Chefs Joe Cicala and Angela Ranalli-Cicala have taken the bold step of opening a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant off the beaten path, on the ground floor of the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street at Fairmount Avenue. It’s about two blocks from the Met in a fast-emerging slice of town where the Francisville, Spring Garden, and Poplar neighborhoods converge.
The couple — he’s a savory chef from suburban Washington, with specialties in pastas and salumi; she’s Bucks County- and South Jersey-raised, and focused on pastry — were the culinary team behind South Philadelphia’s well-regarded Le Virtu and Brigantessa before a huffy departure in mid-2017. Since then, they have been leading culinary tours of Italy, a practice that will continue.
The couple, who raise her son Augustino, 12, spent two years creating the place, coming up with whitewashed brick walls, hardwood and old-fashioned tile floors, crystal chandeliers, and generations of family photos and antiques (an old hi-fi serves as a point-of-sale stand). Cicala opened in November of last year.
We sat down before work one day to talk about the restaurant, to find out how the fates had them meeting before they actually met, and to explain why there’s a shrine to an Argentine soccer star in the dining room.
Joe: We are a Southern Italian restaurant in a historic building. I would say our food is still very rustic, authentic Italian, but the ambience is a little bit more refined. The dining room suits the history of the building.
Angela: I always say I feel like you’re coming to a nice family dinner. Because this should feel like a living room, or a dining room. It should feel like you’re at home.
Joe: This is a quadruple-wide rowhome.
Joe: Eric Blumenfeld [the developer] approached us after having dinner on the patio at Le Virtu. When we did the site visit ... we were also kind of casually looking around for our own restaurant. When we walked into this space, what sold us is the ceiling height, and it was the south-facing corner of Broad Street with these arched windows with great natural sunlight.
Angela: It had all the bones to make a beautiful Italian restaurant. This is a great neighborhood. So much is coming up on North Broad Street.
Joe: I think the development also was the deciding factor. We wanted to get in at that right time.
Joe: She walked into an interview at Le Virtu in 2011. I was looking for servers, and I got a resume for a pastry chef, and I thought, “Well, I don’t want to make pastries anymore.” We were doing pretty good, so I did some math and I said, “We can afford this.” So I called her for an interview.
Angela: I didn’t really want a full-time job. That was out of curiosity I went for the interview. My whole plan was to just offer to be somebody to help with parties or desserts or weddings. I had never been there, but I went down for the interview, and really I was saving money to go back to Italy.
Joe: No. You said, “I don’t even want this job. I just want to go back to Italy.” And I was like, “Oh my God. Me, too.”
Angela: That’s true. He saw I’d lived in Italy on my resume. He’s like, “So you lived here. You lived in Italy," and then that’s when we started talking. He said, “I did it. I lived in Salerno.” Then we realized that I had been in one of the places he worked in Italy, while I was living in the north and he was living in the south. And I did not meet him then, but then we met here like 10 years, 15 years later.
I was living in Luca and I moved to Florence, and I had just taken a few days to go down south. And then there he was, working. I had no idea. I mean, I may have seen him.
Joe: I was the handsome guy in the kitchen.
Angela: Then I went home. But he was in Italy, and I kept telling my mother, “Mom, my husband’s in Italy.” She says, “Oh, you’re never going to get married. What’s wrong with you?” I said, “No, it’s just that my husband’s in Italy.” She’s like, “No, he’s not. Stop worrying about that. You’ve got to worry about here.” And then finally, when we figured this out, that he was there, it was just, “Oh, my God, maybe you were right.” But it’s just funny.
Joe: So I hired her.
Joe: It’s my dream. She reminds me every day I’m keeping her in this country. I started in this business very young, and it’s been like, “The end goal is, yes, I want to be a restaurateur. I want to be a chef-owner of a restaurant.” But then I didn’t really think about much after that. And now I got this, and now we start thinking about, “Well, OK, what’s next?”
Angela: It would be nice to retire and live in Italy so many months a year. Wouldn’t it? I mean, you can make some kind of plan.
Joe: Yes, because this was my endgame, and now I don’t know what to do after.
Angela: Right. We’re going to live in Italy. This is going to happen. That was the plan when I walked into the door for the first job. It’s still my plan 10 years later. So we’re working toward it. I mean, I enjoy doing the tours. To me, that’s a break. We go to beautiful places for a week and eat and drink wine and I think it’s amazing. But this was his dream to have more of a — not a fine dining, but a little more upscale [restaurant] than before. And I really thought, “I don’t know, you know, I would like to have something a little more down-to-earth. Something more gravy joint-ish almost.” Because I feel like that’s dying out in Philly. The food is going to maybe disappear with generations. So that’s kind of how we wound up with this mix. Because this is a mix. I think it has an old-world feel.
Joe: I don’t like to use that word. I’d call it upscale, casual, polished.
Angela: I think people feel like when they hear that word, “fine dining,” you’re going to have to wear a jacket.
Joe: To me, “fine dining” is reserved for like two Michelin star and up. Fine dining gets thrown around so often. It’s a certain level of service, I would say. We’re more kind of comfortable, relaxed, approachable. We’re not special-occasion. I don’t want to be a special-occasion restaurant. I don’t like to eat like that.
Angela: We don’t really work together as much. We work on separate projects as far as cooking. Because we have different shifts. That way pastry’s in the morning, you’re mostly a little bit later and work through the night. I don’t mind. I worked on the line a couple nights, I never thought I’d ever do that again in my life. But here we are back in it.
Joe: It’s fun because we get to collaborate on making one menu that’s ours. We have a lot of family dishes that we always wanted to put on the menu. I would say this is better than it’s ever been because we’re actually working on the same projects, and we’re on the same page about a lot of things.
Joe: All the time.
Angela: Yes, because I say, “That’s not right." If it’s my recipes that he’s cooking, I just monitor to see if it’s being cooked the right way. And he’s like, “It’s fine. It’s fine.” And then he’ll look at me and be like, “That’s not it.” So we argue more about each other’s recipes. What he grew up eating, I might cook it different. What I grew up eating, he might cook different.
Joe: We wanted to have something that is rooted in Southern Italian culture, something that you would see in the streets of Napoli. But also because I’m a huge Napoli soccer fan, and I love Diego Maradona. I think he’s one of the best players that ever lived. In a certain section of the Spanish Quarter [in Naples], there are also murals and shrines to him. So I said, “Well, why don’t we do something kind of fun that kind of [says] ‘Southern Italian culture’ in the restaurant?” And she was like, “Yes. You need something Instagrammable.”