Brad Daniels’ competitive run as a college centerfielder was both thrilling and frequently painful, cracking his kneecap on a slide into second base, breaking multiple fingers, his ankle and vertebrae in other mishaps on his way to half a dozen surgeries. His transition to a culinary career did not happen under the notion that it might be any less hazardous, based on the double wrist surgery he underwent just prior to the pandemic due to “overuse.”
And then there are the flames.
“I’ve always been drawn by the primordial pull of fire, fireworks and bonfires — maybe a bit too much,” says Daniels, 38, who once got grounded for setting his backyard fence ablaze.
His love of heat was no doubt a draw to the live fire that fueled kitchens like Osteria, where the Culinary Institute of America grad became chef de cuisine and began a nearly seven-year tenure for the Vetri family of restaurants that saw him eventually become culinary director for the group. But Daniels also found a passion for the subtle art of fresh pasta there, an exercise in finesse that’s been key to his early success at Tresini, his impressive solo debut in the Ambler section of Lower Gwynedd.
Black and white spaghetti alla chitarra made from squid ink and local durum tangle like tuxedo threads beneath crispy chunks of octopus drizzled with well-spiced salsa verde. Hollow strands of bucatini soak in the seafood savor of shrimp stock beneath a light yet flavorful topping of garlic oil, zucchini noodles and sweet blue crab. Deep green squares of plump ravioli glossed in brown butter harbored a spinach-ricotta filling so light, they were essentially Vetri’s famous spinach gnocchi reimagined as an airy dumpling stuffing.
I marveled at the delicacy of that pasta, as well its vivid green stuffing, whose intensity was locked in by a blast chiller (as opposed to a dilution of a typical ice bath), a technological flex Daniels mastered during his work as a culinary equipment consultant in recent years. The vacuum machine that helped simultaneously marinate and compress watermelon with Malvasia vinaigrette into crunchy balls alongside juicy tomatoes, briny Gaeta olives and milky sweet mozzarella was another winning example.
But gadgets are just tools, not a crutch for Daniels, whose food may present refined versions of seasonally inspired Italian flavors, but also captures an unfussy, rustic satisfaction in dishes like the hearty rigatoni with a fennel-dusted pork rib ragù deepened by porcini, a recipe channeled from his wife Caden’s side of the family.
“If everyone has a spirit pasta shape, rigatoni is mine,” says Daniels. “It’s short, stout and rough around the edges, but it holds all the sauce together. Sort of the way I am with people.”
Daniels says his affinity for team sports has often translated to the restaurant world, and he’s needed plenty of help with this ambitious project. He found a key business partner in John Krinis, a developer who, along with a third silent partner, bought the old Ristorante San Marco and its 2.5 acre lot. The restaurant’s name is a made up wink to the trio, a portmanteau of tre asini — Italian for “three donkeys.”
Daniels and line cook Angel Lopez spent months doing the demolition and restoration on the historic 1860 building, which became Montgomery County’s first integrated school in 1890 before it was transformed into a restaurant in 1950. The bell still rings in the steeple overhead.
They stripped thousands of pounds of stucco, dry wall and carpet from the dining rooms to reveal the handsome bones of Wissahickon field stone that give Tresini’s ambiance its sturdy old sense of place. It’s hard to tell if the building’s ghosts approve, although Daniels, judging from the smashed cocktail glasses that occasionally appear in the middle of the floor on mornings after the restaurant had been thoroughly cleaned and closed for the night, is hoping “they’re having a good time.”
Judging from the lively patrons that have eagerly filled this 100-seat space since Tresini opened in the spring, their festive mood boosted by cocktails from beverage manager Pelagia Koutsouros Nunez spiked with long hot peppers, tart hibiscus or Parmesan and caper brine (for the piquant Piccata martini), the reception has been enthusiastic. (Expect the noisy din to soften when $10,000-worth of acoustical tiles finally arrive.)
That’s not to say there hasn’t been an adjustment for a neighborhood used to an older style of Italian dining. I spoke with some Ambler locals who, early on, chaffed that Tresini charges for bread. But these aren’t your typical food service rolls. And $4.50 is really not much for some beautiful, grilled piatta based on a Roman taglio pizza dough that takes three days to make.
It’s a perfect way to start your meal, along with a some wonderful dips — a luxurious beef tartare bright with horseradish and white truffle puree; or a spicy mushroom vegetarian riff on spreadable ‘Nduja sausage that’s as satisfying as any meaty counterpart; or creamy local ricotta with local honey and a dusting of tart sumac, a nod to Daniels’ Armenian roots.
Daniels promises more flavors that venture outside the box of Italian traditions to reflect his heritage, seasonal ingredients and diverse career experiences, including a coming fall special inspired by lamb manti. But the real intrigue here comes from the playfulness that shapes his best dishes. Like the seared tuna crudo garnished with pepperonata and a “deli” vinaigrette meant to evoke a hoagie relish; or a Sardinian lamb sausage that will morph into another seasonal link when the fig trees on Tresini’s property ripen later this summer. (Wasps permitting.)
Daniels has already captured the sweet Silver Queen essence of his summers in his South Jersey youth with his special cappellacci, hand-folded bundles stuffed with a puree of corn, butter, Parmesan and crème fraîche so silky, they burst like corn-flavored soup dumplings when you bite in.
Tresini’s menu had very few misses, with one of them being the limoncello chicken, Daniels’ gesture to the boneless breast crowd, that lacked flavor, juiciness, and conviction.
Other dishes took more successful cues from their pristine ingredients, from a grilled swordfish marinated with citrus and served with a caponata of Japanese eggplants, to even a notable Caesar salad, whose crunchy Little Gem greens are elevated by a punchy dressing, shaved radishes (a salute to the salad’s Mexican origin) and tempura-fried rice flour crunchies in lieu of croutons. A dry-aged rib-eye from Seven Hills Farm in Virginia is marinated with black garlic and herbs before it’s served with caramelized cipollini onions and a compound butter made with aged provolone, Daniels’ sly wink to a fancy cheesesteak.
One of the stellar specials here, a dry-aged duck with amaro agrodolce glaze, could become one of Tresini’s primary draws if only the local duck supply chain had not been interrupted by a devastating wave of avian flu. One reliably great presence that will always remain on this menu, though, is “Mom’s garlic shrimp,” whose big crustaceans are marinated in mustard sauce before they’re grilled and served over braised chickpeas, zucchini and corn (”Italian succotash”) that, yes, was created by Daniel’s mother, Joan Daniels.
There is obvious room for rapid growth here at Tresini, from the coming soundproofing to hopes for expansion with new outdoor seating. I’d also like to see a bit more creative energy for the desserts, which offer some light twists on familiar favorites like tiramisu, cannoli and olive oil cake, served as krimpets with blueberries.
But these are mild complaints. There is an ever-present current of family inspiration here, paired with outgoing service, a steady commitment to craftsmanship, and the satisfaction of an historic building having been lovingly restored for its new chapter that has given Tresini one of the most promising foundations to build on that I’ve seen this year.
For the rough and tumble Daniels, who’s recovered nicely from that double-wrist surgery and is finally cruising now on his own project with “no issues,” the future is bright.
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
504 N. Bethlehem Pike, Lower Gwynedd, 215-654-5000; tresiniambler.com
Dinner Tuesday through Wednesday, 3:30-9 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, until 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Pastas and Suppers, $19.50-$49.50.