The term “hidden gem” regarding dining establishments has never really meant anything to me. For a while my reaction to cliche marketing and foodie terms such as “best kept secret” and hole-in-the-wall eateries “that nobody knows about” has left me, for the most part, nonplussed, especially when seeing those words in the windows and menus of the very places claiming these titles. I mean, something couldn’t be so under the radar that they’d be 1) talked about to the likes of me and 2) still be in business. How do these places find the happy medium between making money on their amazingly secret dishes that are too good to be exposed to the general public and staying true to their underground title? If there was ever a hidden gem of a restaurant, the likes of Yelp, Instagram, and writers such as myself have done everything they could to make sure that it didn’t escape the clutches of our “look what I ate” radar. So before you crucify me for unearthing this gem just know that I’m not the first to write about the subject of this article… And I certainly won’t be the last.
Having said that, some spots have managed to find new ways to throw off the mainstream on their food by putting a disguise on the brick and mortar of which their food is served in. Case and point: Murph’s Bar in Fishtown. An otherwise unassuming Irish pub that happens to serve some of the best Italian food in the area.
Up until recently, the only thing that made me determine the quality of an Irish pub was their beer selection, not their food, which like the term “hidden gem” has for lack of a better term, left me unexcited. Forgive me for generalizing, but I can only eat so many microwaved nachos and overcooked cheeseburgers before I destroy my credibility as a food writer. And Murph’s is by far the exception when it comes to food in an Irish Pub.
Keep what I’ve already said about disguised food and Irish pubs in consideration when I say that it took me roughly 9 years as a Fishtowner to finally walk into Murph’s. It was only until a friend of mine insisted that I come in and try their relatively new menu, which was procreated by this magical unicorn of an Italian chef, Francesco Bellastelli. An average sized man with jet-black hair who, like the front entrance of Murph’s, is usually dressed in a plain white T-shirt and blue jeans so as not to draw attention to himself. A tactic I presume is to keep a humble front so as to let the food speak for itself.
Francesco built his resume by cooking in a number of established Italian kitchens after coming to the states from Italy. The most familiar of which being the acclaimed Modo Mio near 2nd and Girard in Northern Liberties. After striking a deal with the owners of Murph’s, Francesco moved his operation to their basement kitchen where he serves the same quality of old-world Italian food at a fraction of the price to unsuspecting beer drinkers of the neighborhood.
Whether you’re watching the game at the bar or sitting in the rear end dining room, decked with the usual decor you’d come to expect from an Irish pub, you have a choice of ordering from the house menu, or Francesco’s menu, which is discretely, yet noticeably dawned on framed chalkboards throughout the bar. Dishes like Francesco’s Veal Tortelacci, Spaghetti Bolegnese, Pork Shank, and Lobster Ravioli are hand-drawn with chalk into the board that details each dish curated by Francesco, all of which involve some variation of hand made pasta and sauces personally made by him in the basement.
The proverbial icing on the cake (Francesco also serves cakes imported from Italy for dessert) is the price point which differentiates Francesco from the herd along with the quality of his food. To go along with the overall vibe of Murph’s down-home and casual atmosphere, Francesco, surprisingly, doesn’t want to alienate his customers with exclusive prices that are all too common with fine Italian food. The average bill that I’ve spent while treating close friends to a meal at Murph’s has stayed within the mid-forty region, which usually includes two entrees, two desserts, and (if he likes you) two complimentary shots of Francesco’s home made Limoncello liquor to cleanse your pallet while complimenting the one of plenty dessert options you’ve eaten. If amazing Italian food at a reasonable price doesn’t entice you enough to visit Murph’s, I don’t know what will. Too often are millennial foodies such as myself forced to wait for a special occasion to justify the steep tabs of fine Italian food and the obligatory glasses of wine which are often times marked up 300% from it’s original bottle price. Thankfully, Francesco’s passion for food and his friendly, easygoing demeanor have given people like me some long-awaited relief to my stomach and wallet.
Murph’s Bar is located at 202 E. Girard Avenue in Fishtown where Francesco prepares, cooks, and often serves his menu items every day except Tuesday. It should go without saying that Murph’s beer selection is also something to consider when sitting down to Francesco’s food as it serves beer for all pallets and price ranges. I suggest a medium bodied beer such as Fat Tire Amber Ale (available at Murph’s) so as not to take away from the food.