(Photo by Kateri Likoudis)

It’s almost never enough to be talented. You also have to be lucky. Joe Cicala, chef of Le Virtù and chef/owner of our newly opened Brigantessa, had no idea how fortunate he was when, as a young student in Anne Arundel County (Maryland) Community College’s obscure but impressively progressive culinary program, he was chosen as a guinea pig for the school’s pilot project to study abroad in Italy. Joe was sent to Salerno, a town of around 140,000 in Campania, south of Napoli. To the east of the Amalfi coast, it faces the Tyrrhenian Sea with its back to the mountains, snow-capped for parts of the year. Regional parks lie to both its east and west.

“It was pretty much by chance where I ended up. They were matching several of us with chefs up and down the coast near Amalfi and, as Pietro had very little English and I had an Italian last name and had done Italian language study, they sent me to work with him.”

The Mentor

 

The “Pietro” in question was Pietro Rispoli (in blue above next to Joe on the left, with Joe’s dad on the far right), owner of the intimate and then Michelin-starred (Rispoli has since sold it) Al Cenacolo, in the heart of Salerno’s old town, near the Duomo. Al Cenacolo was no common trattoria - and I mean no insult to trattorie (there is sometimes nothing so perfect, so wonderful or life-affirming as a well-run, basic trattoria). Al Cenacolo was an intimate, simple but elegant 30-seat ristorante that never did more than one turn per evening and, depending on Pietro’s mood and what was on the menu (which changed constantly according to what he found in the market), sometimes started turning customers away once there were twenty covers in the books. The kitchen had three permanent members: Pietro, his mother and their 50 year-old sous chef. Joe walked in as the fourth. Standards were high and Joe would have to earn every job he was given, no matter now menial. All foreigners are, to an extent, culinarily disparaged in Italy and Italian-Americans, with their own (in the view of native Italians) bastardized version of the traditional cucina, were especially suspect. It’s not quite France - with comical assumptions of superiority and, often, institutionalized hazing - but Italy has its own tradition of rompere le palle (“breaking balls”).

Initially, Joe was relegated to prep, cold dishes and basic tasks during service.

But he approached his work with enthusiasm, showed interest in not only the food - the origins behind certain dishes, where the ingredients came from, how they were chosen - but the broader local culture. With the help of Pietro’s daughters, both near Joe’s age, he integrated himself into the local scene, adopting local customs, adjusting to local rhythms and making friends.

“The 50 euro I made each week I pretty much blew in local bars and trattorie and on day trips to the towns along the Amalfi coast, Paestum and Napoli.” But mostly Joe put his head down and worked hard at Al Cenacolo, asking questions and taking initiative when he saw an opportunity.

His enthusiasm didn’t go unnoticed, and Pietro developed a strong attachment to Joe. “Pietro didn’t have a son and I was the perfect age, and there seemed so much he wanted to show and teach me, given that my passions pretty much mirrored his own. He started taking me out to places to show me where it all came from, how everything was made. It was amazing, standing on the beach at 5am staring at an empty sea when suddenly all the fishing boats started to return, loaded with their hauls. Fish everywhere and Pietro inspecting everything. He took me to his favorite bakeries for bread, to where they made the best sfogliatelle, and we’d watch the whole process.”

Joe had found his mentor. Rispoli’s philosophy, particular obsession with regionalism, traditional dishes and the local provenance of ingredients made deep impressions on Joe, though it would be a while before he could put them into action as an executive chef.

“Pietro’s cucina was 100% ‘Salernitana.’ He might tweak a dish, of course. The cooking at Al Cenacolo raised the level of even the most basic recipe and his plating was creative, but beyond that it was all about regional tradition and the ingredients. Which, in a nutshell, is pretty much the basis for the best and particularly southern [Italian] cooking. Get good local ingredients and respect them. Don’t overmanipulate them. Let their natural properties shine.”

As Pietro’s faith in his student grew, Joe was allowed to move up the cooking line, eventually shadowing on the restaurant’s all-important pasta station. A long stay, maybe even a career in Italy, looked possible but during a visit to Italy Joe’s mother broke the news that she had breast cancer (which she has since survived), so he returned home. Searching around for a good position and no longer in the community college program, he leaned on its Italian program’s Chef Instructor to help him find a job that would advance his career. And so Joe found himself at Rudys’ 2900 in Finksburg, MD, just outside of Baltimore.

