In 1887, the immigrant Irish family known as the Mulherins were best known for their rye whiskey - not pig's head tortelloni or a wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza called the "Spicy Jawn."
But suffice it to say, things have changed a bit in Fishtown. And not just since the pre-Prohibition glory days of the late 1800s, when William J. Mulherin began blending liquor for wholesale at North Front and Master Streets and barrels would line the sidewalk awaiting delivery by horse and carriage.
Just the last decade alone has brought a seismic transformation in this working-class neighborhood. It rose and stumbled in tandem with 20th-century industry, but in its most recent days, it has resurged triumphantly on the gentrifying push of millennials, gastropubs, and creative food artisans of all kinds (including, not coincidentally, many distillers). And considering the torrid pace of new townhouse development, it's a minor miracle this recently blighted old building still stands below the Market-Frankford El that rumbles past its facade.
But the name - Wm. Mulherin's Sons - wasn't going anywhere. It's literally cast in concrete on brick over the grand arching windows that line this now beautifully restored building, enhanced by developers David Grasso and Randy Cook and their chef-partner, Chris Painter, for its newest role as a boundary-pushing restaurant (and soon upstairs, a four-room boutique hotel).
Can you blame them for inlaying Winner into the hand-clipped tile mosaic at the entrance? It's a nod to the past - Mulherin's signature blend was Winner Rye - but also a confident wink toward its present and future. And true to the boast, Wm. Mulherin's Sons the Italian restaurant is a winner in every way. From the excellent cocktails, wine list, and service to the gorgeous setting, topflight pizzas, pastas, and succulent wood-grilled meats, this is the grown-up destination restaurant fast-rising Fishtown has been waiting for. There's even . . . a free parking lot!?
The restaurant gets very noisy - its biggest flaw. But the 107-seat, three-room space is a seamless blend of old and new, with reclaimed timber ceilings, exposed brick, intricate tile and dark-wood floors, and a fireplace lounge anchoring the main dining room, and the pizza hearth and grill beckon fragrantly from another room.
It's the modern Italian cooking from chef Painter, though, that elevates Mulherin's to next-level status while remaining accessible, with a flexible menu that allows diners to customize their experience, whether an affordable midweek meal of pizza, small plates, and drinks, or a special-occasion splurge on a dry-aged porterhouse for two with a bottle of sagrantino from Arnaldo Caprai - at $96, a modest markup over the restaurant's $62 cost rarely seen in Center City. Most of the 130 bottles, which feature lesser-known but food-friendly Italian varieties (grechetto, gaglioppo, malvasia), sit between $50 and $80.
That steak, by the way, all 24 ounces of tender, beefy intensity, should become one of Philly carnivores' new lust objects. For a lesser commitment, with entrées topping out at $28, the lamb steak was memorable, its aromatic spices reminiscent of Painter's Moroccan phase at Tangerine. The brick-roasted chicken was exceptional.
For most of his career, Painter was Stephen Starr's culinary ninja fix-it chef at more than a dozen concepts, from Stella to Jones and their partnership at upscale Il Pittore. But his food is at its best here.
There are must-order starters, such as the tartare of tender cubed veal tossed in punchy Caesar dressing and sandwiched between charred romaine-leaves bruschetta squares from Mulherin's outstanding rustic loaves; or the refreshing hamachi crudo paired with pistachios and grapefruit bursts. The octopus is one of the city's best, its meaty arms sublimely tender from a 15-hour slow cook, then charred crisp on the plancha and set over perfect white cannellinis and silky green pistachio puree ringed by smoked paprika oil.
The pastas show a less-is-more refinement that highlights subtle contrasts. Delicate threads of fresh tajarin noodles tossed with favas, morels, and garlic scapes were topped tableside with a liberal shaving of earthy summer truffles, and they practically levitated to my lips. The light smokiness of charcoal-roasted potatoes whipped with cheese and tucked inside cappelletti played against the soft sweetness of pureed onion sauce flecked with chive. The porky intensity of a slow-stewed pig's head is packed with hints of orange and rosemary into thimble-size bursts of tortelloni tossed simply in pasta water and Parmesan. I loved the veal ragu with picholines, even if the pasta had lost the texture of the herringbone-patterned board it'd been rolled over.
