The first time Angela Petruzzelli met Victoria Cece, she didn’t realize she was in the hot seat.
“When Victoria came to one of my Sprezza pop-ups, she was testing me to see if I was actually Italian,” laughs Petruzzelli. Apparently the Miami native passed with flying colors.
“I was impressed with how she narrowed in on Puglia [southern region of Italy] and reading her menus, I could tell she wasn’t just trying to throw something together,” says Cece, who relocated to Richmond from New Jersey this past year.
Petruzzelli started popping up at Broken Tulip with her rustic, southern Italian food menu in March 2021. Since that time, she’s sold out every weekend pop-up, with a dedicated client base swearing by her family’s lasagna.
For now, Petruzzelli says Church Hill pie joint Pizza Bones is serving as Sprezza’s temporary home while she continues her search for the perfect brick-and-mortar space.
Cece, a food and wine writer, is behind the Instagram, @sluttispaghetti. She shares snippets of her vast knowledge in quirky reels, educating her followers on everything from obscure Italian grape varietals to the difference between “salumi” and “salame.” She also shares PSAs to help the unwitting ugly tourist— i.e. there is only one size cappuccino in Italy. It’s cappuccino.
The two Italian-Americans spent weeks direct messaging on Instagram before they finally were able to meet up in person and discuss what they could do to enhance the city’s representation of their beloved home country.
“We met at Secco and had wine and cheese and then ended up at Bamboo drinking whiskey,” reminisces Petruzzelli. “When I finally moved back to the states after growing up in Italy—and Victoria has strong roots in Italy with lots of family over there—when we came to Richmond we just didn’t feel our culture here. So we decided we should do an Italian pop-up together.”
Pasta Cultura was born.
Cece and Petruzzelli figured that the best way to explore Italy and engage with curious Richmond diners was to home in on a specific region, as best they could, for each event.
“Within each region of Italy there are such different foods, each city within a region has a different way of making a sauce and a pasta,” says Petruzzelli. “The food in Sicily is different from the food in Tuscany and Rome and Puglia. We also wanted to show it’s not all chicken parm and spaghetti and meatballs.”
The two hosted their first Pasta Cultura event, Tuscan Holiday, in December 2021. “It was a great success and sold out in 24 hours,” says Cece.
Their next event, an elaborate apericena that took guests to a “piazza in Roma,” was met with mixed reviews.
The issue was not the food or wine, but rather the timing of the dinner, which trickled late into the evening. This would have been completely standard in Italy, of course. But Cece says Richmonders, and all Americans, really, aren’t accustomed to long lingering over plates of pasta. “People were getting a little antsy,” says Cece. “We’re trying to bring relaxation to the experience, so people can talk and drink and have fun.”
The two admit that they were a little bummed by the response, but understand that it’s a cultural hurdle they’ll have to overcome, a necessary trial in the journey of any burgeoning concept. “It was a big learning curve for us,” says Cece. “I think it’s like anything you try to teach people—they’ll embrace it once they start experiencing it more and more.”
The wisdom Petruzzelli and Cece impart on their respective Instagrams—Sprezza’s posts are replete with comprehensive descriptions of delectable dishes—are all part of the Pasta Cultura ethos.
“This is a pathway for myself and for us to introduce the history behind Italian food and wine in a really humble way,” says Cece. “Italian food is very humble. It’s incredibly delicious, but it’s simple, it’s no frills.” Cece urges that when Italians and Italian-Americans critique interpretations of their beloved cuisine, it’s not an “elitist” thing.
“Italian food has become very mainstream, people forget that this food has roots and history that should be respected, it’s no different than any other culture,” says Cece. “If an Italian is getting mad it’s coming from a place of, ‘Let’s have some respect for this, this is a dish my nonna made.’”
The next Pasta Cultura event, “Sicilian Summer, an aperitivo exploration of Sicily,” takes place this Tuesday at Pizza Bones. They’ll have four wines–“something refreshing, maybe rose, white, and orange wine, perhaps a chillable red,” says Cece—plus Sicilian street food, one “really beautiful pasta” and a spin on a famous Sicilian dolci.
While an aperitivo evening on Pizza Bones’ “phenomenal” patio may be as close as the average diner will get to Italy this summer, the Pasta Cultura team is taking their R&D across the ocean to the homeland itself.
Shortly after their Sicilian event, Petruzzelli and Cece are headed to Italy, spending a week together sourcing products and reigniting their Italian tastebuds. “We’re really excited about how quickly we’ve been able to grow,” says Petruzzelli. “Italy is the next step and shows people how much time we’re putting into this.”
Sicilian Summer Aperitivo takes place Tuesday, June 14 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Pizza Bones. Get your tickets ($60) online.