Major Changes, Different Roads

It would be hard to imagine a place more unlike Al Cenacolo than Rudys’ 2900. Named after Chef Rudy Speckamp and maitre d’ Rudi Paul, Rudys’ was a continental-style landmark where cooking and kitchen organization were heavily influenced by the famous French Escoffier system. The decor was - to Joe’s tastes - heavy, and a stifling air of formality hung in the place like mustard gas in a WWI trench. But Rudolph “Rudy” Speckamp was one hell of a chef and ran a tight ship. He was one of only a few dozen recognized Certified Master Chefs in the U.S. when Joe signed on. He’d been a member of the the U.S. team that had medaled at the ’88 Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt. French-inspired technique and (compared to southern Italian philosophy) complex preparations were the rule. Military-like discipline (Escoffier himself had been a veteran of the French army), including imaginative punishments, predominated. As a fledgling cook, Joe was forced to clean the insides of trash dumpsters with a kitchen brush until they gleamed. He and a few other cooks were once invited back to Speckamp’s home for a party. We they arrived, they were given chef coats and told they’d be working, not attending the party as guests. They even had to handle the post-party cleanup - without pay. Joe and his compatriots sometimes found themselves doing tile work at the restaurant. Once, they spent an entire evening, post-shift, repainting the kitchen ceiling (as it turned out, Speckamp had the place on the market and was looking to increase its value).

“I did learn a lot about sauces, reductions, braising and roasting meats…Pietro’s place, right on the sea, was about seafood, so this was a change and good experience. Not a lot of the stuff I learned was completely applicable to Italian food tradition but it was good to have in your arsenal, something to pull from the back pocket. It was core stuff, the stuff they teach at CIA.”

Joe never enjoyed anything like the rapport he’d had with Rispoli with Speckamp, who, according to Joe, “didn’t seem to like Italians. At least not me, anyway.” Joe’s patience eventually broke, along with his arm. Speckhamp held an annual CMC (Certified Master Chef) dinner at Rudys’, a ten-course feast with a different master chef handling each course. Each Master Chef had a staff member assigned to him as a personal assistant for the evening. Each assistant earned a cash bonus for the night - no small deal given the low shift wages Speckhamp paid (at Rudys’, as in many places then and now, aspiring chefs work for the experience and to build their resumes; the presumption being that, somewhere down the line, they will make their money). At the end of the night, when Rudy got to Joe, the guy with the shortest tenure and the lowest man on the totem pole, he denied him the bonus. Confronted with several options, Joe chose the freezer (wrong choice), which, though dented, fared better than his arm.

The next stop was one of the most heralded Italian restaurants in the United States, James Beard winner Roberto Donna’s Galileo in Washington, D.C. Donna, from Piemonte, was a culinary genius who’d created one of the most buzz-worthy spots in the capital dedicated to northern Italian cuisine.

“The restaurant itself was beautiful. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back it looked like a Piemontese restaurant. The colors, the arches, table cloths, the grissini. And in the center of the room was the glass-enclosed laboratorio (laboratory) with the French flat-tops and copper pans, Donna’s tasting menu restaurant within a restaurant. He’d won the Beard the year before I arrived, so the place was still riding high, Italian cuisine, very northern. Not specifically Piemontese, but stuff from the North… Piemonte, Emilia Romagna, Lombardia, Liguria. I was the only staff member with any real experience in Italy, so maybe a little cocky, but like Rudys’ this was more technique than ingredient-driven, with a French influence. A real contrast to Pietro’s. But Rudys’ had given me a grounding in French cuisine and they were using similar techniques at Galileo. Compared to Salerno, the ingredients were heartier and richer. More meats, truffles. Super aromatics. Fish made with butter, which is something you don’t do in the South. It was a top-tier D.C. restaurant so lots of luxury items like caviar, l’angostino…”

Joe started off as a day cook but earned his way onto the evening staff, eventually helming the risotto and pasta stations. “The risottos were made to order. And this was the first time I got to make pasta at a high volume. I learned a lot about properly dressing the pastas, making emulsifications in the pan.”

