Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review: Wm. Mulherin's Sons - Philadelphia, PA

Just 10 years ago, the Fishtown section of Philadelphia was a hardscrabble working class neighborhood. Today, it's a bustling hipster scene, akin to Brooklyn's Williamsburg or Red Hook, teeming with new bars, gastropubs, and residences. 

Fishtown is home to my favorite Philly pie slinger, Pizza Brain, and the highly-regarded Pizzeria Beddia. Last spring, Fishtown got its first "grown-up" restaurant with Wm. Mulherin's Sons, according to Philly's top food critic Craig Laban.
Wm. Mulherin's Sons
With its odd hours, no phone, and no reservations policy, I don't know if or when I might get to try Pizzeria Beddia. But the wildly popular Mulherin's - only blocks away from Beddia - takes online reservations and even has its own parking lot in a neighborhood where parking is in short supply. Both the Mulherin's name and the building harken back to the liquor business housed in this same building over a century ago, but the building is renovated and renewed in a way that seamlessly blends modern comfort with the vintage architectural flourishes.
Rear of the building, adjacent to parking lot
To my amazement, the small parking lot was not full when we arrived at 5:30pm, nor when we left around 7:30pm. Perhaps most patrons are close enough to walk or are city dwellers unburdened by car ownership. We were greeted and seated promptly in what was to be a pattern for the entire evening. The hostess, the waitress, and other servers were unfailingly polite, earnest, informed, and genuinely enthused about the food. Hats off to the people who are hiring and training this first-class staff.
The pizza kitchen area
We came, of course, for the pizza - but the menu was divided tapas-style by different-sized plates tagged as snacks/small plates, pizza, pasta, or grill. There is a short but well-chosen list of draft beers, including my selection of Dogfish "Beer for Breakfast," brewed with scrapple. Wines by the glass start around $12, and there are some smartly crafted cocktails too.
Roasted cauliflower
We began with two small plate appetizers. The $9 "seafood mixto" with mussels, octopus, rock shrimp, calamari, and lemon was as fresh as ceviche at a beach resort. Perhaps the best item of the night was the astonishing $7 roasted cauliflower with raisins and olive/almond puree. 
Porcini Cavatelli with Truffles
From the pasta menu, we chose a modest $17 cavatelli with porcini mushrooms and a fontina/taleggio cream sauce, then splurged another $25 to get an ounce of Euro truffle shaved over it. It was a fun indulgence - but I'm not yet certain that I fully appreciate all the truffle umami. Oddly, the volume of pasta was about half the volume of that superb cauliflower.
The Vincenzo
We finished with the Vincenzo pizza topped with mortadella. The dough, raised for 40 hours, includes some farro wheat which makes it crisper than the typical soft (and sometimes soggy) Neapolitan. And indeed, this perfectly crafted pie had an ideal balance of flavors and textures and no wet spots. 

Just as importantly, the flavors were on target. The puffy crust had its own rich and slightly nutty taste. The cheese blend included Caciocavallo, which we first discovered on the stellar Neapolitans at Scuola Vecchia. When I see Caciocavallo on the pizza menu, it helps me decide quickly. 
Caciovallo cheese
According to, "Caciocavallo Podolico can be matured for up to one year, at which point flavors are complex and intense, with savory vegetal notes of smoke, herbs, toast and barnyard that are balanced by an intense fruitiness and lactic tang."

The red sauce was nuanced and played perfectly with the cheeses and the generous slices of the salty mortadella. All of the toppings were proportioned ideally. Kudos! This pie stands shoulder to shoulder with Capofitto and Vetri as the top rank Neapolitans in Philly. I'll be back to try some of the more creative pies, like the pumpkin, lamb & artichoke, or speck & egg.
Perfect leopard spotting underneath
The only other spot in Philly that offers great pizza and so many other good dishes would be Marc Vetri's upscale Osteria, on North Broad. I enjoyed my visit there (where we also spent over $100 for pizza, drinks, and some appetizers), but Wm. Mulherin's Sons gets the overall nod for its best-in-class ambiance and service. We went looking for destination pizza, and found a destination restaurant.
Wm. Mulherin's Sons Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The 16 Breakout Pizzas of 2016

It is a wonderful dilemma that the ongoing pizza renaissance continues to yield more terrific pies than I have time or capacity to experience. Is certainly is fun trying, and 2016 turned out as yet another banner year in discovering "pizza worth the calories."
Shears for slicing the Neapolitan pie at Ghibellina, Washington DC
We found great pizza in all sorts of styles: Neapolitan (still trending), old-school, Detroit, NY style, New Haven apizza, and even a Chicago deep dish. If there was a theme to the standouts of 2016, it was the emergence of the pan-baked thick crust, be it the traditional Sicilian or the even better Detroit style.
Insanely oversized slices at Lorenzo & Sons, West Chester Pa
This is not a "Best 16 Pizzas in America" list - these are the best ones I discovered in 2016. And some are truly spectacular! Click on any pizzeria for the full review and more pictures. 

Honorable Mentions. These pies didn't quite make the top 16, but were too good to leave out. 

SNAP Custom Pizza, Exton PA. A trend we saw expanding in 2016 was the "build-your-own" Neapolitan pie chains, such as Blaze and MOD. One of the better attempts at this is the West Chester PA based SNAP Custom Pizza, now expanding into Philly. It won't change your life, but you won't get a soggy center the way we did at some more established Neapolitan pie joints.
The "Good Egg" pie at Snap Custom Pizza, Exton PA
Snap Custom Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bertucci's. Some will scoff at our inclusion of a chain pie, but it's hard to argue against the authentic old-school pies that come out of the smallish New England based Bertucci's restaurants. With a superb sauce on a classic thin and rigid crust, Bertucci's is better than 95% of the mom and pop shops.
Classic slice at Bertucci's in Concordville, PA
Bertucci's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

16. Milito's, Downingtown PA, is a full service Italian restaurant that offers a bar-style pie based on the owner's favorite pizza from Arnold PA, a small town near Pittsburgh. We found it crisp, simple, and elegant, and it drew comparisons to Rubino's in Columbus OH and Lee's Tavern in Staten Island.  
"Burg's Pie" at Milito's
Milito's Ristorante Bar Pizzeria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

15. ZAZA, Little Rock AR. This was yet one more "build-your-own" Neapolitan pie chain, but it was a standout for its large yet cozy interior, zesty red sauce, and the thin chewy-yet-crisp crust. ZAZA is yet more evidence that you can find good pizza in almost any city, no matter how removed from New York or New Haven.
Fast-fired pies at ZAZA in Little Rock
Zaza Fine Salad + Wood-Oven Pizza Co. Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

14. Grande Pizza Co., Boca Raton FL. There is some world-class pizza in southern Florida, including our favorite Neapolitan pie at Scuola Vecchia in Delray Beach, and another pie to be found further up on this list. Coming in at number 14 for the year was Grande, a typical mom and pop pizza place offering a not-at-all-typical Detroit style pie. It was decadently piled with cheese and oozing oil, and still maintained a crispy crust with the signature cheesy caramelized crust edges. 
Cherished corner slice of Detroit pie at Grande
Grande Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

13. Bar 35, Honolulu HI. Waikiki is lovely, but I found that the further away I got, the more truly Hawaiian was the experience. It was just a 20 minute Uber ride to Bar 35, situated in Honolulu's Chinatown, which is evolving into a hipster destination. The pies were thin flatbread style, a little bit Roman but more akin to the fine pies at Jules Thin Crust. You don't have to put pineapple on it, either!
Tuscan pie at Bar 35
My mainland colleague learns how to hang loose from our Bar 35 server
Bar 35 Honolulu Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

12. Stella Public House, San Antonio TX.  While Austin remains the Texas pizza king with Via 313, Home Slice, and Pieous, San Antonio is trying to close the gap with Grimaldi's, Dough Pizzeria Napoletana, and Stella Public House. Stella takes the lead in the city of the Alamo with its superb twist on a Neapolitan hybrid that brings plenty of crunch with no soggy centers.
The hybrid Neapolitan at Stella Public House, San Antonio
Stella Public House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

11. Berkeley Pizza, San Diego CA. It was only last year that we finally agreed on the merits of Chicago deep dish pizza, with the wondrously rich sea of red sauce on the pies at Louisa's in Crestwood IL. Perhaps because San Diego has no traditional pizza of its own, pizzerias are free to model and perfect their pies on styles from other towns. Two such pies made this year's list, and the first is the authentic yet by-the-slice deep dish from Berkeley, which is walking distance from the San Diego Convention Center in the gaslamp district. With its retro-hippie sign and reference to Berkeley California, I anticipated a place for vegan and gluten free pies, or quinoa pizza topped with free-range acai berries and amaranth sprouts. That impression was completely inaccurate. Instead, Berkeley offers Chicago-style deep dish pizza and a nice selection of craft beers. You won't quite think you are in Chicago, but this was a faithful rendition of a Chicago style pie.
Deep-dish slices at Berkeley, in San Diego CA
Berkeley Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

10. Coppa, Boston MA. Boston deserves, but does not always get, full recognition as a great legacy pizza city. Santarpio's, Regina, and some impressive upstarts like the impeccable pies at Picco. Just a few steps away from Picco is Coppa, a wonderfully cozy Italian restaurant on a quiet residential street. In addition to a wonderful salad, this was one of the best Neapolitan hybrids I've found anywhere. Ideal crust, balance, and bursting with complex flavors.
Margherita pizza at Coppa, Boston MA
Coppa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

