Chef Joe Cicala, whose culinary star has long been tied to the popular South Philadelphia restaurants Le Virtu and Brigantessa, on Saturday said he was "completely blindsided" and "heartbroken" by his firing.

Owners Francis Cratil-Cretarola. and Cathy Lee countered that Cicala had walked away from the restaurants in late June when he accompanied his wife — pastry chef Angela Ranalli-Cicala, whom they had fired in May — on a long trip to Italy, where she leads tours. He said he would return to Philadelphia on Aug. 9.

"Six weeks," said Cratil-Cretarola. "We found out about it through social media. It had become obvious that Joe wasn't happy. He wasn't responding to daily reports. He wasn't responding to emails. He left everything in our hands. You can't do this when you're an owner of a restaurant."

Cicala, 34, Le Virtu's executive chef for seven years, is a part-owner of Brigantessa, having opened that nearby restaurant in the fall of 2014 with Cratil-Cretarola and Lee. In recent months, Cratil-Cretarola and Lee — who are married — had discussed a sale of Le Virtu to the Cicalas.

Cratil-Cretarola said Cicala had refused to sign a waiver dissociating the restaurants from the tour business, which potentially exposed the restaurants to legal risks. "That was it," Cratil-Cretarola said. "That scuttled any talk about the sale." They placed a blind ad for a new chef.

On July 27, Cratil-Cretarola and Lee announced the hiring of a new executive chef for both restaurants (Joseph Voller, last at Eno Terra in suburban Princeton) and hired a new chef for Brigantessa (Adam Taylor, last at Alla Spina in Spring Garden) — sweeping changes for the chef-driven Italian destinations on East Passyunk Avenue.

Cicala — who had been out of the kitchens since May 14, when two fingers of his left hand were mangled in a kitchen accident — said from Abruzzo that he learned of his termination when his cellphone began dinging with messages from friends at 3 a.m. July 28 Italian time, moments after posted an article about it. Cicala had not responded to a reporter's request for comment 4½ hours before.

"We were completely blindsided," Cicala texted July 29.

Cratil-Cretarola said he had sent Cicala an email outlining his dismissal on the morning of July 27 and had received no response. He said he sent it again and text-messaged him, also with no response.

Cicala said he and his partners recently exchanged emails confirming his return to Philadelphia on Aug. 9.

Ranalli-Cicala was fired in mid-May, shortly after her husband's injury. Cratil-Cretarola said Ranalli-Cicala had been "disruptive with some of the staff members."

"I told Joe we can't work with her anymore, and Joe said, 'We're a package,' " Cratil-Cretarola said. (On July 25, Ranalli-Cicala posted on Instagram, announcing her departure with a "heavy heart.")

Cicala, who traded a pro hockey career for the presumably less rough-and-tumble life of a chef, started at Le Virtu in 2010, a year before his wife.

He, Cratil-Cretarola, and Lee opened the more casual Brigantessa, four blocks away, in late 2014.

"We showed up every day and cooked our hearts out," Cicala said Saturday. Cicala also had started his own salumi business.

"Le Virtu is where Angela and I met, fell in love, announced our engagement, and held our wedding reception," Cicala said in a statement drafted with his lawyers.

"Our son, Augustino, has spent the majority of his childhood playing in the campo, doing his homework at the tables, and often helping with prep in the morning while we cooked. Le Virtu was more than a workplace for us. It was, in a matter of speaking, our home. In fact I'm willing to bet we spent more time together there over the years than our actual home."

Cicala said his name is on Brigantessa's lease, liquor license, Small Business Administration loan (for which the couple's home is collateral), partnership agreement, and corporate documents. "I will be able to comment further after continued consultation with our attorneys and professional counsel," he said in a statement.

Cratil-Cretarola said the liquor license belongs to the corporation, of which he and Lee are the controlling owners. "We can dissolve the partnership," he said. "We are able to terminate his employment. … We have no intention of sticking him with anything."

Cratil-Cretarola and Lee said they wished him success. "Watching Joe grow as a chef and nurturing his culinary talents has been our pleasure," they said in a statement.

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