Type to search

Accomplished Philadelphia restaurateurs: Retirement in Italy is our destiny


Joe and Angela Cicala share a dream of buying a small farmhouse in Italy, and moving there after their restaurant (Cicala at the Divine Lorraine, a historic building in Philadelphia’s Spring Garden neighborhood) can be run from abroad. But they haven’t agreed on where.

“I’m very much a beach person,” Joe said. “When I was living in Italy, it was in Salerno along the Amalfi Coast. My family’s village is beachside, so I associate that with being Italian. But Angela’s family is from Abruzzo, and she’s very much a mountains kind of person and worked in Tuscany.”

But both agree on the high quality of life in Italy.

Their attraction to Italy is the reason they met. Angela was looking for a second job in 2010 when she interviewed at Le Virtù, the South Philadelphia restaurant where Joe was then the executive chef. “I didn’t want the job,” Angela said. “I wanted to earn money to return to Italy.”

And why was Joe in South Philly in the first place? After growing up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., he had “romanticized the idea of living in an Italian neighborhood.”

Both have extensive connections to their ancestral homeland, deepened by a lot of travel (30 trips, running as long as a year, for Angela and eight trips one summer and a stint apprenticing there for Joe), fluency in Tuscan (Joe grew speaking Sicilian and studied Neapolitan as well) and Italian citizenship.

Joe discovered his love for simple, regional Italian cooking from his mother and grandmother. Studying culinary arts at a Maryland community college led him, at age 18, to apprentice at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Salerno, and he honed his skills at more restaurants along the Amalfi and Sorrento coasts. Stateside, he cooked in restaurants in Washington and Philadelphia (all Italian, save for a French one wedded to the Escoffier tradition, “very regulated, very refined, no rusticity”).

Angela grew up in Philadelphia and Marlton, N.J. “A lot of things together, all the time,” she recalled of life in a loving household that at one point included three siblings and four generations. She fondly recalled the Italian social clubs and parish in West Philly, plus the musical calls of Val the water ice and soft pretzel guy and other street hucksters peddling their wares, “just like in Italy.”

She learned from her mother and grandmother how to craft Italian cookies and pastries. She also worked at Diluzio’s, her family’s restaurant in North Wildwood, N.J. (a successor to their market in Maple Shade, N.J., “like a corner store in Philly but by the Moorestown Mall”). She also studied pastry making, but her skills were, like Joe’s, honed on the job. She first visited Italy in 1995, in a trip that she extended three times, and has returned every year. “I knew I’m going to live here,” she recalled saying to herself in 1995.

That knowledge of all things Italian, Angela’s stint working at a travel company in Italy and their culinary skills – multiple James Beard Award nominations and other accolades – form the basis for Antico Culinary Travel, where they lead culinary tours of Italy, always small-group and often off the beaten path. She began the tours in 2017, and they dream of using that farmhouse as a base for cooking classes.

Cicala is the first restaurant that they own outright, with Joe’s father as the only other investor. The 1892 building’s restored elegance deserves a fancy place, Joe said, but “they want the historic space to feel like home with family pictures on the wall and family recipes in the kitchen,” 6abc wrote.

The menu is still very rustic, deeply rooted in the south of Italy,” he said. They import key ingredients, such as grano arso, a burnt-wheat fl our. Joe makes amari, the bittersweet digestifs. Angela makes gelati. The menu changes with the markets’ best. A favorite appetizer is polpette di li melanzane (mashed eggplant in tomato sauce). The secondi always has a whole roasted fi sh. And the signature dessert is babamisù (rum-soaked Neapolitan brioche, whipped mascarpone and crumbled sfoglia).

While the restaurant was being built out, they conducted cooking classes in their South Philadelphia home. “I miss having a big family around,” Angela said, noting how participants often hung around to share stories. In March, they started bringing that familial feel to Cicala with a communal table for a Sunday gravy dinner. “We’re sitting down with the guests. Having a good time,” she said.

Their love of Italy also extends to Angela’s father, who’s visiting Italy for the first time this year. “He’s so excited,” she said. “He’s going to be shocked, but he’s going to love it.”

And it extends to their teen son Augustino. They travel so much that “Augustino is desensitized to the magic of Italy,” Angela said, but “he is very proud of the people and their lifestyle.”

Near the end of the interview, Joe returned to the question about why they want to return to Italy. “I feel like I owe it to our families’ legacy to finish what they started,” he said. “They came to the United States to make money and to have a new life. I think that we’ve done that. I’d like to close that legacy, retire and live the rest of my life in Italy and bring my family back there as a success story.”

Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

Keep a pulse on local food, art, and entertainment content when you join our Italian-American Herald Newsletter.