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The rumor began with a Fishtown stranger. She approached me on Girard Avenue: Could I help her find an Italian restaurant she’d heard about nearby?
From the El to the river, I flicked through my mental map: Pho, cheeseburgers, chicken korma… Nope, I told her, no Italian unless she counted Pizzeria Beddia. Was she thinking of Kensington Quarters, which has some lovely pastas on its menu? Or maybe Eatalia, the BYOB farther afield in the shadow of I-95? No. This restaurant was on Girard, she insisted. Flummoxed, I had no clue what she talking about. She skulked away to continue her spaghetti quest.
I subsequently forgot about the encounter, but murmurs of the best Italian restaurant in Fishtown wouldn’t leave me alone. Scraps of slippery gossip or breathless recounts would float in and out of my restaurant consciousness like jellyfish: “I heard you have to wait three hours for a table…” “It’s a secret pop-up in the back of a bar…” “The chef is straight from Italy…”
But it wasn’t until my brother-in-law moved to Fishtown and ate there that the macaroni mystery came fully underdone, and I found myself on a most circuitous route to reviewing truffled tagliolini at an Irish pub called Murph’s.
First, the facts.
One: Murph’s is indeed a bar and it is located on Girard Avenue, a couple blocks east of the Frankford intersection.
Two: The chef, Francesco Bellastelli, is indeed Italian, from Taranto, a naval town on the heel of the boot in Puglia.
Three: Dinner at Murph’s is not a pop-up. Bellastelli cooks regular hours, every night but Tuesday, in something of an unorthodox arrangement: The chef rents the kitchen from the bar and keeps all the money from food sales. You have to pay cash. You have to pay separately for food and for drinks at the bar, where the full menu is available and where you may find yourself sitting since Murph’s rear dining room, where you pay for everything on one check, is about the size of a freight elevator.
Four: If you’re set on one of the dining room’s 18 seats and you haven’t made a reservation — only taken for parties of six or more — you probably won’t have to wait three hours, only maybe two. On my first visit to Murph’s on a Saturday night, one of the servers quoted me “at least” 90 minutes, which is how I wound up eating at the bar — a long wood bracket with a glimmering counter paved in copper pennies (yes, it was there long before Hop Sing Laundromat opened).
Contradictions make Murph’s work. A shamrock sign swings overhead as you enter a Riverwards taproom that looks like any other: Scuffed-up wood floors, boxing trophies behind the bar, taxidermy and dart boards on the patchy brick walls, old guard regulars who might bristle at their neighborhood’s recent it-ness but will nonetheless courteously slide down a few stools to make room for you and your friends. The atmosphere and the food do not compute. When you drag one of Bellastelli’s all-beef, blue-ribbon meatballs through the accompanying tuffet of ricotta, an off-kilter sensation tickles the brain. Eyes say Mummers clubhouse. Tongue says Vetri’s Amis.
Bellastelli grew up cooking with his mother in Puglia, and transitioned into professional kitchens in Milan after serving 11 years in the Italian army. He met his wife (and unofficial Murph’s sous chef), Lisa, in Florence. A Philly native, she was working for QVC in Germany and on vacation in Italy. The couple married and moved back here three years ago.
Meanwhile, Greg and Theresa Walton, who purchased the century-old Murph’s in 2004, had closed the bar’s kitchen “due to our hectic family life,” Theresa explained via email. “We had five young children at home and had to prioritize.” Bellastelli’s cousin, Jimmy, is a Murph’s regular and introduced him to the Waltons. Soon after they formed their unusual partnership. “It was great to see our kitchen open again, with such talent as Francesco,” who just celebrated two years cooking at Murph’s.
Bellastelli recounted the proposition: “I thought, why not. It’s cool; it’s something different. I’m not making cheesesteaks.”
He’s certainly not. All the pasta on the chalkboard menu is fresh, made either by Bellastelli in house or by a Jersey pasta-maker, Gino, whose last name is unknown and whose ropy strozzapreti get tossed with crushed cherry tomato sauce and crowned with a porcelain orb of burrata. Fiocchi are another Gino joint, cream-sauced beggar’s purses filled with honeyed ricotta and ripe pear that tip-toe right up to the edge of too sweet, then retreat when the salinity and umami hit.
Bellastelli does the plump potato gnocchi, cloaked in blush sauce with smoky bacon and shrimp, and the necklace of wavy tagliatelle encircling a luscious, thick-necked pork shank braised in tomato passata. Glossed in truffle butter, the al dente taglioni are an edible treasure hunt for the shavings of black truffle hidden betwixt and between. If you can find legit truffled pasta elsewhere for $14, you let me know.
The most expensive thing is the filet mignon dripping with mushroom sauce for $19 — and even that comes with generous side of pasta. Scented with saffron and filled with mozzarella and parm, the softball-sized arancini are an $11 meal on their own. The cash-only policy and low overhead let Bellastelli keep prices bargain level — and make slips easier to forgive. Both that filet mignon and a grilled tuna steak were ordered medium-rare and arrived closer to medium-well. In dishes that feature burrata (the strozzapreti, a Caprese salad), the cheese wears a stiff chill, and its stracciatella center struggles to flow harder than a Tea Party congressman at a rap battle.
More attention could be given to plating. If the dish ain’t naturally beautiful — like that tuna in a pretty confetti of capers, chopped parsley, Calabrese green olives and cherry tomatoes — Bellastelli ain’t doing anything to make it so. Sauces bleed to rims, and splashes are reflections of generosity, I guess, to be admired rather than wiped away. I expect more from a restaurant.
But can you even call Murph’s a restaurant? Or is it a bar that just happens to serve unexpectedly great Italian food? “It’s just ‘a comfortable place to be,’” Theresa Walton said, quoting the tavern’s longtime motto.
If anything, Murph’s is an aberration — a positive one. Today’s restaurant culture dictates every detail, from server aprons to swizzle sticks, be vision-boarded and cross-promoted on Instagram. Bellastelli and the Waltons aren’t doing things that way. Their serendipitous handshake approach to serving food makes Murph’s a Philly original, a kooky delight and definitely a comfortable place to be.
2 Quakers – Very Good*
202 E. Girard Ave., 215-425-1847
Dinner Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday to Monday (closed Tuesdays)
Bar Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily
Executive Chef: Francesco Bellastelli
Owners: Greg and Theresa Walton
General Manager: Theresa Walton
Sous Chef: Lisa Bellastelli
Bartenders: Megan H., Brianna G., Andrea B., Mackenzie F., Kevin B., Dave O., Kevin A., Chrissi R.
Servers: Colleen O., Lexi G.
Dishwashers: Jude O., Greg W.