Luciana Spurio's first trip to the United States, in 1990, was a 10-day vacation that started badly when her plane was grounded in Milan, Italy, with mechanical problems.
Other passengers complained, but Spurio, then 31, interpreted the delay as a blessing. It gave her a chance to learn a bit of English - just enough to make hotel reservations when the plane landed in New York City.
That first trip was a success. She toured Manhattan, and on a side trip to Montreal tracked down long-lost cousins. From then on, Spurio returned to the States annually. She fell in love with the excitement and the opportunity (if not the food) in the United States and started to dream of living here.
Philadelphia was not on her radar then - but look at her now:
At 48, Spurio commands the kitchen at Le Virtú, a Passyunk Avenue restaurant devoted to dishes she grew up cooking - the cuisine of the Abruzzi region, where she spent much of her childhood, and of Ascoli Piceno, the neighboring seaside resort where she was born.
At the restaurant, she re-creates her grandfather's hand-crafted sausage, her grandmother's ravioli filled with braised rabbit and grated amaretto cookies; grilled monkfish and savory deep-fried olives. She cooks by touch and taste, making herself an essential ingredient in each dish.
"I learned from the old women," say Spurio, a sturdy beauty with thick blond hair twisted into a braid that stretches down her back.
"In Italy, usually the young women will learn traditional recipes from the old women. And my mother used to teach too."
But put any two cooks in the kitchen, she says, and give them identical ingredients for the same dish, "and the results don't taste the same," she says, her English perfected now but still heavily accented.
"Because it's all in what the cook brings to the food. It's the touch."
The owners of Le Virtú, Francis Cratil and Catherine Lee, knew the restaurant they hoped to open would need a chef who was native to the Abruzzi.
Cratil, 44, originally from Reading, knew only that his father's family had come from Abruzzi. Neither Cratil, nor Lee, who is 41 and from North Jersey, had any experience in the restaurant business.
But after they honeymooned and made several extended visits, they came to love the southern coastal and mountainous region and became determined to bring the area's authentic dishes, and perhaps its style, home to Philadelphia.
"The Italians have a kind of genius for living," Cratil says. "You can sit in an Italian piazza, or stroll during the passageata, and there's never that vibe you get on South Street - that a fight is about to break out."
The couple met Spurio in 2004 on one of her many visits to the States; she heard that they were looking for a chef and introduced herself. On their next trip to Italy, the couple sought her out.
"I was a little concerned because Luciana was working at a seafood restaurant," Cratil says. "And that's great on the Adriatic, but we knew we wanted to feature dishes from the interior too."
"Luciana took us to her home and she cooked the regional dishes for us there and we were sold," he says. "We knew this was the person we wanted to start a restaurant with."
It is probably best to condense the details involved in obtaining a work visa for Spurio. Perhaps it is enough to say the process took 18 months and at one point, a humiliated Spurio was handcuffed by U.S. officials and deported. She shudders with the indignation at the memory.
"Basically," Cratil says, "I had to convince immigration officials she was essential to our business. We had to produce expert testimony that to execute this cuisine you need someone for whom the cuisine was native."
Le Virtú opened in the fall and at long last the exhausted but pleased chef sits sipping red wine, surrounded by platters of her creation:
Scripelle m'busse: a soup of crepes rolled with pecorino in chicken broth; Linguine al Cartoccio: calamari, clams, mussels and shrimp sauteed in olive oil and garlic and steamed in parchment; and Maccheroncini alla Chitarra con Ragu d'Agnello: lamb ragu with strips of pasta so thin they resemble guitar strings. The pasta is cut on a chitarra, a wire-strung board passed down in Italian families from mother to daughter.
"These things you can't learn in a school," Spurio says. "You learn many things in a school, but not recipes."
Her father worked for a florist, her mother tended to hearth and home. And as the only daughter, Spurio did not have to compete for attention - as long as she was in the kitchen.
"The only time I was not in the kitchen was when I was being born," she jokes.
One of her earliest kitchen chores was pitting olives. Now her menu features Olive all'Ascolana: breaded fried olives stuffed with braised beef, pork and chicken.
