(Photos: Kateri Likoudis)

Many of you know that my wife (Cathy Lee) and I (Francis Cratil Cretarola), own and operate two Italian restaurants on East Passyunk Avenue (on the most recent of the two, Brigantessa, Chef Joe Cicala is a partner, but he’s a lot more than that in everything we do).

Where Cathy and I are concerned, no one asked us to leave behind our former lives (in the arts and publishing) and dedicate ourselves - first at Le Virtù and now Brigantessa - to honoring and promoting the rustic traditions of southern Italy. We had (have?) no business getting into the game, our backgrounds were (are?) as bereft of culinary business experience as any other insufferable neophyte’s. So, at the beginning of this blog - which will be dedicated to the traditions of the regions we honor and the peculiarities of operating two American joints so dedicated to traditions that are often unknown, misunderstood and serially disparaged - I give you that. We chose this path and have no one to blame for our decision. If I whine, I deserve reprobation. But I also don’t suffer snark, the slothful dismissals that betray a lack of consideration, contemplation and empathy. Cool?

Abruzzo changes our road

But there was something in Abruzzo, and later throughout South Italy (I will use this designation repeatedly: Italy’s south is less geographical than cultural and, unlike the rest of the peninsula, was ruled as essentially one entity for around 1000 years before its subjugation to the North) that inspired us and literally breathed life into a part of us. I hope to speak frankly here, to break down the walls between restaurateurs and guests, air legitimate concerns, learn from those with better or different perspectives and, hopefully, encourage the communal, convivial sense of dining - the soul of it - that informs what we find in the South and inspired us to make our unconventional jump. And I hope it will be fun and informative for all of us. I don’t swim well in the realms of Twitter and other limited means of communication, though I value them and see their usefulness. But there’s something to be said for occasionally putting stuff aside and bearing down on one subject. This will be about getting down to deeper issues, I hope. That and maccheroni, pizza, vino and birra. Which is all deep stuff, indeed.

Our commitment to both places has been informed by the idea that honoring tradition (though - obviously removed from specific Italian geography and with the understanding that the kitchen is not a museum - not being hidebound to it) would steer us on the right course, prevent self-absorbed excess and navel gazing and help promote what was to us essential and restorative about South Italy’s cuisine (and this could be said also of the entire peninsula, where we’ve traveled, but it is more to the “bone” in the south…the bone; you have to go to understand). Chef Cicala has been the perfect partner in our mission. His food is not about him, it’s about what has inspired him, proved substantive and restorative and, in this day and age, represents sustainability. This is not to say that Joe operates with creative manacles on. Far from it: his passion and imagination inform all he does. For us it’s been a perfect symbiosis.

Bringing “cucina povera” to so-called “fine dining”

Recreating and reinterpreting the rustic traditions of parts of Italy’s poorer regions presents a great many attending ironies. It’s more expensive to do here. You can’t swing an Appenine wolf by the tail in Abruzzo without coming in contact with natural and/or organic products, for example (the wolves are also protected, so it would also be illegal - and rude - to do this). They’re ubiquitous. The farther away one gets from mass production, farming and tourism, in fact, the more this truth pervades. As a result, their price isn’t exaggerated. Here, procuring the kind of ingredients that taste good, are responsibly and ethically produced and sustainable…well, that requires some dough. They come to us from remote parts of Italy and some of the best farms in Pennsylvania - places that don’t spare the expense to do things correctly. We understand and are somewhat pained by the irony of proffering la cucina povera and Neapolitan street foods at a certain cost. For now, given our predominant consumer and farming cultures, it’s inevitable. And no, our costs are not lower because we’re based in South Philly (which used to come up often at Le Virtù, and from some surprising sources, and is again a hot topic at Brigantessa). We want to offer food that honors our regions of focus (and Abruzzo might be the most “green” in all of Europe, made up of over 30% parkland), makes us proud, respects and supports sustainable and responsible farming (both here and in Italy). But we think daily about the hard-earned dough people spend with us, what it represents, and we are humbled. Truthfully. I think everyday about my immigrant Abruzzese grandfather - who came here with the proverbial nothing and never, ever dined out - and measure our success and/or failure by what I imagine his well-articulated egalitarian pronouncements (in several languages) might have been. And man, was that guy tough.

Is there a place for tradition?

