A woman in Victorian dress moved through the lavish marble lobby of the refurbished Divine Lorraine two summers ago, and when the concierge greeted her, she supposedly vanished into thin air. More recently at the new Cicala restaurant in the building’s ground floor, a dozen wood salumi boards suddenly began swinging from their wall hooks as the wide-eyed morning prep cooks looked on. The mixer paddle went missing. There have been strange voices around the bar while closing at night. And one afternoon, some mysterious balls of light danced between the wine room and pastry station like headlights strafing the kitchen in the midday.
The stories are many. And if you believe in ghosts — like Angela Cicala now does — the 126-year-old Divine Lorraine may be a haunted hotel extraordinaire. It’s a 10-story storehouse of spirits that roam from its early life as a North Broad Street beacon of turn-of-the-century luxury to its post-Depression-era mission of feeding the poor and housing the religious cult of Father Divine. Its most recent transformation from years of vacancy into an upscale apartment complex viewed as an essential cornerstone of the corridor’s revival has done little to quell its spooky vibes.
Angela, who descends from superstitious Abruzzese nonnas, even lit sage near her pastry station to clear the air and attempt a chat: “If anyone’s in here, that’s fine because I’ve got to work — but I don’t want my food to be ruined!”
If you’ve had a chance yet to savor the pastry parade of her Piccola Pasticceria, a grand finale of tiny rum-soaked babas, chocolate-pistachio torrone, fresh cannoli, and anise-laced pizzelle served alongside her delicately fried caggonetti filled with chocolate-chestnut cream, you’ll know Angela’s prayers have been answered. A peppery, fruity scoop of her olive oil gelato? Check. Rosette-shaped bacio fritters pulled from her grandmother’s hand-iron then tiered-up with espresso ricotta? Double check.
If you’ve had a chance to also explore her husband Joe Cicala’s expertly-cured salumi, hand-rolled pastas, and coal-grilled meats inspired by Sicilian flavors, you’ll know mine have been answered, too. The restaurant this talented couple launched in November, nearly two-and-a-half years after leaving Le Virtù, is as beautiful as I might have hoped.
This isn’t the cozy rustic BYOB they initially thought they’d open when they left East Passyunk. Once they stepped inside these grand old bones, they channeled the original grandeur, whitewashing the brick walls once tagged with post-abandonment graffiti, preserving the original dark wood floors and steel beams, then softening the space with red velvet curtains, plush tufted chairs, and linens upon white linens. The 86-seat room, including 10 at the bar, is lit with a crystal chandelier glow one rarely finds anymore in new restaurants.
There’s a reason for that. It remains to be seen whether this embrace of retro finery is sustainable against the current trend toward more casual style. Even venerable Osteria across the street has slightly toned back prices to capture the theater crowd, routinely logging 200 diners in a 90-minute window before a show at the nearby Met.
But the Cicalas, who decorated the room with their ancestor photos and antique family furniture, are clearly old souls who cook from the heart. Their food resonates with tradition that speaks to their Southern Italian roots. The bread basket alone — filled with fennel-flecked taralli breadstick rings, Bari-style focaccia made from potatoes, and crusty black loaves baked from the smoky burnt grains of Pugliese Grano Arso flour — evoke a sense of place.
Cicala’s salumi easily ranks among the city’s finest, and is best experienced as the affetato misto, a spectacle of sliced meats and tiny side dishes of pickled vegetables that makes a generous table starter for $36. I could wax poetic over the dark rich wild boar salami, or the garlicky Calabrese soppressata, bay-scented capocollo, winter-spiced cotecchino or gossamer ribbons of fat-laced pancetta. But the 'Nduja is the true star, a spreadable spicy salami in a crock set over a votive flame that essentially warms into dippable pepperoni lava. The accompanying side dishes of pickled eggplants, giardiniera, marinated artichokes, and fried cherry pepper bombs stuffed with oil-poached tuna, were just as good.
But I also dream of other antipasti, like the luscious tuna carpaccio draped over milky hunks of buffalo mozzarella. Or the Sicilian eggplant balls dusted with juniper-smoked ricotta. Or the exceptional burrata, flown direct from Puglia and scattered with Trapanese sea salt, whose creamy stracciatella heart also has a distinctive fermented tang.
Silvery fillets of coal-grilled mackerel taste like the Mediterranean over a purple vinaigrette of prickly pear tinged with colaturra anchovy extract. Homey braised artichokes are refined to just the tender hearts, which bloom like bread crumb-dusted flowers over winter vegetable stew. Rustic Abruzzese lentil soup takes a luxury turn with shaved black truffles and grilled chestnuts that add smoky depth to broth that also gets a nutty shot of amaretto.
Cicala’s servers tend the table with a formal professionalism that suits the space but doesn’t feel overly stuffy. And Sicilian sommelier Angelo Secolo has done a fine job of curating the 185-label wine list with Southern pride, organizing the mostly Italian selection from South to North. There are bottles from great producers such as Sicily’s Arianna Occhipiniti and Morgante, Campania’s Feudi di San Gregorio, and others; while there are fine glass selections from Sardinia’s Argiolas, Siciliy’s Planeta — plus a notable roster of Italian craft beers — to match the menu’s bold flavors.
Cicala’s pastas certainly follow that zesty character, from the fazzoletti in earthy lamb ragù whose delicate noodle sheets are crimped with a vintage roller meant to evoke Sardinian lace, to the toothy paccheri tubes tossed in a lusty seafood ragù of scorpion fish made with tiny Piennelo del Vesuvio tomatoes. Marsala-splashed mushrooms and ricotta plump the tortelli dumplings that come topped with roasted chanterelles in thyme butter.
I would have loved gnocchi with truffles had its pork sausage garnish not been finished with an overly rich saffron cream sauce. And while the tagliatelle tossed with a blizzard of truffles in browned buffalo’s milk butter with sage was a tasty splurge at $45 (this menu’s priciest item), I did not prefer it to the $25 paglia e fieno special of green and white tagliatelle with soulful Bolognese.
Joe was reluctant to reprise the single-strand pasta called maccheroni alla mugnaia that he popularized at Le Virtù. But he gave in to the steady requests from patrons, and I’m glad he did. The hand-rolled ropes of thick spaghetti deliver a distinctively chewy satisfaction when shined with garlic oil and topped with the sun-dried crunch of crushed cruschi peppers.
While some of Cicala’s pastas could serve as a light entrée, the secondi are worth making room for. The juicy grilled swordfish over eggplant caponata reminded me in the best way of a long ago trip to Palermo. The Trapanese couscous, its grains scented with cinnamon and a tomatoey seafood broth aromatic with cumin, is a hearty nod to Tunisia’s influence on Southern Italy, topped with monkfish, mussels, and squid whose artfully scored tubes have the texture of a pine cone.
The lamb chops are among Cicala’s most striking dishes, the meaty pink chops glazed Sicilian-style with honey, Marsala, and orange — the restaurant’s neon logo is citrus — then posed over black-and-white Pugliese chickpeas beside a silky dollop of carrot puree.
Then again, Joe has transformed another reluctant menu addition, the filet mignon, into another head-turning show. The meat is lightly breaded with crushed taralli breadsticks then sent into the dining room atop a silver pedestal of smoldering herbs.
The dish is inspired by Davide Scabin, a Piedmontese chef Cicala admires, and makes for memorable tableside drama. But igniting the rosemary and sage is also, perhaps, Joe’s way of sending the Divine Lorraine’s spirits a regular offering of his respects: “It’s like a natural cleanse through the room every night,” jokes Angela.
One can only hope the well-fed ghosts of the Divine Lorraine approve.