For the Love of Italian

For the past year, Sprezza Cucina has brought Italian food pop-ups to Richmond that have shared a more diverse take on that country’s cuisine, gathering a cult following along the way. Now, fans and newcomers alike can rejoice, because Angela Petruzzelli—founder, owner and chef of Sprezza Cucina—is opening the first Sprezza brick-and-mortar this November.

One of the key strengths of Petruzzelli’s pop-ups has been their focus on a refreshing variety of dishes and ingredients found throughout Italy’s different regions. With much of Richmond’s current Italian offerings centered around Italian-American classics, Sprezza has leaned into Italy’s rich biodiversity, serving up pasta in crema di basilico, fennel and orange salad, and cacio e pepe, alongside dishes such as her family’s signature lasagne, a fan favorite. For her next move, Petruzzelli’s brick-and-mortar menu will pull from her own familial roots in Italy by concentrating on the cuisine of Puglia, the heel of the so-called “Italian boot.”

Petruzzelli’s father hails from an area near Bari, a port city on the Adriatic Sea where sun-bleached stone buildings crowd the shore like teeth, all the way up the jagged cliff sides that drop into the sea. The culinary traditions here are what Petruzzelli was immersed in growing up, and her new permanent space—located at 111 Virginia St. in Shockoe Slip, a property formerly occupied by Morton’s The Steakhouse—will allow her to introduce Richmonders to a range of pugliese dishes that revel in the bounties of the seaside, alongside a carefully curated menu of pugliese wine.

“There’s going to be a lot of different types of seafood, especially where pasta is concerned,” Petruzzelli says. “I think people will be seeing things they may not have seen before, which I’m super excited about. Eventually, I’m going to try to incorporate pastries and other things from Puglia that you wouldn’t necessarily find in other parts of Italy, and definitely can’t find in Richmond.”

A quick cultural history digression: While it’s almost never a good idea to generalize, it’s worth the risk to say that Italians, as a whole, are obsessed with their food—and, more broadly, their food culture. Now, as eating seasonally and sourcing local ingredients has become increasingly popular, it’s worth noting that one of Italy’s more recent contributions to food culture has been the ‘Slow Food’ movement, a campaign started in the 1980s (launched in protest to the first McDonalds in Italy). In short, the movement revolves around the principles of food being ‘good,’ ‘clean,’ and ‘fair’ to consumer, producer and planet, while advocating for an “adequate portion of sensual gourmandise pleasures, to be taken with slow and prolonged enjoyment.”

Just like it sounds, it’s about choosing slow, eating slow, and living slow, in a way that renounces frenzied consumerism and encourages the appreciation of everything that brought you and your meal together, from the ingredients to the people you’re with. Inside Sprezza, Petruzzelli’s food will be personal and echo the sentiments of its origin in ways that go beyond a particular sauce or pasta shape — though, it will have those, too.

“People can come expecting to enjoy really lovely dishes and have a really slow and enjoyable time with the people they love,” Petruzzelli says. “For me, it has to be about the food, and the wine, and the conversation. It has to be about the entire experience, and, for me, the experience has to be something that people take their time with. This will be food that is seasonal and made with a lot of thought into how the ingredients are sourced.”

With this new venture, Petruzzelli jumps from having a roving pop-up kitchen at locales like The Broken Tulip and Pizza Bones, to putting down roots in a sprawling 7,800 square-foot space. For her, the change is a reflection of her continued embrace of a city that, since she moved to Richmond from Miami in March of 2020, has embraced her.

“There’s not many places like Richmond where people will rally behind small businesses the way that they do here, and it’s been incredible to watch and experience honestly,” she adds. “This restaurant is about love and is something I’m doing for the people who support me. I wouldn’t have taken on this restaurant if it weren’t for them, and if this weren’t an act of gratitude for my community.”

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