But let me end this first blog post with some thoughts on what began my thinking about it. When we first opened Le Virtù in 2007 on East Passyunk Ave., our singular focus was something of an anomaly in the neighborhood and many coming in to dine with us were dismayed by the lack of traditional Italian-American favorites (dishes I myself was raised on, still sometimes make at home and never, ever disparage). We explained that we’d decided to try to reintroduce a little of the original regional cuisine (whose initial spread here, like those of all Italian regions, was limited by lack of access to traditional ingredient pools; read Italian academic Simone Cinotto’s excellently researched book “The Italian American Table” if this interests you) back into what remains the number one city in the U.S. for the presence of native Abruzzesi and their descendents. Some people construed this as arrogance and snobbery and warned of our impending (and deserved) doom. I remember one guy, an Italian-American like myself, blurting out in dismay: “Not for nothing, but is there anything Italian on this menu?” But we stuck to our guns. When open-minded people did come in looking for Caesar salads, spaghetti and meatballs, veal parmigiana, etc. (and never run these down in my presence! If there’s a better European ethnically inspired cuisine indigenous to America, I’ve yet to find it), we happily offered recommendations and made reservations at our favorite local places. We were and are proud to be located in this historic neighborhood, where traditions have been kept alive due to great effort and pride. Gradually, this dynamic faded and we found our clientele and they us. It’s cool.

Of course, the same type of thing is now occasionally happening at Brigantessa. And some people are, to us, inexplicably offended by our focus on making only authentic pizza napoletana, and maybe moreso by our attempts to explain the tradition (which might be prideful, but also seems requisite given our desire to have our guests know what they are ordering and why we might make it that way). But we commissioned a hand-made oven from Napoli and imported it here and Joe - who first came to love this style of pizza while making his first real culinary bones at Pietro Rispoli’s Michelin-starred joint Al Cenacolo in Salerno, Campania - committed to studying at one of Napoli’s most distinguished academies to master the craft. We are proud of this, the oldest of Italy’s pizza traditions, and of course we want to explain it. If we started off too pedantic, well, that’s on me. I drilled this traditional stuff into our staff. But I don’t think that’s the crux of the issue. Some people want multiple sizes, personalized toppings, longer and different cooking methods. They don’t care about our interest in tradition, and that’s their right. Pointing out that many esteemed and excellent places already offer them these options seems only to stoke strange fires. This too shall pass.

Dining as a competitive sport?

But my final point ventures into the darker and, for me, sadder realm of our current food mania. And my example is basic. Cathy and I were sitting in the 13th-century village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio in Abruzzo’s high-mountain Gran Sasso national park. We were there visiting friends and delivering monies collected to help sustain pastoral traditions around the city of L’Aquila, where we once lived and which is now terribly compromised after a 2009 earthquake. I called my brother at Le Virtù to get a typical report on the nightly goings-on. “Everything’s great,” he began, “but a group of self-described ‘foodies’ said that, after reading such wonderful things about it, they were terribly disappointed by the lack of ‘wow factor’ in the scrippelle ‘mbusse soup. They were inconsolable.” Now, scrippelle ‘mbusse is a simple dish of pecorino, crepes and chicken stock. It is wholesome and demonstrates all the essentials of Italian cooking philosophy: a few simple, fresh, quality ingredients, well prepared to allow each to shine. This was one of the first dishes my family in Abruzzo made for me. It is still known in Le Virtù’s neighborhood and conjures much nostalgia. What did one expect from such a soup - whose ingredients were plainly described? Whence the need or expectation of “wow”? What about a reaction more basic, soulful, (dare I say) discerning? Between our menu’s housemade salumi, maccheroni spiced with garlic and hot pepper and taccozzelle pasta with Abruzzese saffron, black truffle, pork sausage and porcini and secondi such as porchetta-style rabbit was there no place for subtlety? Did every dish have to gob-smack? I remember sitting there in our medieval room in a funk (really, don’t underestimate how stuff like this can be crushing) until a cinematic snow began falling on the cobblestone alley beneath our window, and I remembered where I was and why. Thank you again, Abruzzo.

And what can be said for scrippelle ‘mbusse can be said for a great number of Italian rustic dishes, especially in South Italy. And this attends our thoughts at Brigantessa. Is there still room for dishes that present subtle or delicate flavors, that don’t overwhelm and obliterate all memory of every taste that’s come before (even during the same meal)? Is this competitive, ego-driven, sports-like spirit of one-upmanship and competitions’ dominance over culture, tradition, comfort, family, etc. (as seen in print and TV) going to continue to proliferate and predominate? And what does that mean for cuisine and what will our culinary landscape look like? We’ll stick to our guns; it’s what we do. But watching TV and reading comment threads often brings me to despair, which is a serious word I use sincerely.

But, before I end this post, let me add that our experiences with our customers have been overwhelmingly rewarding and positive. In fact, they’ve been life-changing and given us purpose, which is for many of us a tough thing to find. We’ve shared beautiful experiences, met wonderful people (from Philly, the rest of America, Abruzzo and all over the world) and - much of the time - entered into that pleasant, gilded glow that attends comity, mutual respect and genuine sharing that make dining what it should be. Our annual Panarda at Le Virtù, for example, a 40-course meal lasting about 10 hours, has been a miracle and a kind of oasis. There are no boundaries, just a family-like environment, conviviality, a sense of community and, of course, a whole lot of authentic foods and drink (and last year, the Eagles beat the Lions in the snow). Thank you all for that. Sincerely.

If this has all been too insufferable, well, then suffer me no more. But I appreciate and welcome the opportunity of real discussion.