How a South Philly chef almost lost his hand in a pasta machine

“And then I just heard a crunch. Like a handful of popcorn exploded. It was so gross.”

Chef Joe Cicala

Chef Joe Cicala

Courtesy of Joe Cicala
danya

With all the attention lavished upon chefs these days, the inherent danger of the profession sometimes gets overlooked.

Le Virtu chef and Brigantessa co-owner Joe Cicala got a brutal reminder Sunday night when he nearly lost his left hand after it got caught in the Italian pasta sheeter he uses at the East Passyunk restaurants. All of the bones in his fingers were crushed, but doctors at Jefferson Hospital were able to reattach them in emergency surgery. Followup surgeries are planned so they can reconnect at least some of the nerves, although Cicala said he was told his pinky may remain numb forever.

Just after 6 p.m. on Mothers Day, with the restaurant full of customers, Cicala took a moment to work on a new pasta he was creating for a planned dinner at the James Beard House in NYC (it has since been rescheduled). The recipe used an unorthodox flour made from grana arso, charred wheat berries, and Cicala had added a bit too much water.

The dough was sticking to the rollers, he said. “So, like an idiot, I reached in and tried to force it through the machine. And then I just heard a crunch. Like a handful of popcorn exploded. It was so gross.”

His fingers had been sucked into the quarter-inch space between the rolling cylinders. Cicala turned off the machine, but his crushed hand was still stuck in side. Even worse, because he was in the basement pantry and the restaurant was already busy and buzzing, no one heard his screams. It took around 30 minutes for anyone to arrive, and they only came because he managed to reach his phone and call 911.

“The phone was on a table out of reach,” Cicala recalled, “so I kicked it off, and then used my shoe to hit the Siri button, and had Siri call 911.”

The ordeal wasn’t over yet, though, because after the paramedics arrived, no one could figure out how to get the pasta sheeter to release the hand. Prying it open manually was not working. A hydraulic separator also failed. The EMTs even brought in a machine that was like a smaller version of the Jaws of Life used in auto accidents, and tried to cut through the metal. No go.

Eventually, a decision was made to reverse the direction of the sheeter so the rollers would spit the hand out. Cicala, by this point hopped up on morphine and oxygen, was incredibly nervous. “If they hit the switch and it wasn’t reversed, my hand would just be sucked in further!” The reversal worked, happily, and Cicala was rushed up Passyunk Avenue to Jefferson, which is home to a renowned rehabilitation and surgery facility called The Hand Center.

For now, Cicala is focused on recovery and scheduling the additional surgeries that will get his hand back to working order. Once those take place, he’ll get back to managerial duties like paperwork and ordering, and eventually will make it back to the kitchen. Meanwhile, the restaurants remain open, under Cicala’s trusted staff.