You want pressure? Every time chef Mark McKinney makes meatballs at the Triangle Tavern, he says: "I feel like I'm being judged in heaven by my grandmother."
Even if those tender rounds in red gravy are deliberately a bit firmer than what he grew up with, it's safe to say Phyllis Rotundo would be proud of her grandson. (Don't let his Irish surname fool you.)
The locals? I'm not so sure. Debating the subtlety of meatball virtues in South Philly - even as it morphs rapidly from its old Italian roots to myriad other immigrant and hipster forces - remains a timeless sport deeply ingrained in the DNA at the crossroads of South 10th, Reed, and East Passyunk.
For the record, Villa di Roma and Mr. Joe's Cafe remain my favorites - though I liked McKinney's meatballs well enough, a distinct pork profile blended with veal and beef, plus a flicker of chili heat. The slightly off-register red gravy itself is another topic altogether, a not inconsequential detail I will dip into momentarily.
But there are other ghosts of importance to be reckoned with first at the Triangle, where the lore and legends of raucous musical acts past swirl through the memorabilia and pennant-laced barroom like the mirrored glints of that disco ball dangling over the U-shaped bar. This tavern, founded in 1933 by Antonio Patrone, was one of the genuine South Philly places, a casual hangout for cops and crooks alike, as well as the occasional Fabian and Frankie Avalon sighting. It was renowned as much for its "mussels red," which the kitchen dispensed through the back door on Sundays to locals with buckets, as for the colorful performers who defined its heyday in the '70s and '80s. Senior citizen crooner Dusty Gale, "the singing cabdriver," was known to take his teeth out before his bawdy striptease covers of Madonna or Springsteen before an adoring crowd.
These are the spirits that capture owner Stephen Simons' imagination. And because he was a witness to many such performances, he knows there is little chance of recapturing that musical legacy and will not try. But when he and partner David Frank last year bought the Triangle, which had been closed for six years and no longer had a kitchen after the founder's grandson, Anthony Fraietta, sold it in 2001, their goal was to reinvent a South Philly sense of place through warm service, good drinks, and simple food.
But how to preserve a sense of character and create something that also feels evolved? Simons and Frank have experience with reinventing institutions - especially Khyber Pass, which successfully morphed from iconic rock club to New Orleans-theme pub. (They also own the Royal Tavern and Cantina Los Caballitos.)
It's all about balancing updates with tradition. Spiking the "adult" water ice is a clever wink at the local favorite sure to draw younger drinkers. (The sweet cherry is so smooth it's downright dangerous.) There's an entire list of bitters-forward cocktails to lure the Negroni sophisticates; lots of craft brews to extend East Passyunk's beer scene farther north.
The menu from executive chef McKinney and chef de cuisine John Murphy, meanwhile, focuses smartly on retro red gravy favorites, though many get a little twist - including some surprising vegan riffs. And they've succeeded on many fronts.
There's a classic antipasto platter with lemony gigante beans, pickled cauliflower, and imported meats, but also thick milky chunks of fresh mozzarella that was pulled on site from in-house curds. That mozz is even better with ripe tomatoes and herb oil for a Caprese that's fresher than what passes in old-guard spots.
Some classic dishes here are straight from the old-school playbook. Like the clams casino stuffed with bacon-scented bread crumbs and chopped meat. Or the simple satisfaction of calamari properly deep-fried - so tender, delicate, and crisp.
There is an outstanding take on a roast pork sandwich that appears slightly dry at first. But once I dunked that shaved meat and roll into the side dish of intense jus, the entire thing rehydrated into a fully rosemaried fistful of garlicky gusto. Some old-timers might do a double-take after biting into the vegan "roast beef." McKinney helped pioneer vegan options for Philly bar menus, and he's continued that here. After rolling Blackbird Pizzeria's seitan into a slow-roasted herb-rubbed roulade, slicing it thin, and tucking it with caramelized onions into a roll, he had a sandwich even my "devout non-vegan" friend could love. (Just avoid the horseradish veganaise!)
