Le Virtù’s Executive Chef Joe Cicala
Honed his skills in some of the most acclaimed kitchens in southern Italy and the eastern United States. His most formative experience occurred on the three-person line of Chef Pietro Rispoli’s Michelin-star restaurant Al Cenacolo, in Salerno, Italy. There Joe learned the importance of using fresh, quality, local ingredients, treating them with respect in simple preparations that allow their properties to shine. After two years with Chef Rispoli, Joe returned to the D.C. area to work with James Beard Award-winning Chef Roberto Donna at the cutting-edge Galileo, which specialized in the cuisine of Piemonte. From Galileo, Joe moved to the kitchen of Georgetown’s venerable Cafe Milano, where he became Sous Chef under two Abruzzese-born executive chefs. Before coming to Le Virtù, he also worked in New York’s Michelin-Star Del Posto under another James Beard winner, Executive Chef Mark Ladner.
Joe has spent extensive time in Abruzzo researching the region’s varied cuisine, from the highest points of the Apennine mountains to the unspoiled southern Adriatic coast, from the kitchens of “agriturismi” (farm restaurants where all food is raised or grown on premises) to elegant “ristoranti” where local culinary tradition is honored and refined. He has developed intimate knowledge of Abruzzo’s “primary materials” and culinary artisans, as well as the producers and purveyors of the “terra” surrounding Philadelphia, the farms of Pennsylvania’s Berks, Bucks and Lancaster counties, and those of southern New Jersey. Joe brings a great respect and knowledge for Italian traditions to the Le Virtù kitchen as well as a passion and talent for innovation. His “cucina” is at once rustic and vibrant, taking “la cucina Abruzzese” in directions that are both new and perfectly natural: his menu includes dishes that hew strictly to tradition and others that employ Abruzzese ingredients and components in novel, seamless ways.
Since coming to Le Virtù, Joe has garnered a great deal of hard-earned praise. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig LaBan awarded the restaurant a coveted 3-bell review and called Joe “one of the city’s young kitchen talents to watch” and the restaurant “as heartfelt and painstakingly authentic as a restaurant homage gets.” He has won a Star Chefs award for charcuterie, and been named to the State Department’s National Chef Corps. Joe is a 4-time James Beard Semifinalist and one time Finalist. He and Le Virtù have earned inclusions in Philadelphia Magazine’s “Best of Philly” issues, as well as praise in Food & Wine, The Washington Post, American Food Roots, Zagat, and numerous other print and online publications.
Le Virtù Co-Owners Catherine Lee and Francis Cratil Cretarola
have been traveling in Abruzzo, where Francis’ has familial roots, for two decades. They’ve toured and studied the region extensively, staying in its small villages, natural parks, and larger towns, and for a time lived in Assergi, a small mountain village that is part of the Comune di L’Aquila, Abruzzo’s capital. For several years they operated intimate culinary tours of Abruzzo affiliated with Philadelphia’s former The Book and The Cook Festival. They opened Le Virtù in 2007.
Both Cathy and Francis have backgrounds in publishing and met while earning their MFA’s in Writing. Cathy previously served as Personal Assistant to the Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her familial roots are in China, and she is a former citizen of Queens (NYC) and north New Jersey. Francis was born and raised in Reading, PA. Much of his love of Italy and Abruzzo was stimulated by his Abruzzo-born paternal grandfather, Alfonso Cretarola, who lived with Francis’s family in their rowhome. Francis still has family in the town of Castiglione Messer Raimondo, located in the region’s Teramo Province. He studied Italian in Firenze and Roma.
Before and since opening Le Virtù, Francis and Cathy have supported cultural events celebrating Abruzzo as well as organizations located in the region. They produced a 2004 documentary on the region and its cuisine for Comcast, organized and assisted with eight U.S. tours of the Abruzzese folk group DisCanto, raised funds for victim relief after the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake and contributed to Tratturo Magno, an Abruzzese nonprofit dedicated to the restoration of regional monuments associated with pastoral traditions. Francis has frequently consulted with journalists writing about the region, including those working for The New York Times, Saveur, and Elle.
They’ve traveled extensively elsewhere in Italy, but especially in the regions that formed its historic southern kingdoms (in addition to Abruzzo, Molise, Puglia, Calabria, Basilicata and Campania).
Joe, Cathy, and Francis are Co-Owners of Brigantessa, a trattoria-pizzeria dedicated to the cuisine of southern Italy. It is also located on East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia.
Pastry Chef Angela Ranalli Cicala’s
Roots are in Abruzzo’s Teramo Province, the wine-making village of Controguerra and the coastal town of Giulianova, and her connection to Southern Italy’s traditional pastries is deeply familial. When Angela was a young girl, her mother taught her and her siblings Abruzzesi recipes passed down through three generations, as well other Southern classics like Sicilian Cannoli, which they sold in markets and fairs throughout south Jersey.
Angela’s upbringing in a house where three generations of Italians lived under one roof was rich in traditions both culinary and mystical, and she absorbed and was enchanted by customs surrounding seasonal dishes like Pane di Pasqua (Easter bread), which could only be made on Easter Sunday and had to contain a palm leaf, as well as superstitions surrounding the “malocchio,” or evil eye.
Angela honed her pastry skills in culinary school in Philadelphia and deeped her knowledge of Italian culture and custom by traveling and living in Italy for over a decade, exploring not only her ancestral town in Abruzzo but also the rest of the peninsula. Her professional career has earned her many accolades and her creations, which are based in tradition but which demonstrate a singular touch and creative spark, have been discussed and celebrated in The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News, as well as numerous other local publications. She was the pastry chef at Philadelphia’s The Waterworks Restaurant and Vernick Food and Drink.
Her understanding of and passion and respect for her roots is evident in every dessert she crafts in Le Virtu’s kitchen.