Restaurant Review: Brigantessa

Just eat with your hands. That’s the best advice anyone can give about the food at Joe Cicala’s new forneria, Brigantessa.

Photo via Brigantessa

Photo via Brigantessa

We expect a lot from restaurants these days. If they don’t transform liquids into powders or barrel-steep cocktails with homemade bitters, they’d better serve chickens that roamed freer than our children do. So when a forneria bowls you over even before the door whooshes shut as you enter, it’s time to ask what really matters most.

I’m not the only winter-bitten soul to feel that way crossing the threshold of Brigantessa, where great blasts of heat from a Vesuvian-ash pizza oven ripple along a bar teeming with platters of sausage-stuffed long hots and oil-poached swordfish and wood-grilled octopus salad. Chef Joe Cicala’s sophomore effort on Passyunk Avenue has been rollicking since it opened in October.

If nearby Le Virtù is a paean to Abruzzo, Brigantessa is a rambunctious mix tape of everything to its south. The region below the calf of Italy’s boot produced the lion’s share of Philly’s Italian-American diaspora, and Francis Cratil-Cretarola (a partner along with his wife, Cathy Lee) wanted to reacquaint his neighbors with the “conviviality and comedy” of its public-house tradition.

In other words, this is a place where Springsteen wrestles the Sex Pistols on the stereo, Monday Night Football’s on above the bar, and everyone really wants you to tear the Neapolitan pizzas apart with your fingers.

Which might be the best eating advice you’ll get all year. Whether you’re sopping up a spill of San Marzano tomatoes with the ricotta-stuffed “handle” of a tennis-racket-shaped pie, or folding crust around house- made lamb sausage, yellow piennolo tomatoes and burrata, it’s an unexpected revelation to eat pizza like the flatbread it really is.

The rest of the giant menu consistently comforts and frequently delights. Smoke-tinged baby carrots with bagna cauda leads a solid team of room-temp bar snacks. Lansdowne’s 1732 Meats distinguishes the salumi offerings, especially the lonza—lean but luscious pomegranate- cured pork loin. Don’t miss the pasta. Cicala’s sweet porcini-and-mascarpone- stuffed chestnut quadrucci are the equal of anything at Le Virtù, and so is his savory pappardelle.

If the secondi course lags—excepting a nightly special of pine-nut-and- raisin-stuffed red mullet in orange agrodolce—Angela Ranalli’s gelatos overachieve, rivaling Capogiro’s for richness. But by that time, you’ll already be deep into Brig’s well of offbeat Italian sixtels and wines by the glass, trying to figure out how best to keep your belly firmly against this bar until spring.

Three Stars – Excellent

Brigantessa [Foobooz]