.
But his mother’s side of the family needed him—his Uncle Ernie most of all. Dying of cancer in 2016, Ernest Mezzaroba was no longer able to lead the Italian social club that had been in the family since its founding in 1918. Growing up, Baldino had often played there, hanging out in the kitchen of the narrow little row home in South Philadelphia as Ernie, his wife, Mary, and others—including Mary’s sister, Regina, Baldino’s mother—prepared stuffed shells, spaghetti and crabs, stromboli, and other staples of Southern Italian cooking.
The Palizzi Social Club, as it’s called, was named for Filippo Palizzi, a renowned painter from the Adriatic seaside village of Vasto, which Baldino’s mother’s family had left to seek a better life in America. Over the decades, immigrants from other parts of Italy had been allowed to join. But by 2016, membership was in steep decline, the dining room, bar and kitchen were run down, and the place was open only on Sundays.
“My cousins came to me and asked, ‘Would you come in and continue the tradition?’” Baldino says. At first, he declined. But realizing that the club would otherwise close and its trove of memorabilia, recipes and lore be lost, he relented. “I felt an obligation,” he says, “to continue the legacy of my culture.”
Becoming president, Baldino renovated the kitchen, spruced up the dining room, and fine-tuned the long list of fabled recipes (like the two gnocchi dishes pictured above). Eight times a James Beard semifinalist as Best Chef/Mid-Atlantic for Zeppoli, Baldino sees himself as “almost like a curator” at Palizzi.
One of the first things he did was change the charter and bylaws, opening membership to all, regardless of ethnicity. “I wanted other people to experience what I had as a child,” he says. Not that it’s easy to get in. Membership rolls open just once a year, and new members must be recommended by existing members.
But now, there’s a way for anyone to gain vicarious access. Almost from the day he took over at Palizzi, Baldino began collaborating on a cookbook with Adam Erace, an award-winning food and travel writer and longtime NJM contributor. That book, Dinner at the Club, is out now from Running Press. Having dined at the club myself, I can say that the stories and photographs fully capture the place’s delicate balance of let-your-hair-down and mind-your-manners. As one of the nine house rules state, “What happens at Palizzi stays at Palizzi.” The recipes—scrupulously written for the home cook—will have you feeling like you belong.
The story of the club, Baldino says, “is about people coming to this country to make a better life for themselves while holding on to a sense of community. It’s not just a Philly story; it’s an American story.”Click here to leave a comment