Pat’s vs. Geno’s: the original Philly rivalry. Two places, serving essentially identical cheesesteaks, on the same street corner. Pat’s was the original, but then Geno’s opened and it was the newer, flashier spot. People took sides.
That rivalry has since become stale and boring, just like their cheesesteaks. But Palizzi Social Club versus Messina Social Club is a duel for a new generation - two members-only clubs that are located just a couple blocks away from each other in South Philly. Palizzi, the OG, and Messina, the newcomer that has a guy from Top Chef running the kitchen. However, unlike the Pat’s and Geno’s rivalry, Messina offers a completely different experience from Palizzi. Its excellent food and cocktails, plus modern Godfather feel, prove that there’s room for both of them in the city.
Messina’s small, 30-or-so-seat space off East Passyunk is never super crowded. You could show up on a random Friday with a date, walk past the neon “Don’t Be A Dick” sign on display near the front door, and get bar seats right away. While you’re there, order one of their great cocktails, like the “Strut And Burn,” which has tequila, blackberry brandy, elderflower, and lemon. If you decide to stay for dinner, they reserve half the dining room for walk-ins (otherwise you can get a table by calling ahead).
Unlike at Palizzi Social Club, the food at Messina isn’t just Italian dishes. The menu spans from small plates like honey-glazed wings and tender Spanish octopus with smoked eggplant, to handmade pasta and a whole lamb shank that’s marinated in a sweet honey glaze and is so tender it could be eaten with a spoon. The best dish on the menu, though, is the pierogies. They’re filled with a mashed potato mix that rivals anything we’ve ever had on Thanksgiving, covered in a light but flavorful sour cream sauce. There’s also the option to get them topped with pulled lamb, and we’ll just say that if you don’t, you should probably have your membership revoked.
Another thing we like about Messina is that becoming a member is relatively easy. All you need to do is call, ask for one, and then go pick it up. You won’t have to pull up with an old beach chair and hang out in front of the restaurant for six hours in the hope that they’re handing out a few memberships like you would to get one for Palizzi.
Maybe we didn’t need another members-only club in Philadelphia. But we got Messina, and we’re happy it’s here. Because at its heart, it’s just a really good restaurant with a solid bar and a few dishes that we can’t stop thinking about. Both Pats and Geno’s could take a few plays out of their book.
This might sound weird, but the chicken liver mousse toast almost tastes like a toasted PB&J. The mousse comes in a little mason jar topped with homemade grape jelly and roasted peanuts, and it’s served with warm sourdough bread. It’s easily one of the best versions of chicken liver we’ve had in the city.
These wings are good, but you don’t need them. There are lots of better things on the menu, and you can get a similar plate of wings at a bunch of other places in the city.
Split this as an appetizer with your table. It’s a small portion, but the octopus is cooked perfectly, and it comes with delicious sides of smoked eggplant and yogurt sauce.
If there’s one thing you eat when you’re here, it should be the pierogies. They’re filled with mashed potatoes, topped with a light sour cream sauce, and have the option of adding tender pulled lamb (which you should absolutely do).
The lamb shank isn’t always on the menu, but when it is - get it. It’s bathed in a sweet honey marinade and you could probably eat it with a spoon it’s so tender.