As good as all these were, the pizzas were even better. A collaboration between Painter and Pitruco Pizza truck owners Nathan Winkler-Rhoades and Jonah Fliegelman, the pizzas here add yet another layer of refinement just when I thought we already had more Neapolitan-style pizzaiolos than we needed. The dough, made over 30-plus hours, gets a dose of nutty farro and is more complex than what Painter engineered for trendsetting Stella. It holds its crisp better than a traditional Neapolitan, and these toppings show an extra vibrance, whether with a spot-on classic like the bright Margherita dotted with bufala mozzarella, or more elaborate creations.
Two favorites were white pies layered with a base of garlic crema and Taleggio cheese that were notable for both complexity and clarity, with each topping revealing itself in clear, distinct harmony. For the Primavera, there was the pop of fresh peas against earthy morels and the bacony crunch of house pancetta. On the "Leslie Chow," a chiffonade of bitter radicchio parried tangy sweet saba and a forest's worth of exotic mushrooms. The lamb pie, meanwhile, was another evocative nod to sultry North African flavors, with merguez sausage alongside creamy mozzarella, tangy artichokes, candied lemon zest, and fresh mint that lifted aromas straight off the table.
For dessert, Wm. Mulherin's offers familiar flavors with thoughtful tweaks: a moist pound cake rich with pine nut butter and orange zest; a creamy panna cotta from tart sheep's milk over an intense puree of strawberries and rhubarb; a satisfyingly bittersweet coffee pot de crème layered with dulce de leche caramel, chocolate ganache, and beads of hazelnut crunch.
In the end, the best finish after a meal is a flight from the amari collection, a 34-bottle list of digestion-friendly herbal liqueurs steeped with everything from cardoons and saffron to oranges and mint.
Yes, life has changed tremendously in the neighborhood over the last century. But you can still see some real Mulherins here from time to time. Great-great-grandson Andrew IV and his dad, Andrew III, come for the Spicy Jawn and lamb sausage pizza - and to relish the family legacy of this Fishtown corner, thriving once again with life and spirits.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Bistro 7.
WM. MULHERIN'S SONS (three bells out of four)
1355 N. Front St., 215-291-1355; wmmulherinssons.com
Once a whiskey blending house in the 1870s, this gorgeously rehabbed building in the shadow of the El has been transformed into an Italian gem that is the grown-up restaurant Fishtown has been waiting for. With a wood-fired oven and grill, former Il Pittore chef Chris Painter makes his most impressive case yet as one of Philly's best Italian cooks, turning out refined Neapolitan pizzas, pastas, and impressive grilled meats. An excellent drink program (Italian wines, knockout cocktails), diligent service, and a beautiful decor of tile and wood that pays homage to the historic character combine for one of the most impressively complete new restaurants in recent years.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Hamachi crudo; octopus; scallop crudo; veal tartare toast; roasted cauliflower; pig head cappelletti; tortelloni; pappardelle; tajarin special (morels, favas, truffles); pizzas (Margherita; Primavera; Leslie Chow; lamb & artichoke); halibut; striped bass; lamb steak; brick chicken; porterhouse; coffee pot de crème; pine nut pound cake.
DRINKS An impressively well-rounded program, from the Italiancentric wine list to the fine cocktails, a big amari list, and a very solid selection of cider and craft beer (though light on local brews). Great wine-by-glass selections: an excellent white Murola grecchetto as an alternative to chardonnay, a quenching vermentino "orange wine," and a ripe Ellena Giuseppe barbera perfect with the pizzas. The bottle list is substantial at 130 labels, with many choices in the $50 range and fair prices at sub-triple markups.
WEEKEND NOISE A terrible din in the mid-90s decibels, due to the hard wood and marble tile, is Mulherin's biggest flaw. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Pizzas available one hour after kitchen closes.
Entrées (including pizzas), $14-$28.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested (though 36 seats are reserved nightly for walk-ins).
Wheelchair accessible through private entrance.
A free (!) 16-space parking lot next to building.