Posted by Trey Popp on June 1st, 2012
When thirty minutes pass between a hostess depositing you at a table and a waiter turning up to take your order, the mind plays host to any number of feelings. Patience, amusement, thirst, bewilderment, irritation and disbelief were the order they came to me on a recent weeknight at Le Virtu.
On one hand, there was something perversely appropriate about the inexplicable delay. I’d been pining to return to this South Philly slice of Abruzzo ever since my first encounter with its ethereal pastas—almost five years ago. I’d recommended it to half my friends, promised myself to invite the other half, and somehow ended up being my own worst enemy, letting my review schedule lead me constantly toward newer, untried temptations. So what was another half an hour?
On the other hand, the consolations of philosophy are powerless to insert a drink into the first hand.
My irritation didn’t last very long. The disbelief vanished even more quickly. Better feelings stealthily slipped in. We watched an assistant waiter flip open the top of a wooden bachelor’s chest concealing a cache of rustic bread. The loaves were large and crusty, and the motion of his sawing sent me back to the bare-bones cottage of a distant relative in the Montenegrin highlands, who worked a long serrated blade through a boule as broad as one of the wheels on my Yugo compact, making slices we would smear with the fresh kaymak held in a goatskin slung over a ceiling rafter.
My date was elsewhere, reliving the memory of a French kitchen where one corner was forever pebbled with breadcrumbs. Two tables closer to Le Virtu’s dark wooden bar, a pair of what turned out to be folk musicians visiting from Abruzzo dined in such easeful repose that it relaxed my shoulders just to see them, no matter that so far only water had made its way to me. Meanwhile, the small, polite voices of two grade-school boys drifted our way from the dining room, where they ate with becalming civility in the company of their parents for the next two hours at least. By which time our waiter had arrived, extinguishing any remaining pique by giving advice so personable and candid that occasionally he darted his eyes in either direction so as not to rile anyone who might have welcomed the sale of the halibut he was damning with conspicuously faint praise. Because why would anyone order the halibut if that meant forgoing a porchetta-style rabbit served on lentils pelted with a windfall of chestnuts?
It is a rare restaurant that can turn thirty minutes of forgetting all about you into a feeling of certainty that you’ve come to the right place.
Bread came, about three times more than we needed, with a plate wet to the rim with ungarnished olive oil. It was obscene to imagine two people sopping up so much buttery yet vibrant green oil, right up until the moment when we finished it.
A Burgundy glass materialized, filled generously with a red wine made from Gaglioppo grapes. It’s an Italian varietal I’d never heard of before—a pleasure that, counterintuitively, seems to befall me more frequently the more wine I drink. Thanks mostly to wine lists like this one. Le Virtu could get away with serving nothing but Montelpuciano D’Abrruzzo and Sangiovese, but instead offers up rootsy discoveries like Cococciola, Grillo, and a Pallagrello Nero/Aglianico/Casavecchia blend. The Gaglioppo smelled like a clove-studded cherry plucked from a cedar box.
After the half-hour delay in placing our dinner order, it only took another three minutes for antipasti to land on our table. There was a trio of pecorino-filled crepes floating in a bowl of chicken broth. Eating them was like falling into a sepia-stained photograph. The flavors were simple and unaffected. The texture was a marvel, answering a question I’d have thought too paradoxical to ask in the first place: Can cheese-filled pancakes drowned completely in liquid still feel airy on your tongue? Somehow, they can.
Green olives crammed with porchetta, breaded, and deep-fried would have sunk like stones, meanwhile—and tasted that way even bone-dry, which was close to how they felt on my tongue. But that disappointment paled next to a terracotta cazuela in which a splayed housemade sausage sunk partway into a quicksand of Taragna polenta–a blend of cornmeal and buckwheat rendered into an almost frothy consistency. At the risk of sentencing it to guilt by association, that pillowy substrate tasted—gloriously—like an aspirational form of cream of wheat.
Le Virtu swapped out head chefs a couple years back, placing the kitchen in control of an erstwhile minor-league hockey player. Only in South Philly, right? But Joe Cicala rolls pasta so silken he could serve it to Ian Laperriere. The fazzoletti under his duck ragu were less like “handkerchiefs” than strips cut from a Pashmina shawl. Yet Cicala does not worship exclusively at the altar of noodles soft enough for toothless Flyer forwards. Le Virtu’s hand-pulled single strand of pasta—a four-and-a-half foot tube that might just barely pass through a woman’s wedding band—showed what al dente is all about. Blasted with garlic slices and hot peppers (and a little too much salt), it collapsed the distance between Italian pasta and the thick wheat noodles that make Shanghai stir-fries so addictive.
Then there was the rabbit, which no piece of halibut was likely to surpass. De-boned, laid flat, and rolled up with minced rosemary leaves, it exuded an herbaceous aroma more suggestive of some sun-blasted scrubland overlooking the Adriatic than whatever lush Lancaster County pasture it actually scampered in. Transportive, in other words. And even split between two carefully arranged plates thanks to our thoughtful server, the dish overwhelmed us with its chestnut riches. Le Virtu’s portions are not for the faint-hearted.
Bear that in mind, because dessert is worth getting. Perhaps not the black truffle semifreddo (upon which I remain unqualified to pass judgment, having relied on that of our waiter—who, getting more fun every time he dropped in on us, reckoned that “it’s like eating dirt, but some people like eating dirt”). But certainly the chocolate torrone semifreddo with salted caramel (whose richness he had us double down on with a complimentary round of Meletti chocolate liqueur). Or the cool and refreshing lemon curd, tufted with whipped cream and served with faintly anise-scented fried gnocchi shaped like miniature baguettes.
Next time, I’ll save sufficient room to end with cheese—the unpasteurized sheep’s milk pecorinos and aged ricottas Le Virtu sources from a single organic farm in Abruzzo, and serves with chestnut honey from the same place. Because there will definitely be a next time. This restaurant is as true to the terroir that inspires it as any place I can think of. And there’s no pretentiousness whatsoever in its homage. It’s affordable, familial, soul-soothing even before supper comes—and then supper does come, like the quickening of a slow seduction. I’ve done my thirty-minute penance. The sin of my long absence has finally been expatiated, and I don’t plan on lapsing again.
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