"Everything on my menu now I learned at home, the timbale, the pasta dough, the ravioli. None of this was made with machines."
"This is our culture and this is the way for me to remember my family every day because of the smells."
"This is the way we cook for friends too, to keep them close. And the same I did with my daughter," says single-mother Spurio, referring to Maria Victoria, a graduate student in political science and international relations in Bologna, Italy. Many times her daughter has called "home" with cooking questions when friends in Bologna didn't know how to make this or that.
Spurio was introduced to Philadelphia, specifically South Philadelphia, on her third visit to this country.
"I thought it was a little dirty," she says in a whisper, like a guest hesitant to offend her host.
The Italian Market was also a disappointment: not enough Italians, too few appetizing ingredients.
Here she leans forward in her chair, desperate it seems, to explain what Americans are doing wrong with food.
"When I don't eat very well, I feel sad," she says. "If you don't eat right you get sick - you can see that all around. Why is it people don't care?"
Americans, she says, rely too much on recipes. Some aspects of cooking just can't be conveyed that way.
"They ask: How much salt should I put in the water for the pasta. And what can I tell them? It's experience."
"Americans want all the directions, but you have to practice and learn from mistakes. Some tomatoes are more watery, some have more acid and you need to add a carrot or an onion."
Turn off the exhaust fan in the kitchen, she advises, and listen for the right sizzles.
"The eyes, the ears, the nose, these are what you're cooking with and you put yourself in the recipe."
Makes 8 servings
1/2 cup sugar, divided
2 large lemons
1 teaspoon Knox unflavored gelatin dissolved in 2 tablespoons hot water
1/2 cup heavy cream
1. Separate the eggs, putting the whites in one mixing bowl and the yolks in another. Add 1/4 cup sugar and a pinch of salt to the whites and beat to make meringue.
2. Add 1/4 cup sugar to the egg yolks and beat until almost white. Add zest and juice of two lemons. Add gelatin (already dissolved).
3. Add the meringue to the bowl with the yolks, slowly, by hand, using a spatula.
4. In a separate bowl, beat heavy cream until whipped. Add to yolk/meringue mixture slowly.
5. Refrigerate at least six hours. Serve with fresh berries if desired.
Makes 4 servings
1 pound dry spaghetti
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
8 cloves garlic, sliced
2 to 3 fresh hot green
4 teaspoons cayenne pepper flakes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Pecorino cheese, as desired
1. Bring water for pasta to boil in large pot. When water boils, add pasta and pinch of salt. Do not break the pieces of spaghetti. Cook spaghetti for half the time recommended on the package. (The spaghetti will be only partially cooked; not even al dente. It will be finished in the frying pan.)
2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil for a minute or two in the frying pan, then add all the other ingredients, except the parsley, and heat together until the garlic is golden. Add parsley. Add one scoop, about 1/2 cup, of boiling water from the pasta.
3. Remove the half-cooked spaghetti from the water with tongs or strainer and add to the frying pan to finish cooking.
4. Put onto four plates, sprinkle with pecorino cheese.
Monkfish alla Pizzaiola
Makes 4 servings
Extra virgin olive oil
1 fresh green hot pepper, sliced
1 clove garlic, whole
Sprinkle of white pepper
Dash of salt
2 pounds monkfish steaks
Sprinkle of oregano
Handful of cherry tomatoes, cut in half
Handful of capers and 1 caper berry, if available
Sprinkle of parsley
Clams and mussels, about 4 per person
1/4 cup dry white wine, preferably chardonnay
1. Combine olive oil in frying pan with 2 slices fresh green hot pepper, and one clove garlic. When oil is medium hot, add fish.
2. Sprinkle each piece of fish with salt and white pepper and cook about two minutes (more if fish steaks are thick).
3. Flip the steaks, sprinkle with dry oregano.
4. Let the temperature in the pan return to medium hot. Add capers and cherry tomatoes (and caper berry if using). Add parsley.
5. Add shellfish and white wine. Cover and cook until shellfish open. Remove cover and let the liquid in the pan evaporate. (Do not reduce the flame).
Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.
1927 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia 19148
Read the review of Le Virtú by Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.