From the outside, the light spilling from Tredici’s windows was cool and white, and the glass appeared to be sweating. We could see the crowd—at the bar, clustering around the host’s stand, jamming all the tables. Inside, it was a wall of noise, like stepping into the middle of a party that’s been going on without you for a good long time. To speak to the hostess working the stand, I had to lean over and talk almost directly in her ear.
We were lucky. We snagged the only open table on the floor—an odd corner spot that was all banquette, past the curve where the front room’s bar ends and the counter seating and seats in front of the raw bar begin. The two of us could sprawl across room enough for three. Spread out. Get comfortable.
“See?” I said to Laura. “Told you it would all work out fine.”
Her mouth moved, but it was so loud in the room that I couldn’t hear what was coming out. I leaned closer. “What?”
“I said I couldn’t hear you,” she said. “It’s so loud in here.”
It was after 9 p.m. on a Monday night in February, and Tredici was full.
This should have been impossible. Or at the very least, unlikely. How could yet another Italian restaurant make a mark in this city and not get lost in the noise of a thousand other lasagnas or plates of pork Milanese and arugula salad? How could a place that was opened in November of 2015 be packing the house on a Monday in February? Because at this point, it’s not just buzz that’s carrying you along. It’s not just being the new, pretty thing in the neighborhood. In order to thrive in this environment and draw crowds like this, Tredici has to be doing some things very, very right.
And here’s what they are:
1) It Has Nothing to Do With the Lasagna
Tredici might pitch itself as an Italian restaurant, but that’s just style. That’s just putting on a fancy scarf, smoking Gauloises and calling yourself French even though you were born and raised in Kalamazoo. Most of the best things about Tredici aren’t Italian at all.
That five-dollar half-pour of Terrapura sauvignon blanc? It’s from Chile. The excellent, sweet and slightly funky muscadet is Château Dimerie, and it’s from the Loire Valley. Of the 11 reds on the by-the-glass list, only three are Italian. The lasagna is good, yes—a thin, cheesy square of it, covered with a meaty bolognese but filled with a green verde sauce that balances out the heaviness. If you’re lucky, you’ll get one of the corner pieces, with the tips and edges of the pasta burnt to an almost potato-chip crispness. When I ordered it, I had two different strangers lean in just to tell me that I’d chosen well. That the lasagna was their favorite dish.
But it wasn’t mine. I loved the fried goat cheese with pea shoot pesto, smeared on grilled bread. The shrimp cocktail off the raw bar. And the Israeli couscous—tiny soft pearls of it, studded with almonds, sweet cherry tomatoes and chunks of avocado (I know … ) and topped with a meltingly soft fresh burrata (I know). It sounds terrible, but it tasted amazing—all the contradictory pieces of it coming together into a comforting mess of a dish, wedded together by a basil pesto, served cool and, in my case, in between two expertly prepared gin and tonics, which is just about the best place for any plate to fall.
I feel roughly the same way about the plate of Moroccan-spiced ribs crowned with grilled scallions, and about the yellowtail crudo with pistachio and sun-dried tomato. Neither is quite as good as that plate of couscous, but both are considered and smart. And for the vegetable enthusiasts, there’s a whole spread of equally thoughtful options—from broccoli and avocado speckled with black sesame seeds to a beautifully rustic dish of cumin-scented grilled carrots on a plate smeared with yogurt. Honestly, you can sit down, have a couple drinks, eat a full meal, and not realize until you’re halfway home that you just went to a Mediterranean restaurant or ate nothing but Greek dishes with California wines or missed the pastas entirely.
2) Tredici Has a Big Sister
You like Zavino, right? Of course you do. Pretty much everybody likes Zavino. The one complaint you hear the most about Zavino, though, is that everybody likes Zavino, therefore getting a table in Zavino’s tiny, narrow dining room can be a challenge.
