The wood-fire cooking movement particular to Italy, with its various-sized stoves, grills and spits, is trending in Philadelphia. Then again, it’s difficult calling something trendy when its been around forever.
“It’s the oldest cooking method on the planet,” says Joe Cicala, the executive chef/co-owner at the recently opened Brigantessa on East Passyunk Avenue, his second restaurant on the block after Le Virtu.
“It’s about getting back to basics — the original barbecue,” says Scott Calhoun, the executive chef at Lo Spiedo in the Navy Yard, the latest restaurant from Marc Vetri.
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Whether it’s meat, fish or pizzas slow-roasted in 1,000-degree handmade ovens or fowl and vegetables skewered rotisserie-style, each restaurant creates menus that are elegantly simplistic with their own Italian leanings.
Brigantessa’s specialties, such as lamb sirloin with smoked cauliflower, are cooked in an oven crafted by Gianni Acunto; Lo Spiedo’s highlights, including chicken with olive oil and lemon, get the rotisserie treatment.
“I wanted to give the food a unique sense of rusticity,” says Cicala of Brigantessa’s menu items such as its smoky grilled romanesco and the wood-roasted cobia. “That’s how they cook in Southern Italy.”
What to eat
There is pizza at Brigantessa, but Cicala is quick to say he wasn’t looking to open a pizzeria, despite the delights of his tennis racket–shaped racchetta made with fried eggplant and sheep’s milk ricotta.
There are also baked pastas and gratins featured on Brigantessa’s menu, done in terra-cotta vessels designed to withstand intense heat, as well as the warm Southern flavors of chilies, citrus and cinnamon.
At Lo Spiedo, Calhoun says the spice rubs and oils mops, specialties such as grilled sardines and timing (brisket roasted for 10 hours then left to stew in its own juices for eight hours) were influenced by Vetri and restaurant partner Jeff Michaud, who both trained in Northern Italy.
There’s also a Southern feel to Calhoun’s menu — the American South, that is — with items such as barbecued baby carrots with ranch dressing.
“If we’re doing something on the wood-fire grill, there’s an abrupt char,” says Calhoun. “If it’s on the spit, it’s slow-rendering meat like pork shoulders where you get the flavors from the smoke being carried off and the fat from the grille.”
Cicala agrees when it comes to wood-fire cooking, fat is key. “It absorbs all the smoke flavors and spices.”