Tre Scalini

1915 E. Passyunk Avenue
(between McKean and Mifflin)
(215) 551-3870

This showcase jewel of a ristorante in the right aorta of South Philadelphia has had its heart successfully transplanted from its former South 11th Street location up to Passyunk Avenue’s diagonal artery. Six or seven years ago, the owners had attempted on 11th Street to heighten circulation by adding a second story to the former first floor’s den-shebang ambiance. Notwithstanding, this refurbishing step merely changed what had then been a first floor eight-tabled Italian paneled dining room, into simply more of the same, just with a new floor above. The amendments added little complement to the interior concept except to a) triple the number of tables, and to b) add a cardiologically challenging set of nearly vertical steps to the second floor above. Only ascending the spiral staircase to Betsy Ross’ upstairs bedroom was more formidable.

The move to new quarters almost two years ago has kept all the culinary goodness, with visual rewards and expanded graciousness. Fortunately, even through enlargement and transplant, the heartiness of the food served at this “Abruzzian BYOB” has remained the same: traditional and supererogatory. A great third step.

Black-framed posters greet you to your left. “CONTRATTO” or “PANGIANI,” they advertise, over light wood flooring, and under a sound-absorbing ceiling. The area to your right brings, ab initio, a room-length eye-level mural of a seacoast village.

Presently, there are three or four well-mannered waitpersons even on a weekday night (closed Monday), because this place is always packed. They are dressed in white shirts which gleam off sunny yellow walls. The establishment becomes “family” to its patrons. Frequently, you may be allowed to complete your meal and leave only after having been kissed by one or another of the owners on both sides of your face.

Once seated, be patient. The wine you’ve brought from home will shortly be uncorked. Pre-appetizers include complimentary sliced breads on a doily, olives with an aftertaste of a soccer free-kick, and a humus paste plate. Close your eyes as you place the thin oblong crisp of bread between your unpursed lips. Melodious notes of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire” resound between your ears as if communion were self-serving. Swallow reverently as heavenly fragrances from the olives and humus cause eyelashes to flutter and nostrils to flare.

Please don’t forget to order a side of Risotto with Wild Mushrooms (although the menu may offer it only with seafood). A few years ago, I had spent an afternoon at Harry’s Bar in Venice tasting its varieties of risotto. None comes close to the perfection of Tre Scalini’s riso. Risotto is a labor of love where the rice, broth, onions, garlic and cheeses must be melted, mixed, stirred, added and restirred and readded at just the right culinary moments. The results depend upon the quality of ingredients and the fortitude and fortune of the chef. Tre Scalini’s owner-chef, Franca DiRenzo, cooks with a passion, so her version glistens and sparkles. A fulgent forkful induces a swoon.

“It’s more exceptional than any I’ve ever tasted,” I tell her. “What’s the special trick?”

“Me,” she reports triumphantly. “Wonna special ingredient: me; Iya throwa myselva intoeeta.”

Nor should you avoid a Tuna Steak bedazzled in peppercorns, almost purpley raw at its middle and lavender to a fault at its edges. The freshness of it makes your steak knife tremble when your utensil apportions the fish’s mass to bite size. Emerald colored string beans or asparagus accompany the tuna, sweating in buttery fear of being overshadowed.

Polenta with Broccoli Rabe is worth a one-way trip on one-way Passyunk. A mound of perfectly prepared cornmeal is grilled to resemble french toast on a barbecue. The verdant green leaves of broccoli rabe have lost all their bitterness in the holistic hands of Ms. DiRenzo. When melded together into a mouthful, the rabe and corn become a cornucopia on your tongue.

Tre Scalini’s pasta entrées are now legendary. Homemade (and served with fork and soupspoon), they add inner warmth to huge circular holding areas in Villory & Boch wavy white platters, shared with crabmeat, shrimp, baby clams, Portobello mushroom slices, roasted peppers; or as raviolis filled with assorted combinations of lobster, squash and/or capresi.

“Specials” may include Cozze (mussels) served in a bountiful bowl loaded with black shells and redolent of sea air. The broth at the bottom is clear and vibrant, as if the mollusks had been stewing over their plight. If co-owners Francesca (Franca’s gorgeously dimple-cheeked daughter) or Francesca’s husband Michael, should mention the “Veal Chop” as still available, don’t hesitate. It will arrive thick as a Martindale-Hubbell, smothered in woodsy mushrooms as thin as some litigators’ skins, and just as tender as a heartfelt closing argument. There’s always a cutting edge nearby.

I need not mention that the prices here are set by “neighborhood” standards. So you can go for less than broke.

Attorneys satiate hunger here with freshest and simplest elegance, exquisite renditions of cherished recipes; a restaurant made famous by its roisterous hominess.


Copyright 2008 Richard Max Bockol, Esq. Back