Updated: Friday, January 19, 2018, 5:58 AM
Sometimes as a longtime customer, it can hurt to love a restaurant. You witness it grow from a promising idea into something truly special, only to watch it all suddenly crash into a heap of hot spaghetti on the floor, steaming for all to see with the acrimony of dysfunctional relationships and a bitter gravy of “he said/she said” accounts competing to untangle the mess.
For some restaurants that’s the end, especially when a talented chef makes an exit. Others manage to survive the breakup with new personalities at the stove and the will to embrace a fresh chapter. I’ve been hoping for the latter in the case of two of my old favorites on East Passyunk Avenue, Le Virtù and Brigantessa, which have been among the region’s most distinctive Italian dining experiences. And the results, several months later, are both reasonably promising and mixed.
Co-owners Francis Cratil-Cretarola and Cathy Lee sparked headlines in July by firing and replacing their star chef, Joe Cicala, while he was on a trip to Italy. The details remain complicated and unclear, but suffice it to say Cicala that left a daunting void. He was the talent who, over seven years, took Le Virtù’s earnest homage to rustic Abruzzese cooking to the next level of sophistication, with exceptional house-cured salumi, annual La Panarda marathon feasts, and a single “mugnaia” noodle that could stretch 60 feet. As an opening partner in Brigantessa in 2014, he was a creative force in giving Le Virtù a lively sequel with an often inventive ode to the flavors of southern Italy.
Though they share the same avenue, the two restaurants have grown to serve two very different clienteles, with Le Virtù a special-occasion draw for an older crowd seeking leisurely meals, and Brigantessa a livelier, more youthful spot for craft beer, cocktails, and small plates with Neapolitan pizzas. Nonetheless, both restaurants were rated with three bells at the moment of the summer split. Based on my previous visits to the pair on the same night in the fall of 2016, however, Le Virtù felt the more uneven. So it made perfect sense to me that Cicala’s successor as executive chef, Joseph Voller, would spend his first several months trying to reinvigorate and refocus this group’s original jewel.
Le Virtù (Three bells)
As they did with Cicala, the Le Virtù owners sent Voller, 42, on a monthlong journey to Abruzzo to soak in the rustic joys of that central Italian region, supplementing his previous experiences as chef at Princeton’s Enoterra, and formative years in Philly at Buddakan, Alma de Cuba, and ¡Pasión!
And it was clear from the moment a giant plank of antipasti made its way to our table that Voller has taken the restaurant’s salumi legacy to heart. Peppery pink slices of coriander-cured coppa came shingled alongside ribbons of tender duck prosciutto, a spicy whipped pâté of porchetta made from local Mangalitza pigs, warm mounds of roasted eggplant and pickled veggies that were also flanked by a collection of rare sheep’s milk cheese from La Porta dei Parchi in Abruzzo that, in the old days (before a proper distributor was found), the owners used to smuggle in with their luggage. Like many of the Abruzzese cultural treasures here, from the folk music undulating through the country table dining room to many obscure wines and house-steeped genziana digestivo, Le Virtù remains one of the few places (aside from your nonna’s house, of course) where they can be experienced.
But Voller isn’t afraid to play with tradition. Roasted duck bones bring unexpected extra depth to the cinnamon-tinged chicken broth that pools around pecorino-stuffed crepes in the classic scrippelle ‘mbusse soup. A pomegranate glaze and fregola sarda add a Moorish accent to the tender braised lamb shank. And Voller nods to his mentor Guillermo Pernot in a technique for his spectacular fritto misto, frying whole branzino into a boneless basket that overflows with crispy head-on prawns, calamari, and bitter greens tossed in a smoky Caesar dressing, with multiple sauces (salsa verde, caper aioli) to keep the dipping interesting.
A push to embrace more Jersey seafood to evoke Abruzzo’s coast, including a coming focus on crudo, has been among Voller’s strongest initiatives. I loved the calamari tubes stuffed with fennel-flavored sausage ground from the pork butt trimmings of salumi. A jet-black aioli made from charred bread and squid ink added dark intrigue to the tender octopus with chickpeas and Castelvetrano olives.
Pasta is one important area where I’m not yet convinced Voller can quite match Cicala’s finesse or breadth of knowledge. The noodles should have been far more delicate, for example, on the heavy cheese-filled agnolotti that came with otherwise delicious lobster. But on more elemental dishes, like the snappy chitarra threads with soulful lamb ragù, or the silky sheets of handkerchief pasta tossed with braised veal, black truffles, and Navelli saffron, they were more than sufficient to convey the powerful satisfaction of peasant cooking elevated to the next level.
And that has always been Le Virtù’s primary charm. Add in the rustic dining room and lovely outdoor muraled patio space, a distinctive drink program tuned to the region, and mature service from veteran servers like Az Anderson, who was exceptionally attentive without being intrusive, and Le Virtù remains a distinctive and special place — even as it still has room to grow.
Brigantessa (Two bells)
Perhaps because it was a more recent creation, or perhaps because its new chef de cuisine, Adam Taylor, is a more than capable steward, with experience at Osteria and Alla Spina, Brigantessa has yet to receive Voller’s full attention for a makeover. But it could benefit from some tweaking.
With a greater focus on its distinctive downstairs bar — brimming with amari cocktails and Italian craft beers — and a younger crowd that wants more casual meals, a recent move to pare back the larger entrées made financial sense. But it also put a greater emphasis on Brigantessa’s wood-fired pizzas, which I find less than stellar. My problem is with the crust, which is overly moist and densely doughy. It’s a problem I noted when Cicala opened Brigantessa — and it persists. Yes, the toppings can be fantastic, from simple Margherita to the more inventive Carciofo with artichokes, romesco, and olives, or the showy, star-shaped Stella stuffed with ricotta. But rarely did I want more than a single slice. It could be the recipe. It could be the stretching technique, as Voller has suggested, with plans to refine it. Such a refinement is necessary. So is a fresh dose of enthusiasm for the service, which lacked the level of energy and polish that helped bolster the restaurant’s earlier three-bell days.
Brigantessa also should be cautious not to stray too far from its southern Italian focus, which always distinguished it. The panecotto, a Cicala legacy that transforms old bread into a moist and savory bread pudding with broccoli rabe, cannelini, and hot peppers infused with pasta water and Pecorino, is a perfect example of cucina povera (or poverty cooking) restored to glory.
Taylor had more than a few other good examples, like the bruschetta topped with mashed tuna and tiny tomatoes, and a chili-flared Calabrese sauce for the gnocchi, and even the fluffy polpette of mashed eggplant that I preferred to the hefty but bland meatballs made from actual meat. Several of the outstanding pastas, too, captured this spirit, like the signature “briganti” hat pastas zapped with toasted fennel in the dough and a whiff of orange zest in its pork testina ragù, or the triangoloni dumplings stuffed with smoky eggplant in a spicy tomato emulsion scattered with chickpeas.
But quite often, the northern influences of Taylor’s training crept into his dishes — the polenta beneath the otherwise awesome osso buco lamb shank for two, and the corzetti stamped pasta coins made of rye and blue sweet potatoes. Those corzetti were both creative and delicious, so it may seem like a trivial point. But they’ve also rightly been the subject of debate among the company’s chefs and owners. Will they survive into Brigantessa’s future, and perhaps muddy the mission? For a restaurant that must firmly embrace a fresh identity to move past a bad breakup, making those hard choices will be necessary.
Read full story: Italian favorites on East Passyunk Avenue reboot with new chefs