Tre Scalini

The chef is now the resident nonna at this South Philly BYO, cooking the old family favorites with a new patience and care.

Posted: June 10, 2007

She wandered into the dining room in a turquoise skirt and a diamond chip bracelet that gave her broad smile a sparkle beyond her year.

Gisella Kauffman, 14 months old and already waving to guests like a pro, greeted us like she owned the place. Which, in a manner of speaking, she does.

Tre Scalini is the popular Italian BYOB that her grandmother, Franca DiRenzo, started 12 years ago at 11th and Tasker. And Gisella has Franca in her pocket.

Especially since the big move.

Granted, it was only a four-block jaunt south, from one bustling but tight bilevel space to another slightly nicer, more generous bilevel space. The same devoted legions of wine-toting fans drive from Center City and the Main Line. And Franca still cooks the same menu and nightly specials she's cooked for years, inspired by her native Molise in south-central Italy.

But the new address really did open a new chapter for Franca. Tre Scalini is a restaurant built on a culinary tradition handed down through generations of Molisana women. At one point, three generations of DiRenzo women worked together, fussing over the delicate gnocchi, sauteeing garlicky broccoli rabe for the grilled polenta, kneading the square-edged spaghetti alla chitarra to its perfect toothsome give.

But within a week of opening the new place on Jan. 25, Franca's mother, Adelina Scarduzio, passed away at 93. Franca was now the nonna on the spot.

"Since my grandmother's passing," says Franca's daughter Francesca, who manages Tre Scalini, "my mother has become even more protective of Gisella. It has given her more of a purpose here."

I've always loved the food at Tre Scalini, whose straightforward trattoria menu is neither trendy, seasonal, updated, nor frequently changing. It is an authentic repertoire of worthy family recipes passed down as is, and prepared each day with a ritual simplicity that helps fine ingredients shine, be it an Esposito veal chop, or Talluto's fresh pastas.

But I could actually taste a difference in my recent meals from my visits a few years ago. There's an extra focus and clarity to the flavors, a certain restrained grace that only comes from the patient care of a nonna's touch.

Take the chicken Veneziana, for example, a dish that many chefs would turn into rubber bits buried in a mound of mushrooms. DiRenzo's chicken, though, was velvety tender, the meat radiating the sweetness of roasted garlic and good olive oil.

The special eggplant Napolitana appetizer was another stunner in simplicity, the delicately thin rounds of pan-fried eggplant napped with bright marinara and just a dusting of Parmigiano - not the typical oozy lid of molten mozzarella. It is almost as good a starter as the restaurant's signature square of grilled polenta topped with garlicky broccoli rabe.

My most memorable dish, though, set a new standard for pasta and clams. The spaghetti alla chitarra is now purchased from Talluto's rather than homemade, as it used to be, but it's still one of my favorite noodle shapes, with square-cut edges that lend any number of DiRenzo's homespun sauces an extra spring of vibrancy, from the bright, fresh-tasting marinara to the amazingly sprightly Bolognese.

It seemed to be tailor-made, however, for clams, especially the bushel of steamed cockles whose tender little jewels of meat were the perfect contrast to a zesty white broth that flickered with garlic and pepper-flake heat.

On the more delicate pasta side, sheets of squid ink-black pappardelle were the ideal canvas for a saute of crab and big shrimp in a buttery tomato sauce. A nest of angel hair filled with crabmeat was lightened by a splash of pasta water.

DiRenzo isn't a flawless chef. I found the bruschetta special confusing. It was more like a few pieces of bread at the bottom of a white-bean seafood stew that hovered on the fishy side. The menu also has a strangely single-minded devotion to the mushroom.

I love mushrooms as much as anyone, but DiRenzo uses them almost compulsively. Set atop the center of an appetizer plate of prosciutto, I found them to be soupy and jarringly warm. But in other cases, like the wonderfully grilled veal chop or her veal tenderloin medallions, the mushrooms actually become the right sauce, their woodsy liquid mingling with meat juices on the plate.

DiRenzo's talents are most obvious in her straightforward preparations for meats. Even a rendition of that old South Philly saw, veal piccante, took on a remarkable lightness with her careful touch, the tender pads of meat glossed in a light and lemony caper glaze.

But the chef also has a nice touch with fish. A sauteed fillet of branzino was napped with a fresh tomato and olive sauce that was lively and light. A peppercorn-crusted tuna steak was perfectly seared and set warm over a picniclike salad of fresh tomatoes tanged with balsamic vinegar.

The move to this location on East Passyunk, the former Trattoria Lucca, has given Tre Scalini a roomier double-wide space, but it still has the simply decorated, homey feel. The service is friendly and well-prepared, and reasonably attentive. And the prices, while not inexpensive ($19 to $24), are completely fair for the quality.

One thing I wish DiRenzo had improved upon, however, are the desserts, which are still the same, totally mundane selection of prefrozen Italian desserts that were served in the previous location. There's nothing wrong with a Bindi tiramisu, per se, but it seems so at odds with the handspun flavors of the rest of the meal.

By the time the dessert hour had rolled around, Franca DiRenzo had already retired from the kitchen to the dining room. And it was clearly bedtime for our hostess, judging from the dreamy look that settled into Gisella's eyes as she snuggled up and rested at last on her nonna's knee. It was a sweet portrait to end the night, and just the beginning of Franca DiRenzo's next chapter.


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Brandywine Prime in Chadds Ford.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.

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