Chef Joe Cicala’s backyard pizzeria was shut down Wednesday by the city, two weeks after he began turning out pies for an appreciative clientele from a wood-fired oven he built himself behind his South Philadelphia house.

But he has vowed to return.

He and his wife, Angela, said they had been selling pizzas to raise money for his 33 employees at Cicala at the Divine Lorraine, their new restaurant in the landmark building on North Broad Street. It has been closed since coronavirus restrictions were implemented in mid-March.

The couple had made no secret of this. It was the subject of an Inquirer article on May 11, and a feature on 6ABC a week later.

About 3 p.m., just as the first pizzas were coming out of the oven, city health inspectors accompanied by uniformed police officers walked down the alley and busted the operation, near 12th and Ritner Streets.

Joe Cicala with his handmade pizza oven.
Joe Cicala with his handmade pizza oven.

“We’re a speakeasy,” Joe Cicala said later, matter-of-fact, marveling at the city’s likening his operation to an unlicensed bar.

Health departments generally frown upon homemade food being offered commercially, even when the person preparing it has sanitation certification. Joe Cicala said the ingredients were prepped at his restaurant and the pizzas were baked in the oven.

A city spokesperson said the Health Department’s Office of Food Protection issued a cease-operations order. No fine or sanctions were imposed.

Cicala said he wanted to apply for a temporary food-service license using Cicala at the Divine Lorraine as a commissary kitchen, which would enable the couple to do 14 of these pop-ups each calendar year. But the Health Department has suspended the applications because of the coronavirus.

“We could wait for them to lift the restriction on new permits,” he said. “But we are looking at other options: block parties, private pizza classes … maybe renting a mobile oven and changing locations every week. Still unpacking this. But we’re going to find a way. This was way too much fun.”

Meanwhile, the Cicalas had to dispose of 150 pounds of oven-proofed dough, which was to yield 202 pizzas. Joe Cicala said his neighbors were disappointed when health officials said during the raid that the day’s pizzas could not even be given away. “They were ready to have a pizza party on their stoop,” he said.

Cicala also said he was planning on installing a pizza oven on the patio outside Cicala.