There were other vegan-friendly options worth considering: the fried mushrooms stuffed with veggies and tofu, the crispy-creamy polenta fries, the pleasantly chewy seitan "wings" spiked with tangy-hot Buffalo sauce, the garlic bread whose olive oil-Earth Balance glaze is goosed by zesty nutritional yeast. On the down side, that dense, dry, and sticky vegan chocolate "brick" was too much like, well, a brick. The vegan "meatballs"? Mush City. I would not venture to wager on Nonna Rotundo's verdict.
But when it comes to the more familiar end of the Italian American canon, the Triangle hits enough, though not all, of the more important notes. The linguine with clams "white" is one of the best versions I've had in a while, the buttered natural juice thickened with a splash of starchy pasta water and lit with the unexpected spice of sautéed long hots.
The mussels, that most iconic Triangle dish, are also a solid mollusk feast, though I consider the small mussels incidental to the broth treasure, rife with sea and a blast of garlic, which I could eat an entire loaf with.
That mussel broth is easily the highest calling for the Triangle's red sauce. Without the shellfish to temper and enrich it, or too little steeping time for the added meats in other dishes to let the vegan marinara base acquire its proper "gravy" depth, the San Marzano sauce here was consistently too acidic, as though someone forgot to make a final seasoning adjustment. It's a serious flaw considering the sauce's workhorse status, smothering everything from meatballs to thick-cut eggplant parm, and a generous "Sunday Gravy" over rigatoni brimming with sausage, stewed pork chop, and a thick hunk of pepperoni that I so wanted to embrace but just couldn't quite. It's the reason I'm still at "like" rather than "love" with the new Triangle Tavern.
The lasagna, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise worthy of optimism. Too often a soupy casserole mess, this version looked to follow suit. But under its crimson-sauced exterior, there was also a careful stack whose still-distinct layers of sweet ricotta, crumbled D'Angelo's thyme sausage, and ground beef hit all the right counternotes to harmonize that gravy's edge.
It goes to show that sometimes seemingly "simple" foods, like retro Italian American cooking, can be deceptively difficult to master - especially in reinvention mode for 2015. But this old tavern was always so much more than the sum of its menu's mussels and even the memories of its colorful ghosts. It was a genuine South Philly place. And it is alive and thriving once again, evolving and staying the same just enough, not unlike the vibrant neighborhood around it.
1338 S. 10th St. (at Reed and Passyunk), 215-800-1992; triangletavernphilly.com
The Triangle is cooking again as the owners of Khyber Pass and Cantina Los Caballitos revive this classic South Philly Italian tavern with a fresh update that doesn't compromise its genuine neighborhood character. Among the updates: surprising vegan-Italian options, spiked water ice, house-pulled mozz and bitters-forward cocktails. Throwback keepers: mussels "red," fried calamari, the lively casual vibe and warm hospitality. The "red gravy" tomato sauce still needs fine-tuning, though, proving simple food is sometimes hardest to master.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Antipasti; clams casino; mussels "red"; polenta fries; garlic bread; fried calamari; Caprese (with house mozzarella); roast pork sandwich; vegan "roast beef" sandwich; spicy linguine with clams; lasagna; Sunday gravy with rigatoni; spicy broccoli; cheesecake.
DRINKS Liquor-spiked "adult water ice" is the sweet party crowd favorite (and dangerously smooth), but the Triangle also offers some edgier amari-forward cocktails with an entire "bitter is better" list ranging from takes on the Negroni and Boulevardier to the apricot-kissed Passyunker. Craft beers are plentiful and good (Victory Braumeister Pils; Sly Fox Royal Weisse). The wine list, however, with only two house wines (on draft) available by the glass and a small selection of affordable bottles, could use more glass choices (including at least one Italian) to suit the casual dining experience.
WEEKEND NOISE A boisterous, sometimes raucous, room hits 93 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Monday through Friday 4 p.m.-1 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, beginning 11 a.m. (with brunch specials).
All major cards.
Not wheelchair accessible.