In the beginning, Brigantessa was going to be all about pizza. Of course. What new moneymaking restaurant ambition in Philly these days does not begin with a wood-fired oven and a peel-ful of molten mozzarella dreams?
And given chef Joe Cicala's stellar track record at Le Virtù, it's worth paying attention to what emerges from the flaming Neopolitan-made hearth at the heart of Brigantessa's Southern Italian-inspired mission.
It is very good pizza, as expected, with textbook examples from the vera pizza Napoletana school of puffy-crust soft-centered rounds, made with imported flour tuned to the Mid-Atlantic's humid air, sunny Mount Vesuvius piennolo tomatoes and creamy house-made mozz pulled from local Caputo Bros. curds. I'll quibble with the overly doughy density of Cicala's crust - a complaint that holds these back from Philly's highest pizza ranks.
But the cheffy pies topped with house-made lamb sausage or spicy pork n'duja and earthy Calabrian chili oil are special, nonetheless. And a clever pair of calzone-pizza hybrids - the star-shaped stella (with a sausage center) and raquet-formed racchetta (mounded with roasted eggplant chunks) - hide fluffy ricotta clouds inside their folds like masterworks of pizza origami.
But these pies alone are not the most compelling reason to visit Brigantessa. What most intrigues me is the rest of the rambling, delicious menu at this lively bi-level newcomer near the Singing Fountain on East Passyunk Avenue. It's the second collaboration between Cicala and his studious co-owners, Cathy Lee and Francis Cratil Cretarola. And what they did together for authentic Abruzzese food at Le Virtù - translating its rustic spirit into something elegant and relevant - gains extra resonance when reprised for Brigantessa's more southern focus. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies - Campania, Calabria, Basilicata and Sicily - was the prime source of immigrants who settled Italian-American enclaves like South Philly.
Brigantessa's back-to-roots approach reconnects a missing link of Philadelphia's rich Italian heritage with a menu inspired by the pre-"red gravy" cuisine those émigrés left behind - deftly updated with sharp execution and great local ingredients. Delicate pappardelle spun from an earthy puree of roasted black Pugliese chickpeas tumble with fennel-dusted lamb ragu braised in leftover whey from the house-pulled mozzarella. Lancaster Brussels sprouts are roasted crisp in castiron with chestnut agrodolce, sage and pancetta from Lansdowne's upstart 1732 Meats. Green Meadow Farm's cucuzza squash is turned to silky puree beneath a savory pheasant terrine scented with porcinis and anise, its coarse pâté ribboned with creamy layers of game bird's liver.
Brigantessa offers a smart array of Italian-themed drinks to wash it down, from a handpicked list of underappreciated Southern Italian wines (multiple frappatos and gaglioppos) to 16 drafts pouring several Italian craft beers. The well-crafted cocktails also had an Italian accent, my favorite sliding shades of sweet, tart and spice across the palate with the Calabrese chile-spiked limoncello of Dolce e Picante.
When experienced on the ground floor, where the kitchen and pizza oven roar near the back, Brigantessa feels like a bustling local bar. The slightly calmer upstairs dining room, done in earth tones, mahogany floors and actual soundproofing on the ceilings (OMG!) captures a casual elegance that hits a perfect tone for date-night or dinner with friends, aided by well-informed servers who are able to guide us to the unusual dishes and complex menu.
Among the most memorable from the room temp "spuntini" nibbles, there were smoky carrots with pistachio aioli; creamy dabs of sheep's milk ricotta with mint and fava bean puree; long hot chilies stuffed with sausage beneath a shaved pecorino snow that were a fiery nod to South Philly "paesan" cooking.
From the antipasti, there were succulent head-on prawns over lemony mashed cannelinis; duck rillettes smoked from pizza oven embers plunged into the simmering fat; and an elegant calamari done two ways - tentacles delicately fried, tubes deftly grilled - with zucchini shaved into noodle-sheer ribbons (with not a drop of marinara in sight).
