Joe Cicala was born in Washington, D.C. to Sicilian-American parents and raised in suburban Maryland. He honed his culinary skills at a small, family-owned restaurant in Salerno, on Italy’s Amalfi coast. Now, at age 30, Cicala runs the kitchen at Le Virtù, where he is cooking authentic Abruzzese cuisine—in a corner of South Philadelphia.
Somehow, it works. In the five years since it opened, Le Virtù has become a South Philly favorite in a neighborhood better known for “red sauce” Italian restaurants. (The name means “the virtues” and refers to a soup made in Abruzzo in early spring using the last of the legumes, grains and pasta left over from winter’s pantry.) Cicala, who was hired as executive chef 2 1/2 years ago, has made a name for himself not only by cooking food that hews as close as possible to the rustic dishes typical of Abruzzo—one of Italy’s less-traveled regions—but also with the growing variety of salumi (cured meats) that he started making shortly after he arrived.
“It’s become part of our identity,” says Cicala, who makes some 30 varieties of cured meats in the basement kitchen at the restaurant. The sausages, hams and other salumi, most modeled after those found in Abruzzo, are stored in a small climate-controlled room whose walls Cicala had washed with red wine (from Abruzzo) to promote bacteria for a proper cure.
Next month, Cicala will cook dinner for the second time at James Beard House in New York, a coveted gig among chefs. And he and Le Virtù owners Francis Cratil Cretarola and Catherine Lee have plans to open an enoteca that will serve wines from all over Italy, Italian and local craft beers and a generous selection of salumi, cheeses and other appetizers.
But it is the food of Abruzzo, a rugged region that extends from the southern portion of the Apennine mountain range to the Adriatic coast and is known for its rustic pastas, hearty country cooking and abundance of seafood, which is at the heart of the successful collaboration between Cretarola and Cicala. Among the signature dishes that the restaurant serves are scrippelle ‘mbusse, rolled crepes served in hot broth; and maccheroni alla mugnaia, an extraordinary pasta dish made by rolling and stretching pasta dough into a single loopy noodle that can extend to 30 feet or longer.
“Abruzzo changed the course we were on,” says Cretarola, whose family came from Castiglione Messr. Raimondo, a small hilltop town in the L’Aquila province of Abruzzo. He and Lee were working on a book about the region when they took a detour into the restaurant business. “We decided we wanted to make this jump.”
They have worked hard to give the restaurant the look and feel of a place that might exist in his family’s village. It is small and decidedly casual—terracotta floors, no tablecloths on the heavy wood tables and simply framed photos and Castelli ceramics on the walls.
Cicala was hired after the restaurant’s opening chef, who was from Abruzzo, decided to return to Italy. After his 2 1/2-year stint in Salerno, Cicala had cobbled together an impressive resume, including stints at Galileo and Café Milano, in Washington and at Del Posto in New York. He was working as the opening chef at Palio of Leesburg in Virginia when Cretarola, Lee and Cretarola’s brother, Fred, co-manager at Le Virtù, came to interview him and sample the food. Cicala is pretty sure it was his house-cured salumi that sealed the deal.
“That was key,” he says. Cretarola sent him to Abruzzo to learn the region’s cuisine and he felt right at home. “The more rustic the food, the happier I am with it,” says Cicala. “That’s the true Italy.”
In an interview, Cicala talked about his job as Le Virtù’s chef, his Sicilian-American heritage and what he’ll be cooking at Beard House.
AFR: Talk about the food of Abruzzo. What are its defining characteristics and how does it differ from the food of other regions of Italy?
JC: It’s a costal region but it’s also got the highest point of the Apennine Mountains. So there’s an unbelievable mix of cooking. In some ways it’s culturally southern so you see cheeses like mozzarella. But it’s also close to northern Italy, so you see truffles and porcini. It’s a crossroads of north and south. But what really drives the cuisine is the shepherding culture. It was one of poorest regions so you see a lot of creativity with few ingredients, like pasta made only with flour and water—no eggs. But then again you have luxurious ingredients like saffron and porcini. The food is very hearty and soulful. There’s a lot of game, which I like, and also a lot of legumes. It’s just a really great selection of ingredients.
