It started as a typical evening at the East Passyunk Southern Italian restaurant Brigantessa. A few staffers were gathered at the bar on Oct. 5, having “shift drinks,” an after-work ritual that allows for winding down after a busy night. As often happens in Philadelphia, the conversation turned to sports, and the sports talk turned to dissing Boston.
As Brigantessa’s former front-of-house manager Mara Picca described it in an email she sent her employers later that night, “Someone remarked that Boston was clean, but racist, Sydney said something to defend it, and then [someone else] said something about the Nazis having an emphasis on racism and cleanliness. Then Sydney said, ‘Have you seen my tattoo?’”
Thus began a tense conversation that ultimately led four employees, including Picca, to quit and left the restaurant’s owners, Francis Cratil-Cretarola and Cathy Lee, devastated.
The Sydney in question was Sydney Hanick, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, who’d been working at Brigantessa since July. According to a former employee, Hanick had previously made off-the-cuff, ostensibly jokey remarks that disconcerted staff members, including one that was disparaging of African-Americans and another that suggested admiration of white nationalist men.
So when Hanick said, in response to a conversation about Nazis, that her tattoo was of a German eagle, her colleagues’ hackles went up. One of them told Hanick that some people would say a German eagle tattoo is as bad as having a tattoo of the Confederate flag. Hanick disagreed, Picca wrote in the email.
“She said that people get the German eagle tattoo for different reasons, and that WWII/the Holocaust was different from the civil rights movement. [Another staffer] said, ‘Yeah, one of them didn’t use gas chambers,’ to which Sydney said, ‘Well, they were effective.’”
Though the Jewish Picca, who’d worked at Brigantessa for a year and a half, is not particularly religious, the reference to the efficiency of Nazi gas chambers upset her. In the email to Cratil-Cretarola and Lee, which she wrote a few hours after the incident, she said of the remark, “I am still physically shaken from it.”
“This is compounding other borderline political comments that Sydney has made,” she added. “We are all open-minded enough to work with someone with differing political views, but when it verges on hate-speech in a restaurant that advocates itself as a safe space, enough is enough.”
She also told her bosses she persuaded her fellow staffers to show up to work the following day, despite their discomfort.
“I really have tried to make this work and hold us together, but I am worried people are going to start walking out as early as tomorrow morning,” Picca wrote. “I will be there as always, and am here if you have questions.”
Cratil-Cretarola and Lee were traveling in Italy with the restaurant’s executive chef, Damon Menapace, when they received Picca’s email as well as emails from other staffers. At one point, they were on a five-hour drive from Abruzzo to Puglia with spotty internet access. As they caught up with the emails, at least one of them came across to the couple as an ultimatum — fire Hanick or I won’t come to work. They discussed the matter with Menapace.
“We decided that we would not fire anyone from 5,000 miles [away] before being able to investigate,” they explained in a written statement provided to the Exponent. “In all the time Sydney had worked with us, no complaints about her had been made. Chef Menapace had also worked with her previously for more than three years, and had never had or heard of an issue. None of the three people who had followed her from previous situations to Brigantessa spoke ill of her.”
Longtime advocates for progressive causes, the couple strongly believed in giving people the benefit of the doubt. So before they took any action, they dispatched their proxy, Mary Sigel, to interview all the staffers who were present on Oct. 5.
“She asked each one pointedly if Sydney had ever disparaged them personally in any way. None of them produced an example,” they wrote. On Oct. 9, Sydney read an apology to the staff.
When Cratil-Cretarola and Lee returned from Italy, they gathered Sigel’s interviews and spoke to Sydney directly. Then they held a pre-dinner shift meeting on Oct. 13 with available staff to explain that Sydney would be staying on — with the caveat that any other offensive statement would result in her immediate termination.
Cratil-Cretarola also gave out his phone number and said that anyone who wanted to speak to him further was welcome to do so. About five staffers took him up on that offer. “Our conversations were frank but respectful,” he said.
On Oct. 23, at 6:30 p.m., Cratil-Cretarola and Lee were made aware, by Philadelphia magazine writer Alexandra Jones, who was working on an article about the dust-up for the magazine’s food website, Foobooz, that in 2014 Hanick had posted three images on social media that Cratil-Cretarola and Lee called “repugnant.”
One was a photograph of a Chabad menorah with the caption, “They’re haunting me.” One was a photo of a German flag with the caption, “Winners win.” When someone commented, “They also killed 6 million Jews,” Hanick replied, “…and?” And another photo showed a German menu with the words “name one bad thing Germany has ever done.” Hanick’s caption for that was “True story bro.” When someone else wrote, “Nazis,” she said, “nationalsozialismus had it’s [sic] positive ideals” and “Deutschland uber alles.”
At 8 p.m. that night, Cratil-Cretarola and Lee fired Hanick.
“I think to be an anti-Semite, to be a Nazi, is to invite and to deserve the scorn and disdain of the entire community,” Cratil-Cretarola said in a phone interview. “When we found out, we acted.”
Cratil-Cretarola objected to the notion that he and Lee did not fire Hanick soon enough.
“We weren’t there,” he said of the initial contretemps. “And there’s a whole precipitating argument that supposes something about a person based on a tattoo, and without the context that was provided by the horrible posts, my wife and I didn’t want to label someone as a Nazi or an anti-Semite based on one comment delivered after an argument during which three people were arguing with one.”
In their statement, Cratil-Cretarola and Lee referred to “the perceived meaning” of Hanick’s German eagle tattoo, which Hanick said was the eagle of the German Democratic Republic.
This is not the first time a German eagle tattoo has caused workplace controversy — even here in Philadelphia.
In 2016, a photo of a Philadelphia police officer with a German Imperial eagle tattoo and the word “Fatherland” above it went viral, bringing condemnation from politicians and pundits. The photo of Officer Ian Lichterman spurred Mayor Kenney to release a statement:
“I find it incredibly offensive, and I know many others do as well. This image is particularly offensive to our WWII veterans who fought valiantly to free Europe from Nazi Germany, as well as all victims of Nazi atrocities.”
At the time, the Anti-Defamation League’s Nancy Baron-Baer was careful to provide context for a German eagle tattoo. “Not every image of an eagle is a Nazi eagle, and so we can’t in and of itself say that that particular symbol makes the individual an anti-Semite,” she told the Exponent.
An internal affairs investigation cleared Lichterman — who claimed mere pride in his German heritage — of any wrongdoing.
For Picca, a Bergen County native, the subtleties of different German eagle tattoos is not the issue — and wasn’t the issue that night. It was the way in which the tattoo was invoked.
“We weren’t talking about German pride, we were talking about Nazis, and she equated her tattoo to that conversation,” said Picca. “[The tattoo] doesn’t have a Nazi context on its own, but when you give it that context, there it is.”
She was also distressed that the owners made the decision to keep Hanick based only on Sigel’s reports and a conversation with Hanick. Cratil-Cretarola did not reach out to Picca, the only Jewish employee present during the conversation about the tattoo, to offer support for what Picca describes as a very difficult experience. Indeed, she describes a visceral, physical response to Hanick’s remarks.
“There’s been a few times in my life when I feel extra Jewish. Being in Israel is one of those times, where you just feel more connected to the culture. And this was one of those times, where you just feel it but in the opposite way. This was like, ‘Oh my god, I just felt all of the pain and suffering of our people.”
She spoke of her physical reaction when she visited Yad Vashem, which was one of the worst days of her life:
“This brought back those memories to me. And I was like, No, I’m not going to let this go” — even though it meant being out of work unexpectedly.
Though the ADL’s Baron-Baer didn’t comment on this story specifically, she did encourage the notion of speaking out when something feels off.
“Each of us in our everyday lives comes into contact with the slight slur, the off-color joke, the little comment that just seems to bother us and we’re not sure what to do,” Baron-Baer said. “We need to speak up, respectfully, and make the other person aware of our discomfort. We need to make the other person understand the hurtfulness of the comment, perhaps the untruth of what they’re saying. If we don’t do that, people feel free to move to something a little more serious. Maybe it becomes an act of bias, economic discrimination, it can keep climbing until you get to things like murder, like [the Pittsburgh shooting], or assault. So we all have the power — whether we’re third-graders or adults — to address comments that are improper as we hear them.”
As for Cratil-Cretarola and Lee, they are heartbroken that they have been perceived as uncaring, given how much they do in their lives and business to create safe spaces and advocate for marginalized communities.
“People can judge us and say we didn’t act soon enough,” Cratil-Cretarola said, “but as soon as we had incontrovertible evidence, we pushed the button.”
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