Joe Cicala Talks Brigantessa, Coming to East Passyunk

By Danya Henninger  |  November 26, 2013
Credit: Danya Henninger

In 2014, Joe Cicala will make the leap from chef to restaurateur. Along with Le Virtu owners Cathy Lee and Francis Cratil Cretarola, he’s launching Brigantessa, a combination pizzeria/enoteca/birreria serving simple, rustic dishes from all over Italy. The Insider broke news of the name and location for the long-rumored venture; it will land at 1520 East Passyunk, right near the singing fountain.

We caught up with Cicala to chat about how the project came into being and get a few details on what to look forward to when Brigantessa opens next summer.

Zagat: Whose idea was it to open this new restaurant?
Joe Cicala: This is my baby. I’ve always wanted to do a restaurant centered around a brick oven. I’ve traveled a lot through Italy, and the wood-fired oven is the center, it’s the key that makes the best food and drink spots so wonderful. There are also several U.S. restaurants I really respect that are built around a brick oven, like Flour + Water and A16 in San Francisco, and even 2 Amys pizzeria in DC - I used to go all the time when I lived there.

Zagat: When did you start planning this - what was the timeline?
JC: Francis and Cathy and I have had the concept ready for over a year, we were just searching for the right property. Then, over the summer, the folks from PARC (Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation) came to us and offered this location. But we couldn’t let anyone know, because there’s a restaurant already operating there! [Karina’s will stay open through February, and then possibly be relocated elsewhere in the neighborhood, per The Insider.]

Zagat: How will the food at Brigantessa be different from what you do at Le Virtu?
JC: At Le Virtu, we do strictly Abruzzese cuisine. This is a chance for me to get outside of Abruzzo, to play with flavors and food from all regions of Italy. We’ve been joking that we’re going to treat the brick oven like the world’s biggest microwave - everything tastes better with a bit of smoke and crispiness.

Zagat: What foods are you most excited to start making?
JC: Pizza! I’m pretty passionate about pizza. I like pizza more than I like most people. Seriously, I’ve wanted to do a traditional Neapolitan pizzeria for years. When I first moved to Philly around five years ago, I remember thinking, “There’s no Neapolitan pizza in this town.” Of course, then Nomad opened, and then Pizzeria Vetri, and there are others.

Zagat: Are you going for really traditional Neapolitan pies?
JC: Definitely. I’m going to try to get the place certified by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana. That means I’ll be using certain specific ingredients. I’m probably going to split the pizza menu into two parts, one that’s entirely classic, and then a section that lets me play with more interesting toppings.

Zagat: To be certified you also have to use only wood in your oven, right?
JC: Yes, wood-fired only. We’re having the oven made by Gianni Acunto, in Naples - it’s going to be built with bricks from the ash of Mt. Vesuvio! They’re great at retaining heat. It’ll take two weeks for it to get built, then another month on a ship across the ocean, then probably another two weeks in customs.

Zagat: Aside from pizza, what can we expect?
JC: We’ll do roasted meats and fish from the oven, maybe served in little ceramic dishes. Other than the brick oven, though, the other major focal point will be the bar, where we’ll have pre-made antipasti, sitting out at room temperature like is common in Italy. We’ll also have cheeses and cured meats, a mix of housemade and imported stuff. I’m getting a vintage Berkel slicer, and we’ll sell the meat by weight - by the etto, which is 100 grams, or the half-etto.

Zagat: Do you have plans for the drinks yet?
JC: We’ll have a very large Italian wine list - at Le Virtu we stay within the Abruzzo region, but here we’ll pull from all over. And also a lot of local and Italian craft beer. We want people to come in and try a great glass of something they’ve never had before.

Zagat: Have you thought about price point?
JC: We really want to keep it simple and affordable - probably around $3-$8 for appetizer plates. The pizza will be on par with the prices you see around the city. It’s a craft product, with really quality ingredients.

Zagat: What are plans for the decor and how many seats will you have?
JC: We’re looking at around 75 seats, including about 17 at the bar. There’s also a back patio space, above the kitchen. And if we get permission, we’d love to have a few sidewalk seats too. We haven’t contracted with any design firms for the interior yet, but we know we want to keep it casual. We’re working on coming up with a way to make it obvious that it’s related to Le Virtu, in the same family, but make it distinctive.

Zagat: Are you planning to open only for dinner, or will you do daytime service?
JC: At first, definitely dinner only, but once we get going I’d like to do brunch. I’m also going to explore the possibility of serving lunch. The location is right on the fountain, and gets a lot more foot traffic than we do down the avenue at Le Virtu.