It's been open only a month and they're packing them in every night. The widely anticipated opening last month of Brigantessa, on Philly's East Passyunk Ave., - a hot-spot in the city's restaurant scene - lives up to every bit of expectations. And why wouldn't it, when you've got a talented, three-time James Beard nominated chef (Joe Cicala) and visionary owners of the hugely successful Le Virtù (Francis Cratil Cretarola and Cathy Lee) backing it. What Le Virtù does exceedingly well for Abruzzese cuisine, Brigantessa does for Southern Italian cuisine in general.
It calls itself a "forneria meridionale," meaning a place that features Southern Italian wood oven cooking. Living up to its name, the back of the house is dominated by a monster wood-fired oven imported from Naples used for cranking out delicious pizza. Joe spent time there to learn Neapolitan pizza making techniques and earn his "pizza verace" certificate. His attention to detail has paid off. But Brigantessa is more than just another pizza joint.
Brigantessa - whose name comes from the female brigands who fought against Northern Italian domination in the late 1800s - features a very reasonably priced menu with inventive selections not typically found at Italian restaurants in the U.S. When was the last time you ate smoky-infused broccoli romanesco served over a bed of polenta or wood-grilled beans and octopus? Exactly.
The second, wood-fired oven in the back of the house, (this time square-shaped) is used to impart a charred, smoky flavor to many of the restaurant's offerings. And in a word, they're all fabulous.
The space has been totally renovated and looks fresh and modern, yet welcoming and homey at the same time. The front of the house features a bar and high top tables, ideal when you just want to pop in for a drink and some spuntini. There's a huge selection of Italian and local craft beers and a wide variety of Italian wines to accompany the food.
Upstairs is a large dining room, with beautifully gripping photographs of Southern Italian subjects lining the walls, taken by Le Virtù employee Kateri Likoudis.
Earlier this week, I was privileged to eat at Brigantessa with Domenica Marchetti and Helen Free, good friends who came up from the D.C. area, and were as eager as I to try the new restaurant's offerings.
Here's a sampling of some of the dishes we ate, but the menu is far more expansive and so were the plates on our table. Unfortunately, some of my photos were just too blurry to include here.
These tangy "long hots" stuffed with house-made sausage and sprinkled with cheese were a delicious and different take on the ubiquitous peppers and sausage.
Braised artichoke hearts served with bread crumbs and crispy fried capers never tasted so good.
Don't miss the sarde "in saor" with fennel and onions - sardines in a sweet and sour treatment.
Of course we had to sample the pizza and the one we ordered was just what you'd expect of the best Neapolitan pizza - a soft, pliable crust charred a bit on the outside and chewy around the edges. Add house-made fior di latte mozzarella, fragrant prosciutto and bits of arugula and you've got a concoction that you can't stop eating.
The pastas we sampled were equally tempting, including these cappellaci dei briganti, served with a rich meat ragu and pecorino cheese.
Sorry for the poor photo, but this pasta was not just delicious, it was sensational. It's pappardelle made from black chick pea flour and served with a sauce from whey-braised lamb (After making the mozzarella, Joe puts the whey to good use) and sprinkled with fennel pollen. Forget any preconceptions linking Italian food to only red sauce. If ever you could taste Southern Italy in one perfect mouthful, it was this dish, redolent of rosemary and the flavors of Abruzzo.
The pièce di resistance (or should I say "pezzo di resistenza") was this dreamy dish of ricotta gnudi, showered with a shaving of white truffles. The ethereal pillows just melted in your mouth and made you wish that truffle season was 12 months a year. But the beauty of eating here is what's so great about eating at the best trattorie in Italy - you taste what's in season, at the height of its freshness.
Full as we were, we couldn't leave without sampling some desserts. I would say this was overload, but then again, how could you not be tempted by these sweets prepared by pastry chef Angela Ranalli (Joe's wife). From right to left you're looking at crunchy Moorish-style Cannoli with a fragrant filling made with ricotta, and flavored with rosewater, pistachio, and orange blossom water; tortino al rhum - an Italian rum cake in a terrine; an assortment of Italian cookies and candies, including a crunchy Sardinian almond candy, and candied rose petals; and last but not least, house made gelato covered in white truffles (you heard me right!).
We left there totally sated but looking forward to our next visit.
In the meantime, I can make one of Joe's pasta dishes at home to remind me of the wonderful evening spent at Brigantessa. For those of you who live far from Philadelphia and can't get to the restaurant, try this recipe at home. It might be a little tough getting the whey, but don't let that stop you from using milk to marinate the lamb. Black chick pea flour is nearly impossible to find in the U.S., but Bob's Red Mill makes regular chick pea flour that you could substitute.
Black Chick Pea Pappardelle, Whey-Braised Lamb, fennel pollen
Recipe from Joe Cicala at Brigantessa
printable recipe here
3/4 cup black of chickpea/garbanzo flour
1 cup of “00” flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
3 extra large eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil
Using the “well” method, place the flours on a work surface, and create a volcano in the center. Add the eggs and oil, and mix with a fork, slowly incorporating the flour.
Once the mixture is somewhat homogenous, kneed for five minutes by hand until the dough becomes firm and smooth. Let rest for one hour covered in the refrigerator. Using a pasta machine, roll out the dough from the largest setting to the second to smallest. Cut the dough into 1-inch strips approximately 6-inches long. Cook in salted boiling water for three minutes or until tender. Add the cooked pasta to a pan with the ragu and toss. Serve with pecorino cheese, and dust with fennel pollen.
1⁄4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1 rib of celery, finely chopped
1⁄2 Medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1⁄2 Medium carrot, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 pounds of lamb shoulder cubed
1 cup of dry white wine
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of rosemary
1/2 gallon of whey or 1 percent milk
In a large pot, sweat the vegetables in the olive oil and butter over medium heat until translucent. Add the lamb cubes, and turn the heat up to medium-high in order to slightly brown the meat. Deglaze the pan with white wine and add the herbs. Reduce the wine until nearly dry, and add the whey. Simmer for one hour or until the lamb is tender enough to shred with a wooden spoon. ■