Are there other things that you’re doing for the first time here?
Checking plates, making sure the food is nice, managing the kitchen. Making sure that people are doing the right things. Watching the board. Sometimes making specials for the restaurant.
How has working at Le Virtù changed the way you look at Italian food?
When you make the pasta or the ragus, it’s different than in other restaurants. You taste the different flavors.
Do you like Italian food more than Mexican food now?
When you go back to Mexico, it’s different. You go and experience the difference in flavor. I like both foods the same.
What was it like when you finally got to go back and have your mother’s food?
I was very excited to see my parents again. They made a big meal. We ate fava beans with cactus—nopales. She made atole with maize. She made mole of course. She made tortillas de porco with mole verde. Quesadillas with huitlacoche.
My favorite place for that is Plaza de Garibaldi. What Mexican restaurants do you hit up for quesadillas?
Better to make it in your house. I just have to buy the tortillas, the queso Oaxaca. Make a salsa—green or red. Here, it’s hard to find the fresh huitlacoche. So you have to buy the canned. Sauté with a little bit of jalopeno. Then you put it on the grill with the tortilla and cheese.
Do you make Italian and Mexican food when you have friends over?
I make both. I love making fresh pasta and this is how I show what I do when I’m working. Sometimes I make Bolognese. Sometimes mugnaia but not with long pasta. I make it with spaghetti. I’ll also make mole. Frijoles charros. Black beans, chorizo, bacon. Nopales. You eat it with tortillas. We sometimes make mixiotes. You can do them with chicken & guajillo and cook them like tamales. We’ll make carnitas. You have a party, it’s very traditional to make carnitas.
If you go out to eat though, where do you go?
On my days off from here and my other job, I go to Mole Pablano, Blue Corn. There’s a new restaurant at 10th & Wolf by Los Gallos—Frida [Cantina].
You work a second job?
I’m working with Mission Taqueria. I know the owners from working at Oyster House from 2008 to 2014. They said they needed help, so I said, sure.
First time doing Mexican food?
Yeah. I’m making tacos and burritos.
Would you say that you use any of what you’ve learned in Italian restaurants at this place?
No, because it’s very different. Always in the beginning, you have to follow the rules of whatever they have at the restaurant. And then, you can start getting creative. Right now, because I just started there, it’s this is the rules. I do enjoy working there.
How often do you work there?
Right now, I’m working there four days a week. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. I work there 9am to 2pm and then come here to do prep [for dinner service at Le Virtù where he works five days a week].
Brion Shreffler: How important is Poli to the restaurant
Joe Cicala: He’s not sous chef by title—I don’t have one—but he’s the lead cook, the most responsible person in the kitchen that I leave in charge when I’m not here. He’s a huge part of our culture and for years we’re been trying to get him to experience that culture first hand. The first couple of years, he had an application in for his green card. He has one now. The plan was that once that process was finished and he had his permanent residency, we were gonna take him to Abruzzo to see the culture, the terroir, some of the restaurants, and the indigenous food first hand. Since the election we kind of stopped that after hearing of issues with people even with a green card getting back into the country. We’re going to pick this back up once we find out what’s going on with homeland security. But he’s a huge, huge part. He’s a cornerstone of the kitchen for sure.
He had a lot of experience coming in. Was it just a matter of showing him how you wanted things done?
More or less. He has some great restaurant experience. He had Italian American experience. He’s a very mature, focused individual. It only took a few weeks to a couple months before he mastered rustic Italian cuisine in its simplicity. There’s a lot of crossover I think in our culture and Mexican culture with the food and how it’s prepared with local fresh ingredients and there’s nothing really complicated in the preparations. We keep it very, very simple. Our food here is very grandmotherly and very rustic. The food of farmers and shepherds and fishermen. I think he related to that because he comes from a very similar area in Puebla.
When he mentioned making pasta, the first type he mentioned was the mugnaia and I’m like, right there, that’s the most identifiable dish here.
That’s our signature dish for sure. That has everything that we’re about. It’s a very rare pasta that comes from a very small area of Abruzzo. But the preparation is super simple. It’s rooted in poor cuisine. Just flour, water, dough, and it’s dressed with olive oil, garlic, hot pepper, and pecorino cheese. That is it. You can’t get any more simpler and more pure than that. That’s what we’re all about.