Joe’s fast rise within the company, however, was short-circuited by Donna’s business practices. While a genius in the kitchen, Donna didn’t manage the books so well (and, believe us, we do not judge). Joe thinks that it might have been on his very first day that Galileo filed for Chapter 11. Paychecks, when they came, started to bounce. So, eventually, did Joe.

There were brief stints at other joints. Mostly notably Joe learmed how to handle major volume at Georgetown’s Cafe Milano, where Abruzzese chef Fabio Salvatore taught him a few tricks and first spoke to him about Abruzzo. A year in New York at Mario Batali’s and Joe Bastianich’s Del Posto (under another Beard winning chef Mark Ladner) where Joe worked mainly as a day cook while living on a friend’s couch, taught him some hard lessons in work ethic, humility and attention to detail. But even Del Posto gravitated toward the French brigade system and Joe missed the feeling of team and family that had predominated at Al Cenacolo, the soul of a small Italian kitchen, but which seemed hard to find in the States. He was also thinking about maybe running his own place.

Discovering Abruzzo, Back to Basics

Photos by Kateri Likoudis

And then we came calling from Philadelphia. At the time, Joe was helping to open a place in northern Virginia. Though a native-born Sicilian owner was at the helm, he was forcing Joe to make Italian-American staples, stuff Joe’d grown up eating but, he knew, were not part of Italy’s authentic table. So, when he saw our ad looking for a chef with actual Italian experience to execute a rustic menu dedicated to the region of Abruzzo, he responded - though he was skeptical.

“Until I met you guys, no one in the States had ever talked with me about really wanting to recreate and honor the simplicity of rustic Italian cooking. Without dressing it up somehow, changing it to conform to or anticipate American expectations. Fresh from my experience in Virginia, I was also honestly thinking that, ‘Hey, if these guys are serious, I’ll never have to make veal parm again.'”

Looming at the negotiation table (covered with Vietnamese coffees at a South Philly restaurant) was Joe’s lack of knowledge of and experience in Abruzzo. Chef Fabio at Cafe Milano had wistfully told him of his hometown, Casalincontrada, a small village in the shadow of the Majella mountain, and had shown him a couple of dishes, but that was it. So Joe first began by forensically recreating the menu we’d been serving before his arrival (we opened in October 2007 and Joe arrived in August 2010). He also read all he could and, at the first opportunity, we sent him to Abruzzo to see and taste firsthand.

Beyond the stunning beauty of the region, the drama of its landscape, Joe was drawn immediately to the simplicity of the cucina Abruzzese. The same ethos, but with a different, more expanded choice of ingredients than he’d found in Salerno. Abruzzo is on the Adriatic Sea but also includes the highest ranges of the Apennines; it shares geographical latitude with parts of Tuscany and Umbria, so produces abundant black and white truffles, cured meats similar to those found in Norcia, the best lamb in Italy, superior sheep’s-milk cheeses, lentils, etc. The Navelli plain, in the province of L’Aquila, produces what some believe to be the best saffron in Europe. And after 1000+ years as the northernmost part of various southern kingdoms (of Naples or of the “Two Sicilies,” depending on the period), it shared ingredients common throughout the south: tomatoes, chili, spices, mozzarella, caciocavallo, etc. It was kind of a crossroads between southern and central Italian cooking and a sweet spot for an aspiring chef.

Joe visited (and continues to visit) Abruzzo often, sometimes with us in tow. He rolled up his sleeves in a few kitchens (notably to learn how to make the single-strand maccheroni alla mugnaia that is a staple of our menu), observed some dishes being made, talked with every manner of cook, from nonne (grandmothers) in their home kitchens to guys pushing the boundaries of regional cooking in some of Abruzzo’s most ambitious and celebrated ristoranti. The idea of dedicating himself to one region, in some ways, focused and liberated his talents.

“I’ve come to really not like the idea of ‘pan-Italian’ restaurants. When I go out, I don’t want ‘Italian.’ I’m looking for Abruzzese, Siciliana, Pugliese, Emiliana [cooking]. The cuisines are all so different and we should be highlighting and celebrating that. And having this solid idea of Abruzzo, what the food is like, the ingredients, gives me a foundation from which I can experiment a little, play with local ingredients and apply Abruzzese style and cooking methods to them. Because, as Pietro taught me, that’s really the point. Use the best local ingredients you can find, respect them and allow them each to shine in a dish. We bring in some amazing ingredients from Abruzzo like cheeses from small farms, saffron and olive oils. We can and do make many dishes just as you would in Abruzzo, but we’re not in the Apennine mountains or on the Adriatic. There are all these amazing farms in Lancaster and Berks counties, other parts of Pennsylvania and Jersey producing great stuff, so it just requires a little imagination to make their stuff fit into the cucina Abruzzese.”

Back to His Roots

Brigantessa offers Joe (and us, too) the unique chance to explore southern cuisine beyond Abruzzo. The range, taking in the South’s other six regions (Molise, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania and Sicilia) is a lot broader than at Le Virtù. It was compelling in part because the cuisine of the South, from Abruzzo to Calabria, gets so little play and respect throughout much of America. And it’s from that area that over 80% of Italian-Americans trace their roots, including much of South Philly. The economic poverty of the immigrants and the regions they reluctantly fled, the comparative wealth and luxury of the north created a stigma from which both Italian-Americans and South Italy still suffer. Brigantessa, in some small way, wants to turn that idea around.

“The influences in southern cuisine reflect the cultures that, at different times, dominated the South: Arab, Turkish, Albanian, Greek, Byzantine, French, Spanish, whatever. This is a rich mix of cultures and I don’t think many places are trying to exploit that.”

And Brigantessa brings Joe back, almost full circle, to his cooking roots in Campania (Joe’s familial chain leads back to Sicily and Basilicata). Last Spring, Joe traveled to Napoli to attend the city’s pizza-making academy, run by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (AVPN; Brigantessa hopes to be the first Philadelphia establishment to earn AVPN certification). It was serious business and Joe worked hard (finishing first in his class!), but it was also very nostalgic.

“My dad and I had had a pizza obsession all our lives, but it was mostly Sicilian-style stuff or the great but greasy pies we’d get at the Jersery shore. During one of my free days in Salerno, I went, on the advice of one of my friends, to Pizzeria Da Michele, not far from the train station. And that first bite, it was like a revelation, an epiphany. I got it. This is what pizza is supposed to taste like! One of those life-changing moments, like having a great steak cooked rare for the first time! Like, what else have I been missing?”

The wood-fired Gianni Acunto oven, handmade in Napoli and mortared with ash from Vesuvius that dominates Brigantessa’s first floor, is testimony to Joe’s passion. And it’s his baby. The dough is mixed by hand from Neapolitan flour, the mozzarella either di Bufala imported from Caserta, Campania or fior di latte made in-house from local curds from Caputo Brothers Creamery, the tomatoes San Marzano or, even better, Piennolo (like San Marzano, grown on the volcanic slopes of Vesuvius, but closer to the sea, so they have a natural salinity unlike any other tomato in the world).

The rest of the menu - from simple Neapolitan fried street foods like pizza fritta (fried dough) and the mixed fish fry to pappardelle made from black Pugliese chick peas and dressed in whey-braised lamb to wood-fired grilled hanger steak with oven roasted tomato coulis and Sicilian pesto - explores a wide range of southern flavors. But Joe’s not satisfied.

“We’re a young restaurant, just out of the gate. There’s so much I want to add to this place. Breads, expanded curing programs, different flavors from Sicily and Puglia. We’re nowhere near our real potential. It will take a little time.”

A couple weeks back at Le Virtù, Joe and Sous Chef Brandon Howard were handling our annual Abruzzese Panarda, a traditional 40-dish feast that lasts about ten hours and allows us to dig deeply into Abruzzese tradition. During a lull, one of the northern Italian-born wine reps pulled Joe aside to ask him about Brigantessa. The name Brigantessa, referring to one of the female guerilla fighters who resisted northern occupation in the 1860s, didn’t faze him all that much. We’d joked with him many times about things North and South. But the idea of a chef, and an accomplished chef at that, dedicating even a part of his time to perfecting pizza baffled him. “That’s usually where you start. Most chefs would find it beneath them.”

Joe listened and smiled.