With Gusto – richmondmagazine.com

With Gusto - richmondmagazine.com

Our environments shape us in countless ways, and for Angela Petruzzelli, garlic-scented summers and plates of fresh seafood enjoyed by the sea are the early moments that make up the chapters of her culinary diary.

Every year when school would come to an end, the founder of the rustic pop-up concept Sprezza Cucina would hop on a plane to Bari, Italy, where her father was born. In the dreamy coastal town on the Adriatic Sea, she cooked with her nonna in the kitchen, learning ground rules such as โ€œno ricotta in the lasagna,โ€ and basked in the beauty of Puglia.

โ€œAll the women in my family cooked every single night,โ€ Petruzzelli says. โ€œMy grandmother and my aunt’s apartments are literally connected. They live on one tiny floor, and we take tables from everyone’s houses and put them together, and there’s 30 of us in there every Sunday in this tiny little apartment, and that’s how we eat dinner, and that’s how I grew up.โ€

In November, Petruzzelli plans to reintroduce Sprezza Cucina as a brick-and-mortar restaurant, a romantic invitation to rethink Italian cuisine, in the former Morton’s the Steakhouse space at 111 Virginia St. in Shockoe Slip.

Relocating to Richmond days before the world shut down during the early days of the pandemic, looking for a way to connect with the community, the Miami transplant turned to her family’s lasagna.

โ€œI always wanted to share in some capacity my family lasagna recipe; I knew that recipe was special,โ€ Petruzzelli says. โ€œI have been making it for so many years, and the reaction was always such an intense one, I was like, this can’t be normal.โ€

Taking notice of the thriving pop-up culture in the area, Petruzzelli introduced Sprezza Cucina last year. Serving mortadella panini; Bolognese pappardelle with pomodorini, cream, pancetta, shallots and Parmesan, an ode to her mother; and various versions of tiramisu and cannoli to go, each pop-up at The Broken Tulip, The Coop and Pizza Bones sold out.

Petruzzelli says the support over the past year was the nudge she needed to elevate the concept to a more permanent status.

โ€œThe sense of community here, you honestly just have to put yourself out there for a second for people to receive you,โ€ she says. โ€œThat makes being an entrepreneur and starting a business very comforting here; I feel real supported by the feedback.โ€

Sprezza’s menu will steer away from heaping plates of spaghetti blanketed with cheese, Alfredo sauce, unlimited breadsticks and other tropes that have become synonymous with Italian American cuisine. Much of the food offered during the pop-ups was created with to-go service in mind, and now Petruzzelli is excited to dig deeper into her Puglia-rooted vision and says patrons can expect plenty of fresh seafood and sausage, egg-based fresh pasta dishes, and, of course, her family’s lasagna.

The venture’s name comes from โ€œsprezzatura,โ€ the art of taking something complicated and making it appear very simple. The menu will emphasize seasonality and sustainability. Describing the food of Southern Italy, Petruzzelli says, โ€œIt’s not heavy at all, ever, even stews โ€” the portions are much smaller. Very much food you would eat by the beach and go swimming after.โ€

Petruzzelli is currently working to transform the ’90s-era man cave that was Morton’s the Steakhouse, which closed in 2020, ripping up carpet, replacing light fixtures and working to bring her coastal inspiration to life. Hoping to take advantage of the 7,800-square-foot space, Petruzzelli will launch with dinner service before slowly introducing lunch, brunch and pastries and cafe service in the morning.

A visit to Italy a few months ago reinforced the culinary impressions she aims to share with others. Slow. Relaxed. An experience to savour.

โ€œIn Italy, it’s very much like that; you go to a restaurant and could easily sit there for three hours. I don’t want people to come to my restaurant and feel rushed,โ€ Petruzzelli says. โ€œThe food culture over there is so different. Something I want to bring to my restaurant is slow food and enjoying the moment and not focusing on so much of being there just for sustenance. You’re there for a moment, that’s the part of the culture that I think doesn’t get translated into Italian American food.โ€

Stay tuned for an opening date in the coming months.




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