Caroline Hatchett: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Joe Cicala: I was planning to go for school for art history but realized there was no money in it. As I worked with my mother at her catering job, I realized it was a better medium to express myself. I feel like you can stimulate more senses, hear food sizzle, taste it, and see the color and the texture. You don’t get that with painting and sculpting. Plus, I was culturally connected to it.
CH: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
JC: I’m conflicted. There are better ways to learn. I went to culinary school but just took lab classes, enough to get a job and learn in the field. You graduate and you have debt on top of that. I hire people either way, as long as you’re passionate.
CH: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
JC: T he closest is Chef Fabio Salvatore from Café Milano in D.C. It was lots of fun tot talk to him about food; he felt so passionately. It was so moving. I remember conversations between lunch and dinner. He was from Abruzzo—I was learning to cook the cuisine from the region. When I came for a tasting [at Le Virtù], I dipped into that repertoire, and that was one of the reasons I was hired.
CH: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
JC: It’s a long road to make it and not be discouraged. If you’re in it for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. Keep your head up, and be able to take lots of abuse. You need a lot of lucky breaks, too. It’s possible to be successful, but you have to know what you’re getting yourself into.
CH: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JC: Food should be fun. I try to find interesting dishes from Italy and discover something no one has ever seen. The challenges are to find ingredients in the United States that are the same quality as Italy. I don’t change recipes to suit the American palate. I stay true to what Italians eat. Some guests don’t get it, but a majority of our clients have spent time in Italy and they haven’t had [a dish] since their parents passed away. We stay true to tradition. If I do something creative, I stay rooted in the culture.
CH: How do you stay inspired?
JC: When I get burnt out, I go immediately to Italy. My attitude is refreshed. The lifestyle is something that I miss. Kitchens take a lot out of you, and it reminds me why I did this in the first place. I read lots of books and Internet, too. But you have to go to Italy to bring it back.
CH: What is your favorite dish you have ever made?
JC: Last year I cracked open a culatello that was one a half years old. I couldn’t believe the floral notes from the mold that developed. It was semi-euphoric—it really was. It took so long. When you do it right, it’s a great surprise.
CH: What does success mean for you?
Living comfortably and being happy and proud of what you’re doing.
CH: Tell me about your next project.
JC: We have a new restaurant. It’s a fall opening, and we’re in negations for the property. The concept is an enoteca with a wood-fired brick oven. I want to keep the food Southern Italian. It’s a fun way for me to get outside of Abruzzo and tap another region. It’ll be doing Neapolitan DOP pizza. I have a friend, who’s connected with the school there,and I want to take the [pizza] course. You never know what you’ll learn, and I’ll use any excuse to go. I want to do lots of things from the oven. Think oven-roasted meats, baked pastas, and breads. I’ll keep it in the style of an enoteca and serve wines from all over Italy. It’s a great way for people to learn more about Italian wines and try things they don’t see on wine menus. The most fun aspect is the bar. We’ll run a traditional Italian bar with antipasti displayed behind the bar, like tender slices of salumi. Like Spanish tapas, but an antipasteria, as they call it in Italy.