Chef Joe Cicala has been making food headlines since taking over the kitchen at Le Virtù on East Passyunk Avenue. Before Cicala became one of Philly's bright, young, cooking stars, he was playing hockey for a living and hoping to become a star in the NHL. But, his mother's illness and a growth spurt that never came sent him down a different path that landed him in Philadelphia. Eater chatted up Chef Cicala on his life before Le Virtù, and what the future holds for the hot, young pasta maker.
Before you were a cook, you were on a path to play hockey professionally. Can you talk about that? Sure. I grew up in suburban Maryland, and got into hockey at the age of 8 because of the Mighty Ducks movie. I'm completely serious.
The one with Emilio Estevez? Really? Really. And, I was pretty good, and ended up playing club hockey locally for the Chesapeake Bay Chiefs. I moved onto juniors up in Salem, Massachusetts playing for the Salem Ice Dogs. I was a forward, I played right wing, and had a left-handed shot.
Why did you stop playing? You were pro for awhile, right? Well, I stopped playing for a bunch of reasons, but I lost a full scholarship to Mercyhurst College because I did get paid by a couple of AHL teams. I pulled a check with the Manchester Monarchs and the Lowell Lock Monsters (now the Lowell Devils) because I basically got to watch a couple games from the bench. I want to be clear about that. I was hoping to serve a bench minor or something to get on the scoresheet (laughs). But, I dressed for a few games because some European players had visa issues, and they needed bodies. I didn't realize it would end up causing me to lose my scholarship, but since technically I was professional, I lost that scholarship. I was expecting another growth spurt, too, after I turned 20, and that never came. So, trying to find work in that line of business wasn't going to happen.
That's awful. So, when did food become part of the equation? Well, you don't get paid well playing junior hockey, so we all needed to get jobs, and I ended up working at a restaurant, which was my first experience in the food industry. I really enjoyed it. Soon after that, my mom started a catering business, so I started working for her and learning the ropes. I took a summer off and moved to Italy, and that really got me into the idea of doing this for the rest of my life.
Where did you work? I lived in Salerno which is a beach town south of Napoli, and worked at Al Cenacolo for a chef that had earned a Michelin star. Ultimately, he moved back to the country, and we lost the star, so it was time for me to move on. I had a chance to start a real career there and make some money, and then my mom got sick with breast cancer. I had to come home.
Where did you work when you got back in the U.S.? I started working for Roberto Donna at Galileo in D.C., and then at Cafe Milano in Georgetown. I got the opportunity to work for Mario Batali at Del Posto, and then got the exec chef job back down south at Palio in Leesburg, Virginia. I got a really good review in the Washington Post, which got the attention of owners Francis and Cathy Lee Cretarola at Le Virtù. They were parting ways with their current chef Luciana Spurio, and needed someone right away.
Chef Spurio had a pretty strong following already. Was it hard to follow her, and what was the break-up like? You know, it's always tough when you have a European chef in the kitchen that was brought here. It apparently got pretty ugly, since American chefs are trained to understand food costs and razor-thin profit margin, and that isn't the case across the water. So, bringing me on was a completely different situation, and it was like opening a restaurant all over again. She had a lot of fans, and at first, no one came. All of the regulars just left. It was a dire situation, we were doing horribly.
So what happened? Well, we have a new set of regulars all thanks to Craig LaBan. His review (3 bells, by the way) brought the people in droves, and they just keep coming now. It's absolutely amazing just how much power he has. He can make or destroy your restaurant with one article. Luckily, he enjoyed his meals here. And we got a new audience. I love it. We do fun stuff, and lots of in-house charcuterie, which was one of the reasons they hired me. I have a lot of help in the form of my sous chef, Massimo Conocchioli, who is amazing with the charcuterie as well.
So what's next for the restaurant? Actually, we're working on a cookbook from our kitchen and the restaurant. We have a writer and photographer in house, so it's crazy we didn't think to do this before. Also, we're going to start doing gastronomic tours of Italy, which is what Francis and Cathy Lee did before they opened the restaurant. We're going to visit both Michelin-starred restaurants and little Mom & Pop places, as well. The tours will be Francis and me leading the way.
So, do you still play any hockey at all? Yeah, I do. I play for a traveling tournament team, the Peter North Stars.
Like Peter North, the porn star? Yeah we loved the Minnesota North Stars, and just thought the name was funny. And, instead of suing us, Peter actually supports us, and is the money behind the team. He shows up when we have tournaments on the West Coast. It's pretty cool, and he's a huge hockey fan. Our next tourney is down in Tennessee, I think.