9. Collegeville Pizzeria Napoletana, Collegeville PA. In the Philly area, lots of bakeries make a Philly style tomato pie, which is like a rectangular Sicilian pizza without the cheese and served at room temp. Many love it; I like it but think of it as pizza that needs cheese and a reheat. So I approached the Collegeville Bakery with some reservation. However, I found very good conventional round pizza and a wonderfully crunchy and airy thick-crust pan-baked Detroit style pie. This is the kind of place that locals cherish and the world ignores, but if you are within 100 miles, make the trip for this destination pie.
Collegeville's Detroit pizza
Collegeville Italian Bakery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

8. Conte's Pizza and Bar, Princeton NJ. In fact, I first experienced Conte's around 1980, but this was my first visit since beginning this blog in 2011. To my delight, I found the place unchanged. In the world of old-school pies, "pizza the way it used to be" is the holy grail. A thin and crisp crust hosted a lovely melding of red gravy and cheese into a perfect orange landscape.
Our Chinese visitors toured the University but Conte's was the highlight
Conte's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

7. Patsy's Pizzeria, East Harlem NY. It's always a delight when a legendary pizzeria deserves its reputation, as I found at Lombardi's, Regina, Frank Pepe's, and Totonno's. More than any other pie, Patsy's reminds me of the superb stuff I ate in the 1960s before pizza became a commodity.
A pepperoni pie at Patsy's in East Harlem
Patsy's Pizzeria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

6. The Copper Oven, Ovid NY. A serendipitous find, we stumbled into this lovely lakeside winery/eatery during a visit to the Finger Lakes region. We were stunned and delighted to find this remarkable pizza named for the oven in which it bakes. For all those places making soggy Neapolitans, take note; this rustic eatery is miles ahead of you. Spectacular amoeba-shaped pies, impeccably balanced and delectable.

The Copper Oven Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

5. Holy Tomato Pies, Blackwood NJ. Once you say the words "tomato pie," you have my attention. As it turns out, the fabulous thin crust pizzas here are not based on a Trenton tomato pie style, but they are remarkable on their own unique merits. Huge pizzas share characteristics of a Trenton tomato pie (including the Trenton cut) and a crackery bar pie. Funky decor, delectable salads, and small-town friendly service made this one of the best pizza experiences you'll find anywhere. 

First time I ever enjoyed a Buffalo chicken pizza
With my high school classmates at Holy Tomato Pies
Holy Tomato Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

4. Jerk Oceano, Lantana FL. Not far from the upscale towns of Boca Raton and Delray beach, a small restaurant with a limited menu of daily specials is making delicious seafood and - usually - pizza. It's a modern take on a classic thin crust pie, with some inventive toppings. This bar pie/Neapolitan hybrid not only rivals Scuola Vecchia for the best pizza in South Florida, it could contend for the best anywhere.

The "Basic" at Jerk Oceano
Pizzeria Oceano Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

3. Rize, Broomall PA. At the end of a sleepy strip mall in this town in Southeastern PA, Rize is a cozy spot where the husband and wife team of Jim and Julia offer slices of very good conventional pizza and spectacular Roman-style "al taglio" rectangles of thick-crust pan-baked pizza with sesame seeds on the bottom. "Rize" is a reference to how long the dough cures, and the crust here is other-worldly. Mix that in with some creative toppings (for example, fried chicken and maple syrup) and Rize may just be the best pizza you never heard of. Make the trip!
Jim and Julia of Rize Pizza

Sesame under the hood!
Rize Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

2. Al Forno, Providence RI. Another legend lives up to its reputation. Al Forno is credited with inventing the grilled pizza, and I can report that in 2016 they are executing that style at a high level. This pie was ideally balanced in textures and flavors. There was a bigger al dente chew than you'd expect, and it yields a very fulfilling pizza experience. Expensive and worth it.

1. Basic Urban Kitchen, San Diego CA. Who makes the best New Haven apizza? Frank Pepe, Sally's, Modern? Hard to believe, but the best New Haven apizza I've had was at Basic Urban Kitchen in San Diego. That's no knock on the wonderful pies in Connecticut, but the two pies we ate here were magnificent. Oversized ovals as you'd find at Sally's, but firmer and crisper and simply better. As with any pizza, the crust is the key, and this is as good as it gets. I've waited hours to get into places like DiFara and Pepe's and Regina, and it's been worth it. With that as perspective, you can imagine the delight of walking into this large and modern space, sitting down immediately, and begin sipping good beer waiting for this top-rank pizza. If you come to San Diego, this is a must-visit place. It's a contender for best pizza anywhere.
Sausage pizza at Basic
Half of our mashed potato pizza
Underneath that wonderful crust
Basic Urban Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato