It’s just a little shoebox of a place, with 45 seats wedged into the cozy dining room, but since it opened last March, diners have been lining up for Tre Famiglia’s reasonably priced homemade pasta and Italian classics.
This BYO is a family affair. Patriarch Vincent “Chip” Cipollone, 78, rolls gnocchi and makes gravy in the kitchen while his two sons and daughter take turns managing the front of the house; his granddaughter’s husband, Mark Berenato, serves as head chef; and other relatives wait tables. “We are small, and we do it the way it was done in the old days,” says Robert Cipollone, one of Chip’s sons. His father is in the kitchen six days a week preparing old-school favorites like pasta Bolognese, a recipe from Chip’s Italian Restaurant, the place his family ran in South Philly from 1903 to 1994.
But Tre Famiglia has more to offer than the typical gravsop. The dining room, with tables dressed in white linen, has a simple, unpretentious charm. And Chef Berenato adds a fresh, contemporary touch with his specials, such as an outstanding pan-seared corvino, flaky white fish crusted with chopped walnuts, drizzled with a ginger sauce, and served with crisp, curly sweet-potato fries. “We’re not mass-producing,” Berenato says. “I can keep things interesting and offer a new twist along with the old traditions.”
For starters, we love the restaurant’s signature crab bisque, a smooth and creamy version prepared from home-made stock and a healthy dose of sherry and lump crabmeat. Sautéed spinach, simply dressed with olive oil and garlic, becomes a terrific special when made with pine nuts, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes and served with grilled Italian bread; the contrast in flavors and textures really perks up a traditional favorite. We’re less impressed with the crab cake appetizer, which has plenty of crabmeat inside but is over-breaded and underflavored, especially compared to other menu standouts.
As for entrées, the fish specials, like the corvino, don’t disappoint, but neither does the regular menu’s tilapia Livornese, made with Sicilian olives, capers, and shallots in a light tomato sauce. Another classic not to overlook is Chip’s fusilli Bolognese, one of the best I’ve tasted; the flavorful sauce, made from beef fillet and pork and veal trimmings—they cut all their own meat—ground up and simmered with onions, plum tomatoes, and fresh Italian herbs, and served over homemade pasta, demonstrates Italian peasant food at its best. A close second goes to the light and airy gnocchi, which Chip rolls to perfection.
The meat entrées, such as a thick pork chop marinated in olive oil and fresh parsley, grilled on an open flame, and served with a red-wine reduction, and a half-pound center-cut filet mignon grilled to a perfect pink, often demonstrate the beauty of simplicity; both are served with expertly made creamy risotto and a lovely sauté of vegetables. Less satisfying is the veal Milanese, a pan-fried, breaded veal cutlet that arrives overcooked and slightly dry.
Even the cannoli are homemade here, and they’re very respectable at that—light and fluffy ricotta dotted with chocolate chips in crispy shells. As for the flourless chocolate cake—deep, rich, fudgy decadence accented with a drizzle of raspberry sauce—it is among the best. “Everything is fresh,” Berenato says. “We even cooked down raspberries for the sauce.”
Reviewed in: February, 2006