Tredici is the solution. It can essentially serve as overflow seating for Zavino (or vice versa), but there’s more to it than just that. With the number of options available in Midtown Village, the Zavino team (wisely) made Tredici the tonal opposite of their original location without, you know, going crazy. They didn’t open a sushi restaurant; instead, they made a place that was recognizably born of the same DNA as Zavino but just different enough to make it feel like something other.
Where Zavino is all heaviness and dark wood and cozy comfort, Tredici is light and bright and airy. There are high ceilings and cool herringbone floors, a honeycomb lattice of shelves, pale walls. Six years ago, you fell for the brunette seriousness of Zavino. You’ve loved her ever since. But now, suddenly, you’re introduced to her bright, blond twin sister with the over-stamped passport and worldly tastes, so what do you think is going to happen next?
Yeah, exactly. There’s a reason why soap operas always play the hidden-twin card when a storyline goes stale. It’s a move that the Zavino team understands perfectly.
3) The Wine Program
Half-glass pours are genius. They’re not rare or anything. There are plenty of restaurants out there who do them. But at Tredici—with its globe-trotting menu and broad spectrum of influences—the half-glass thing makes a particular kind of sense.
First, they’re cheap. The highest price for a half-glass is $10—and that’s for a half-pour of 2004 Dom Perignon. Most of the prices hover closer to the $5-to-$6 range. And Tredici isn’t pouring light, either—those halves are something north of three ounces, allowing customers to both experiment with bottles they don’t recognize and construct for themselves a kind of DIY pairing flight. Moët Imperial to go with the shrimp cocktail, a Sonoma chardonnay paired with the Greek salad and chicken meatballs in ginger tomato sauce, then a Spanish tempranillo to muscle up against the braised lamb reginetti with mint ricotta—those three half-pours will run you $16—less than a single full pour at some other wine bars.
4) The Gnocchi
Okay, so that thing I said above about Tredici not really being an Italian restaurant? The spinach gnocchi is the exception. If the goofy mess of the couscous was my favorite and the very dull (and over-salted) chicken with Castelvetrano olives and shaved celery root my least favorite (I dare you to stay awake while eating it), then the gnocchi were on a level all their own. Green with spinach, perfectly seared in the pan to give them a little texture and chew, they were excellent—just these beautiful little thumbs, cooked with sage and brown butter, then tossed with some roasted butternut squash for a dish that was absolutely counter-seasonal but still delicious even in this weird shoulder season we’re in now.
They’ve been on Tredici’s menu since opening day. I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon. And seasonality be damned— I couldn’t be happier about that.
5) Success Is Being Born Well
From where I’m sitting, the worst thing about Tredici is that there’s no drama to it. No tension. There’s no doubt that the place is going to survive, no worries over it all suddenly falling to pieces. There’s a smooth competency to everything about it that means good things for diners and terrible things for food writers. It leaves me with no story beyond Yeah, you should go there. You’re gonna have a good time.
Still, Tredici’s success all comes down to the process of its becoming—of the conscious choices made during its conceptualization—and the way it operates now on a nightly basis. It comes from good genes, certainly. The service staff were good from opening night, but are blooded now—accustomed to handling volume and making it look easy—and seem to smile a lot more than some floor crews. Sure, they recognized me there, but the way they treated me was less important than how they handled the two old guys at the bar next to me on a Tuesday evening, or the eight-top of women in late on a Thursday during the holidays, doing everything they could to drive the staff bonkers with share plates and multiple courses and dietary restrictions and conversations about sesame seed allergies.
Tredici has made itself the easy choice for almost any situation—a magnet for those overwhelmed by options and a machine designed for turning the vagaries of appetite into money. Sure, it’s just Zavino’s little sister. A quick, casual spot for a glass of wine and a snack. Except that those waits at the door and killer Monday nights are telling a different kind of story. Tredici opened as Midtown Village’s new darling. And now, three months in, it’s on its way to becoming indispensable—a neighborhood joint whose neighborhood is all of Philly.
3 stars – Come from anywhere in the city
Tredici Enoteca [Foobooz]