Besides being vital to the restaurant’s role of transmitting culture, there’s the glaring similarity between his immigrant experience and that of peoples’ Italian ancestors.
Yeah. They’re the immigrants now. My family came over mid-century. Italian immigration weaned out in the late-80’s, into the early 90’s.
But it was the same circumstances that necessitated it.
Same exact circumstances. Even my family, we had a house outside of Washington D.C. where three or four families lived after coming from the same village in Sicily. Now, it’s not that extreme but that still goes on with Latino immigration. It’s the same situation.
Apolinar works the pasta station?
He works every station but he prefers the pasta station.
How much of a role does he have with the charcuterie program?
Mostly light butchering and portioning meats. He’s trained to where he knows something is finished and ready to serve. Which is good because when I’m not here, he knows what’s safe to eat and what’s not. We used to have a sous chef here. He left a year and half to two years ago. I started in 2010. I think we hired him around March 2011. It only took him a few weeks to get caught up. At the time, I had a sous chef that was from Abruzzo—Massimo. Apolinar spent more time with him in the mornings, one-on-one while I was downstairs doing butchery and other things. So he got first hand experience from an actual chef from Abruzzo. Now it’s at the point where I’ll go to him to come up with menu items and specials all by himself since he’s been working with me for almost seven years. He knows my style very, very well. I’ll just buy the ingredients, something that’s in season, and next thing you know I have a special for the week.
So it wasn’t long before you were comfortable with him running the kitchen?
Yeah. He should have become the sous chef before I hired a sous chef—that was Brandon. He was already at that point that he was running the kitchen. We were opening Brigantessa [in 2014] so I needed another person in a leadership role to do administrative work that Poli wasn’t trained on. It was mostly language barrier stuff. But he should have been in that role. I was distracted opening a new restaurant, but honestly, I can’t live without him. He’s the foreman. If I have a dishwasher that doesn’t show up, walks out, or shows up drunk, he can have someone here in hours. He’s a huge part of us getting through the day. He sources staff. He just takes care of a lot of that stuff that I don’t even have to worry about [something that became much more important after Cicala suffered a serious hand injury].
I’ve been here for dinner numerous times. I know several times, it was just your Mexican staff. The mark of a good chef and restaurant is that the service is always the same regardless of who’s in the kitchen.
If I show them how to do something—and I’m not just talking about Poli, I’m talking about every kitchen staff member—it’s the exact same way every single time. They don’t think about how can I make this easier or how can I make this better. They do it exactly how I want it. It’s amazing. Poli is the missing link. He’s the other half to that because he can be creative with some of those things when I’m not here as well.
As for his situation, there’s the fact that we actually want people talking to the police.
You want people who are comfortable enough. That’s why I love that we’re a sanctuary city. Immigrants, from whatever country, can go to the police without worrying about getting deported because they’re here without documentation. In the long run, that makes us safer.
What would you say to any detractors out there who criticize the restaurant for being pro-immigrant? You have the ability, through working with Poli, to recognize his humanity, but then again, you shouldn’t need that.
No, of course not. It’s beyond Poli. I don’t get to just see his humanity. I spend long days with these people, seven days a week. They’re my family too. They’re closer to me than just employees. We hang out with each other outside of work. I can trust them without worrying. It’s amazing. The kitchen staff and front of house staff at Le Virtù have been with us for seven plus years. I never have to worry about it. There’s almost zero turnover. They’ve been with me for so long, it’s executed without me even saying anything. They almost read my mind.
Poli was here the longest out of the back of house staff. We have seven back of house staff counting the dishwasher. It’s all networking with him [Poli], with not everyone coming from Mexico. There’s a little bit of turnover with the dishwashers but everyone else has been here five to seven years.
See more stories on the immigrant experience here:
AN AMERICAN STORY: CHEF DIONICIO JIMENEZ’S JOURNEY TO CITIZENSHIP
A CHEF’S JOURNEY: CHEF DE CUISINE JHONNY RINCON OF CHRIS’ JAZZ CAFE
A CHEF’S JOURNEY: FROM EL SALVADOR TO PHILADELPHIA WITH JORGE CHICAS OF RED OWL TAVERN
LIFE IN THE GOLDEN CAGE: A PHILLY CHEF ON WHAT IT’S LIKE BEING AN UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT