Brigantessa, the Southern Italian sibling of East Passyunk’s Le Virtu, will close New Year’s Eve after about five years, as owners Francis Cratil-Cretarola and Cathy Lee told staffers this afternoon.
I can tell you there’s a new restaurant coming to 1520 E. Passyunk Ave. in the spring.
Chefs David Feola and Scott Calhoun, both well-seasoned alums of the Jean-Georges restaurant orbit, are planning Ember & Ash, which they call a “rustic, chic, warm, inviting” bar-restaurant whose open-hearth cooking will be inspired by peasant cuisine from all over the world, e.g. sophisticated, innovative dishes made with the whole animal.
“We’ll be nose-to-tail,” said Feola, 37, a Syracuse native whose Philly kitchen highlight so far has been sous chef at Vernick. “We know that there needs to be a delicate balance to get people to understand and appreciate what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re not coming out slinging calf’s liver at people, but there’s certainly a place where we want people to feel comfortable eating that type of food.”
“We want this to be a place where everyone can come and enjoy the food and we’re talking about dishes in the $8-to-$30 range,” said Calhoun, a Lancaster-bred Culinary Institute of America grad who turns 35 on New Year’s Eve and whose Philly experience includes Osteria, Parc (chef de cuisine), and currently executive chef at Spice Finch.
They hope to open Ember & Ash in the spring after renovations that will include the removal of Brigantessa’s pizza oven, which dominates the street level.
Cratil-Cretarola, who said Brigantessa gift cards would be honored at Le Virtu, said in a statement that he wanted to thank guests and “all our employees who gave their heart and soul to the business. We are in your debt.”
Brigantessa opened in late 2014 as a more casual sibling of the upscale Le Virtu four blocks away. Besides solid reviews, Brigantessa also saw more than its share of drama over the years, including a he-said-they-said back-and-forth over Cicala’s 2017 departure and a 2018 staff mutiny over an allegation that the restaurant’s then-chef de cuisine had made anti-Semitic remarks.
Over the years, Cratil-Cretarola and Lee, through Brigantessa, supported such causes as Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Campaign, immigrant rights and health care (Puentes de Salud), and Andrew Jackson Middle School’s music programs. He said they would concentrate on Le Virtu and, continue to celebrate Abruzzese culture back in the neighborhood that provided a landing spot for many of the region’s immigrants.
Ember & Ash will re-pair Calhoun and Feola, who met at Jean-Georges in New York in 2010 and worked together for about two years. Feola left at the end of 2011, and Calhoun left in mid-2012.
Both then moved to Philadelphia and did not realize it.
Feola joined Vernick Food & Drink, while Calhoun landed in the Vetri world at Osteria before opening Lo Spiedo.
Feola said a former pastry chef from Jean-Georges visited Philadelphia to see Calhoun and mentioned that Feola was working in town. From then on, they have been talking about opening a restaurant together.
As for the idea of two chefs in one kitchen at Ember & Ash...
“We work really well together, which is why this works,” Calhoun said. “Overall menu items will be between us and we’ll decide on what we want, what’s going to go on there and then it’ll turn into divide and conquer to come up with a dish. I’ll take the pork dish, whatever it is. I’ll process it and then together we’ll taste it and go from there to make sure. Our vision is very aligned and we just want to make sure that where we are on the plate is the same.”
“The other part of having the two of us is that opening a restaurant is hard,” Calhoun said. “The overall life and mental health of our industry is terrible.”
“We’re cutting labor by having two of us there,” Feola said. “If someone doesn’t show up, we’re covered. It’s this safety net that we have. We trust each other.”
Two former restaurant folks handled the transaction: MSC Retail’s Vincent Stipo for Calhoun and Feola, and MPN Realty’s Joe Scarpone for Cratil-Cretarola and Lee.