In the early-morning hours when Michael Vincent Ferreri arrives at Irwin’s to roll pasta for the day’s meals, long after the previous night’s revelers have left the terraces of the BOK building and are still sleeping off their amari-kissed cocktails and platters of fritto misto, the chef often gazes over the city from his lofty new perch and shakes his head in wonder.
“It’s not as picturesque as the Mediterranean or the rolling hills of Sicily, but it’s insanely beautiful in a very Philly way,” he says with admiration of the South Philadelphia landscape of rowhouses, stadiums, and congested highways visible from the patio there eight floors up. “It’s so quiet, it’s ethereal; there’s a stillness to it — even if I know there’s so much really happening down there.”
Ferreri would know. It wasn’t so long ago that he, too, was an earthbound chef jamming noisy crowds into the tiny box of a BYOB that was Res Ipsa, its 26 seats a coveted destination for hand-pinched trofie spirals in minty pistachio pesto and a chicken agrodolce that was among of the city’s best roasted birds.
But Res Ipsa was one of the many sad casualties of the pandemic. So Ferreri spent the year recovering from the burnout of 80-hour weeks, cooking the occasional fund-raiser meal, and reassessing until he ran into BOK developer Lindsey Scannapieco and they began brainstorming a reimagination of Irwin’s, which had modest success as a destination for cocktails and Mediterranean nibbles, a laid-back, sit-down sibling to the raucous BOK Bar across the hall occupying the building’s north terrace.
First came a trial daytime service with sandwiches targeted to the hundreds of people who still work inside this massive former vocational school turned creative maker hub in South Philadelphia. But soon, the next logical question: Why not take over Irwin’s altogether and revive it as a full-time dinner space?
For Ferreri, 35, a Zeppoli and Zahav alum who was ready to spread his wings (he was chef at Res Ipsa, but not a partner), the chance to open a full-service restaurant with a liquor license in a larger space (with 60 indoor seats and 30 outside) was a golden opportunity.
With the confluence of fresh talent, locale, and one of the most distinctive and edgy dining rooms in Philadelphia — its former nursing classroom walls still tagged with graffiti, the bathroom wallpapered with yearbook pages of classes gone by, and, of course, that stellar view — the new Irwin’s is a magnetic destination.
It was clear from my first bite of a gently warmed Castelvetrano olives marinated in citrus and roasted garlic ash, washed down with a Zio Ubriaco cocktail and a summer breeze whistling through the patio’s open French doors, that I’d want to linger here.
And it was such a joy to taste Ferreri’s cooking again, “modern Sicilian” in its inspiration but shaped by local seasonality and the subtle touches of someone who grew up the son of two chefs. (His late father’s chef coat hangs over the bar as a tribute).
No one will reveal the secret of his family’s perfect caponata, not even lead server, Sarah Durfee, a Ferreri cousin who is named for their Sicilian great-grandmother, Sarah Ferreri, credited with the birthright dish. But the chef confirms for me there is no formal recipe so much as spontaneous intuition — in the luscious softness of the fried eggplant chunks; in the fine-tuned color balance that comes from the right mix of caramelized tomato sauce, cocoa, golden raisins, and vinegar; in the layer of chopped fennel fronds that covers the still-warm dish as it cools and infuses its condensing steam.
Few chefs in town are as artful in their treatment of produce. Even the mixed green salad should not be ignored, as Ferreri and his longtime chef-de-cuisine, Ervis Kulloli, layer flavors by charring croutons dabbed with salsa verde and grilling the lemon for its anchovy-Fiore Sardo dressing. But there will be no overlooking the stunning cucumber salad. This two-tone pillar of diced cukes and marble-sized scoops of sweet watermelon rises over grilled cucumbers and pickled watermelon rinds tossed with spicy yogurt sauce and black olive caramel. Cucumber juice and arugula oil pool around it like an emerald moat.
Choose one of the dozen biodynamic wines by the glass to accompany that dish, like the golden grillo from Mary Taylor produced by the Sala sisters in Western Sicily. Its saline notes also make a fantastic pairing with the octopus, whose tender chunks poached with star anise take on a crisp from the grill and a citrusy salsa verde amped with extra mint and oregano.
Any of the other affordable whites — a Piedmontese sauvignon or a bone-dry German Müller-Thurgau from Weingut Schlossmuhlenhof — are smart matches for the glorious fritto misto, a platter of fried head-on shrimp, branzino, zucchini and Jimmy Nardello peppers all so perfectly crisped that even the fried lemon wheels are irresistible.
The fritto misto’s dredge of cornstarch and rice flour happens to be gluten-free, like most of the menu beyond the pastas. But Ferreri’s pastas should not be missed. The handmade varieties are notable for their chewy textures, especially the squiggly spirals of trofie or the dimpled gnocchi sardi rounds in chile-flecked tomato-eggplant ragù.
But great pasta cookery involves more than just fresh noodle work. Ferreri’s spaghetti alle vongole, with dried pasta remains one of my favorites of the genre, with every dish cooked to order, the cockles bringing all their briny liquor to the lemony wine broth, and parsley added in three waves for depth and freshness.
The service team is on point at Irwin’s, casual, welcoming, well-informed and attentive. Hostess Caitlin Dagle even had cold glasses of water waiting for me and my stairs-loving wife when we arrived after the eight-floor climb. (The elevators are crowded but work fine.) Wine director Noah Burke is persuasive and passionate about his small list. (”The sparkling barbera rosé has a ton of fresh tomato ... on the palate!”)
Ferreri’s food is a natural for wine pairings, and I’m glad his crew finally has the opportunity to make a match for entrees like the grilled whole dorade, which has a more oceanic savor than mild branzino, and was boosted by the salsa verde added to its interior, where the bones are removed for easy eating.
His signature agrodolce chicken is the one Irwin’s dish that could really use a red, its honeyed vinegar glaze and superbly juicy meat benefiting from rich dark fruit and bold acidity. The plum and spice notes of the Sicilian Nero d’Avola-Grillo from Dario Serrentino is my choice by the glass, or a bottle of the fascinating Melogna from Campania made from field blend of lesser-known native grapes like Piedirosso.
Even if I never tire of this chicken, especially with a side of crisp potatoes over garlic scape relish and creamy Fiore Sardo sauce, I’m looking forward to the day Ferreri expands the small menu beyond these two entrees. He’s smartly playing it safe with a limited staff by sticking to tried-and-true hits. But this chef has so much more to show us, and has plans to offer a more expansive tasting menu option than the current four-course version for $70 by the end of the year.
I tasted a glimmer of that creativity in the semifreddo, whose cream was infused with Averna, caramel, and fig leaves, their unexpected coconut-vanilla flavor suddenly trendy in Philly. With a lightly chilled glass of Caffo Vecchio Amaro del Capo from Irwin’s list of a dozen amari in hand to bring dessert home, we couldn’t help but wander onto Irwin’s light-strung terrace, gaze out across the seemingly serene city, and acknowledge that we’d just experienced something special.
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
BOK building, 1901 S. 9th St. (entrance at 800 Mifflin St.), Philadelphia, Pa. 19148, 215-693-6206; irwinsupstairs.com
IF YOU GO: Dinner Wednesday through Sunday, 5-10 p.m.
Reservations highly recommended, with maximum of six per party.
Entrees, $25-$45. Parties of five or more required to do multicourse chef’s tasting, $70 per person.
Free parking until 11:30 p.m. in Southwark School lot on 8th Street, just north of the BOK building.