Bored at home during the weeks of social distancing and craving the type of southern Italian food he makes at Cicala at the Divine Lorraine, chef Joe Cicala decided to build a pizza oven in his South Philly backyard. The oven is now up and running, and Cicala is offering his Neapolitan pies for pickup. But potential customers have to move fast: The first pizza pop-up sold out in less than a day.
After a couple years of construction and restoration, Cicala and his wife, Angela, a pastry chef, finally debuted their showstopper of an Italian restaurant in the historic Divine Lorraine building on North Broad at the end of 2019. They were barely settled in when the coronavirus pandemic forced them to close.
The chefs briefly experimented with takeout at the restaurant in March, but opted not to continue. “It did pretty well, and it gave us the opportunity to sell all of our perishable goods, which was huge,” Joe Cicala says. “But once it came to the point where we had to make a decision whether to reorder food or close, we decided to close. North Broad is still a little bit of a destination and we weren’t doing the volume in takeout to justify the expenses.”
So the Cicalas stayed home, watching every show on Netflix, On Demand, and YouTube. Lamenting a canceled trip to Italy, Angela Cicala baked cornetti. Together they did an Instagram Live video where they made Neapolitan-style pizza three different ways using their regular oven. And then they thought, “why can’t we just build an oven out back and get the real thing?”
“I had to find something to occupy my mind or else I was going to go insane,” Joe says. “So one day I woke up and put the drawings I made on graph paper on [Angela’s] desk and told her I was going to Home Depot. She didn’t believe me at first.”
Joe Cicala was known for his wood-fired pies at Brigantessa, a now-closed southern Italian restaurant on East Passyunk Avenue. On the morning of Sunday, May 10, the Cicalas sent out a note to their mailing list about a pizza pop-up planned for Wednesday, May 13, with a link to pre-order, and then posted about it on social media directing people to email them for details. The menu included six pies, $12 to $14 each, and a package of three mini-cannoli with sweetened ricotta, chocolate chips, and candied fruit. “Immediately we were slammed with requests,” Joe said on Sunday. People messaged him to say they had been missing the pizzas he used to make at Brigantessa (he left that restaurant in July 2017 amid a falling out with the co-owners).
By Sunday evening, about 150 pizzas had been claimed. The Cicalas closed sales and asked their sous chefs to come help out on Wednesday. Since the first was so successful, they’re planning to do a second pizza pop-up on May 20. The pop-ups are a step toward reopening Cicala at the Divine Lorraine: “We can have some money in the bank for inventory, if the stay-at-home order is lifted in June as expected,” Joe says.
With money from a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan too, they’re looking into reopening the restaurant for takeout later this month, and hoping to open more fully in early June with a new patio at the restaurant set up.
Pizza was not on the original menu at Cicala at the Divine Lorraine, but look for that to change. Cicala says his backyard pizza oven was practice for one he’s now planning to build on the restaurant’s patio.