The fritto-misto was a mild disappointment, with too many different kinds of fried cakes (bacalao; seafood arancini) that felt redundant. A couple entrées also let me down: a tough lamb loin, and an overly fatty pork belly that's fortunately been replaced. A gorgeous silvery mackerel over charred eggplant puree and couscous fritters, and the wood-grilled hanger steak with crisp bintje potatoes and Sicilian pistachio pesto more than compensated.
But Brigantessa's pastas were the highlight. A squid-ink spaghetti was funky in a good way with fermented long hots and tender octopus. Porcini-filled chestnut ravioli in sage butter with Pink Lady apples were a winter wonder. The signature cappellaci dei briganti, pylon-shaped pastas meant to evoke the conical hats of the 19th-century Brigantaggio freedom fighters that inspired the restaurant's name, were exceptional - each cone cradling shreds of soulful butcher's ragù.
And then there were the desserts from pastry chef Angela Rannali (also Cicala's wife), who infuses just the right Two Sicilies' touch into familiar classics: a Moorish whiff of orange blossom and rose water for the creamy fillings of a delicate-shelled cannoli duo; an espresso-sheep's milk ricotta sandwiched between the crispy heirloom lace of a fried rosette on the "sorprese" cookie plate. My favorite, though, was the Sicilian chocolate budino, whose midnight-black custard was textured with couscous (instead of rice) and swayed by the dark fruit swagger of Amarena cherries.
That budino is one of Philly's new must-eat sweets (even if chocolate purists object). It's also one of several fine reasons why I'm thrilled Brigantessa has evolved to become much more than yet another great pizza hall. It's an essential new piece of the city's rich Italian mosaic.
EXCELLENT - 3 BELLS
1520 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-318-7341; brigantessaphila.com
The team behind Abruzzi-inspired Le Virtù embraces the same updated rustic approach to reconnect South Philadelphia to its more Southern Italian roots (Campania, Sicily, Calabria) at their second East Passyunk project, a lively bi-level restaurant-bar that hits a perfect medium of casual elegance. Co-owner chef Joe Cicala channels his inner-pizzaiolo for serious riffs on Neapolitan pizza. But it's the rest of this big menu, from the wood-fired antipasti to the exceptional pastas (black chickpea pappardelle with whey-braised lamb, mmm. . .), plus an ambitious drink program and diligent service, that make Brigantessa an essential new player in Philly's Italian scene.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Brussels sprouts with chestnut agrodolce; wood-roasted carrots; pheasant terrine; sheep's milk ricotta with favas and mint; long hots with sausage; grilled octopus; smoked duck rillettes; prawns; fried and grilled calamari; salumi (porchetta di testa, 1732 lonza); pizzas (margherita; calabrese; stella; agnello); black chickpea pappardelle with whey-braised lamb; cappellaci with butcher's ragu; porcini-chestnut quadrucci; black spaghetti with long hots and octopus; mackerel; hanger steak; cannoli; sorprese dolci; chocolate-cherry budino with couscous.
DRINKS A complete and intriguing drink program that keeps a strong Italian focus across genres, from the many Italian beers on its 16 draft taps (Birra del Borgo; Grado Plato; Baladin) and substantial bottle list, to the well-crafted cocktails (Stunad; Dolce e Picante), an excellent collection of digestivi, and a smart wine list that gravitates towards Southern Italian bottles and lesser-known grapes (galgioppo; catarratto; frappato) that are worth exploring, even if markups on lower-end bottles are sometimes high. Wine values pour on draft.
WEEKEND NOISE The upstairs dining room hits a noisy, but still manageable, 86 decibels that would have been far worse if the owners hadn't smartly invested in substantial soundproofing. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Monday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10:30 p.m.; Sunday until 9:30 p.m. Late menu nightly until midnight.
Dinner entrees, $17-$27; Pizzas, $14-$18.
All major cards.
Wheelchair accessible first floor only.
Valet parking Tuesday through Sunday, $12.
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