Born and raised in South Camden, Joseph (Joe) Nocella spent a great deal of time in the kitchen under the watchful eyes of his mother and grandmother when he was a young boy. Most kids would consider this torture, but to Joe it was the most comfortable room in the house and he loved the smells of the minestrone soup, Sunday gravy, lasagna and homemade pasta…little did he know, but being the youngest in the Nocella family was to become a culinary blessing.
As young Joe grew up, he chose to continue to foster a more and more intimate relationship with food…one that was closely associated with the quality time he spent with his family. The recipes from his grandparents’ native Abruzzi and Naples peaked his curiosity as well as his senses. Visiting his grandfather usually meant playing a role in cooking roasted chicken dishes, ribs or pork chops. A culinary education unlike anything the top schools could ever offer, Joe learned the core of cooking excellence from the people he loved most and came to understand that, as Italian immigrants, his grandparents had no choice but to make-do with what was made available to them…resulting in the Nocella Family’s own nurtured version of simply awesome Italian American fare.
A Rutgers graduate with a degree in psychology, Joe initially wanted to become a teacher, but couldn’t shake what was always at the forefront of his mind…cooking. Luckily, he chose to pursue what was in his heart and began working in neighborhood Italian restaurants while attending The Restaurant School in Philadelphia. And, it was at this time Joe began to combine what he learned from his grandparents’ and mother’s Italian American cooking with his education. It became his very first “recipe”, if you will, one he entitled “making good better”.
The real turning point in Joe’s culinary career came about while working at Catelli Ristorante in Voorhees, NJ under the supervision of Lou Imbesi. It was Lou who truly recognized Joe’s natural ability as a young chef, and quickly become his mentor and personal friend. Both hailing from similar backgrounds, Joe found himself in a familiar comfort zone, like in the days long past that he spent in the kitchen with his mother. This made for the perfect launch pad for Joe to enhance his skills as a chef, and at the same time study the business side of running a restaurant. He also learned that without question, “if you want it, you have to go and get it”… in other words, he knew being a master at his skill was only part of it, he had to also master his ambition both internally and vocally in order to be the best he could be. Today, Nocella employs the same standard with his own apprentices.
Now, as the Executive Chef at LaScala’s Restaurant & Bar in Historic Old City, Philadelphia, Nocella strives to make homemade, fresh-as-possible, basic, yet savory Italian American fare that compels his customers to come back for more. “You give the people what they know and make it the best they ever had”. No wonder LaScala’s is known as “your home-away-from-home”… thanks in part to Joe’s cavatelli, gnocchi, rigatoni and lasagna dishes that folks just cannot get enough of.
Himself a fan of barbecue chicken and ribs, stemming from his fond memories of his grandfather’s cooking, Nocella enjoys creating simple meat dishes with an Italian flair, like his mouth-watering pork chops which he pairs with a creamy polenta.
When asked what keeps him motivated in the kitchen Joe answers with, “It’s all about consistency”. Rather than concern himself with what the guy across the street is doing, Joe stays focused on what is best for the restaurant and the customer. Most importantly, he wants to be a success for his wife and young children, as well as a good role model.
For the here and now, it is safe to say that as one of Philadelphia’s premier Italian American chefs, Joe is very happy doing what he loves and we are all quite lucky that he was blessed with his mother’s and grandmother’s joy of cooking.