AFR: Both your parents are of Sicilian descent. Tell us about the food you grew up eating at home.
JC: Our neighborhood had a mix of Irish Catholics, Jewish families and Protestant families. There weren’t other Italian-Americans so we didn’t have that influence. This had its benefits because my parents’ cooking stayed true to their Sicilian roots. For example, the pasta e fagioli I grew up with is nothing like the thick bean soups most people are familiar with.
It’s very brothy and it’s made with haricots verts, potatoes and capellini (angel hair pasta). It almost looks like pho. I ate that once a week my entire life while I was growing up. People think of Sicilian cooking as heavy but Sicily’s an island and so it’s all coastal cuisine. Lots of lots of fish and seafood, especially octopus, and when you get inland, lamb. And of course desserts made with citrus and nuts—almonds and pistachios. Sicily is the best Italian region for desserts.
AFR: What made you decide to become a chef?
JC: It started with my mother, who had a midlife crisis, quit her job and went to culinary school. I was playing junior-league hockey and my contract was dropped. So I started waiting tables and also helping my mom, who had started a catering business. We had grown up cooking at home so it was something that came naturally to me. I went to the hotel and restaurant management program at Ann Arundel Community College, and ending up doing a culinary apprenticeship, which is when I went to Salerno. The restaurant I was sent to was a tiny place with just 30 seats. The mother and I were the only ones in the kitchen. I was 18 years old with no debt and no kids. I got paid 50 euros a week, which by the way went straight to the bar. But it was a great experience. When I came back I started working with people like Roberto Donna at Galileo, Fabio Salvatore at Café Milano and Mark Ladner at Del Posto.
AFR: Next month you’ll be cooking your second dinner at Beard House. What’s on the menu?
JC: We’re going to focus on the province of L’Aquila. There’s going to be a cocktail hour where I’ll be doing some small rustic plates—salumi affettati (sliced salumi), lardo crostini (toasts topped with fatty prosciutto), smoked gnocchi with lamb ragù on little spoons and sausage and polenta. Then I’m going to do a chickpea, chestnut and farro soup, and taccozzelle (pasta) with porcini, truffles, sausage and saffron from the Navelli plain. And arrosticini (grilled lamb skewers)—that’s a must. Plus rabbit porchetta style with lentils from Santo Stefano di Sessanio, and for dessert a star anise semifreddo with pears poached in Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and toasted pine nuts.
AFR: Now you’ve made us hungry. Thanks for sharing your story, Chef.
Joe Cicala, executive chef at Le Virtu, in South Philadelphia, grew up eating this simple but nourishing soup, a recipe passed down to his mother from his Sicilian grandmother. It is different than classic southern Italian pasta and bean soups, which are usually thick and feature dried beans, short sturdy pasta and tomatoes. By contrast, this version contains green beans and thin, delicate capellini noodles, cooked gently in chicken broth. While unusual, Cicala says this version of pasta e fagioli makes sense in the part of Sicily his family is from. "There are a lot of last names in that area that trace back to northern Italy and southern France. My last name has roots in Genoa, where the dish most commonly served with pasta with pesto Genovese is a salad of green beans and potatoes. One can assume that this soup has evolved from that dish." According to Cicala, the green beans and long noodles should be cooked whole, but if you are the practical sort (and want to prevent noodles from sliding off your spoon) you can cut the beans into bite-sized pieces and break the noodles in half or in thirds.
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
- 1 potato, peeled & diced (about 8 ounces)
- 5 ounces haricots verts or baby green beans, left whole or cut in half
- 4 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
- 2 1/2 to 3 ounces capellini, left whole or broken into thirds
- 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Best-quality extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
In a cold 2-quart saucepan, place olive oil and garlic. Set over medium-low heat and cook until garlic is just beginning to brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in potato and beans. Cook, stirring, until beans are beginning to soften, about 10 minutes.
Stir in broth and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, reduce to medium-low and simmer gently until potatoes and beans are completely tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Raise heat to medium-high and add noodles (use smaller amount for a brothy soup, larger amount for a thick soup). Reduce heat to medium-low and cook at a gentle simmer until noodles are tender, 5 to 7 minutes.
Ladle hot soup into bowls and garnish each serving with a drizzle of good olive oil.