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December 23, 2004

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Former punk vegan Mark McKinney's Italian cuisine meets meat halfway.

Since opening two years ago, Vesuvio has amazed the area's most demanding culinary connoisseurs with a hard-hitting menu of veal and fish dishes that surpass even the highest expectation.

It has wowed the neighbors with its roomy, comfy decor, from its basement boite lounge to its brick-walled dining room.

Yet, the restaurant and bar, housed in the heart of NuSouthPhilly at the corner of Eighth and Fitzwater, still feels like a secret. Try to describe the wheres and whats of the D'Addesi family restaurant's unconventional Italian menu to anyone outside of Bella Vista and too often you'll hear: "You mean Café Lido?"

Enter chef Mark McKinney, who took over as executive chef last December.

"The challenge of Vesuvio is trying to build a reputation as a powerful, amazing restaurant among so many Italian restaurants," says McKinney, a 34-year-old Newark, Del., native currently living in South Philly. His credentials have included notable stints at Iron Hill and ¡Pasion!.

Talking up a level of creativity he feels is lacking on his side of South Street, McKinney believes Vesuvio's quality and talent will be recognized.

"Ingredients and culinary passion makes us stand apart from other neighborhood restaurants. We cater to a high-end crowd with a superb wine list and to a younger crowd with drink specials and pool tables — but the food always shines."

Now McKinney — a half-Italian, half-Irish former vegan — is throwing the brightest light on Vesuvio's new vegetarian menu, which he promises will astound and amaze those epicureans used to tempeh-based-this and soy-protein-packed that. It will be served in the casual setting of the downstairs V Lounge.

With the influence of his grandparents, a pair of Italian cooks, McKinney took to cooking while studying psychology at the University of Delaware. Jobs, from dishwasher to prep cook, led him to transfer to Delaware Technical Community College where he got an associate's degree in culinary arts.

Bye-bye Maslow. Hello James Beard.

After four years as executive sous chef for the minichain of restaurants that is Iron Hill, he happened onto Guillermo Pernot and ÁPasion! and worked there as chef de cuisine from March 2002 through December last year.

"He knows how to get the most flavor out of any ingredient," says McKinney, espousing what he learned from Pernot's Latin-laced tastes and tough-love approach to teaching. "Guillermo takes the simplest items and knows how to cook them, cut them, spice them to get what's strongest from them."

Throughout the '90s, McKinney was a vegan — a punk-rock vegan, no less. Cue the Smiths records.

"It was a challenge to restrict, to turn off a type of American food culture," says McKinney, who was introduced to veganism while touring punk-van style along the West Coast with his band, Railhed.

"It was punk-rock rebellion. Super Fresh had no vegetarian aisle in the '90s, so it was very inventive and challenging to cook for you and your friends."

Kids don't know nothin' 'bout old-school veganism.

Once he learned how textured vegetable proteins and soy products worked, McKinney found they would accept any flavor. Marinate tempeh to make it taste like chicken? Sure. It's a blank canvas. "Only you can add to it to make a fine painting at the end."

McKinney never wanted to pigeonhole himself as a vegetarian chef. In fact, he ceased being a vegan while still at ÁPasion!, eating an Italian sausage stew one of the chefs whipped up. "Everyone was shocked. Pernot was thrilled."

Challenging himself to do "contemporary Italian" the way Pernot taught him — meaning Latino and French techniques with Italian ingredients — McKinney jumped at the chance to be executive chef at Vesuvio. He makes food that transcends all ethnic barriers, often in one dish: He braises short ribs with sofrito, Asian touches like star anise and cinnamon, French demi-glace and Italian plum tomatoes.

With that tender way toward meat, and with no shortage of real veal, beef or chicken in McKinney's repertoire, why add vegan to the menu? Mainly because Vesuvio's new V Lounge, where comfy chairs and slow-stewing funk rules, has brought in a new crowd of artists and musicians, many of whom are vegetarian or vegan. "Those are my type of people," says McKinney, "and if it makes them happy, it makes me happy."

There are two different approaches to this cooking: Use a soy product or use a substantial vegetable, like a portobello mushroom. Marinated and smoked portobello mushrooms melt in your mouth like rib-eye. Tofu can also be marinated and slow-roasted to alter its texture. But, even for a progressive restaurant, to serve faux meatballs in South Philly, as McKinney does with his spaghetti and meatballs marinara, takes brass cojones. The same goes for his grilled marinated tempeh with warm garbanzo puree, garlic confit salsa, crumbled feta and saba; and for his grilled steak of portobello mushrooms, which is marinated in fresh rosemary, vegetarian Worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar, garlic and olive oil, and hot-smoked over hickory chips.

"I don't think it's a matter of convincing the owners or the neighbors. It's more about supplying a demand," McKinney explains. "I don't want to ever be fully restricted, so as a chef I go out for all-out aggressive flavors, no matter what I cook."

Vesuvio, 736 S. Eighth St., 215-922-8380.

Philadelphia City Paper

A.D. Amorosi