Marathon feast by way of Abruzzo
Le Virtu serves the annual Panarda, 40 courses over nine hours, a tradition dating to 1657.
Hahri Shin was the first to arrive, at noon, a full hour before the scheduled start of the feast. He came outfitted for the occasion, wearing a bright-red Adidas track suit with white headband, and carrying a bottle of Rolaids.
The occasion was the third annual Panarda, a nine-hour, 40-course banquet at Le Virtu, the South Philadelphia restaurant that focuses almost exclusively on the food of Abruzzo, in central Italy.
On a snowy Sunday in December, 30 diners who paid $250 gathered to enjoy the epic meal made by executive chef Joe Cicala and his small staff, which started at 1:41 p.m. with fried olives stuffed with braised pheasant and ended about 10:30 p.m. with nougat-studded chocolate semifreddo and crumb-topped apple cake.
"It's a marathon," said Shin, a computer programmer at a health-care start-up, who walked into the restaurant just as the snow flurries were beginning to pick up speed. "I'm a former Boy Scout. I know to always be prepared."
For some, like Shin, the goal was to eat every bite of every judiciously portioned dish. For others, the draw was just being at one of two communal tables set up in the small, softly lighted dining room.
"Both sides of my family are from Abruzzo," said Nick Starinieri, a lawyer from Montgomery County. "I got a little misty when I saw stewed cuttlefish on the menu. My mother used to make that."
La Panarda is indeed a marathon, but not the eat-all-you-can-as-fast-as-you-can kind that you find at county fairs or see on bad TV. The feast is a centuries-old tradition steeped in cultural and religious significance, and in lore. It still takes place in some Abruzzo villages, especially in the mountains, where winters can be bitter and where a celebratory meal that requires days of preparation goes a long way toward providing purpose, not to mention comfort.
Historically, la Panarda was hosted by a town's aristocracy for those who labored on their behalf, says Francis Cratil, who together with his wife, Catherine Lee, owns Le Virtu. It was a communal celebration of the harvest, held at a time of the annual pig slaughter and when the larder was full.
The first documented Panarda, in 1657, took place in the town of Villavallelonga. Every year since then, the Serafini family has had a hand in hosting Villavallelonga's Panarda, which is held Jan. 1. Cratil says la Panarda has always been, to some degree, an act of defiance, in keeping with the tough and stubborn nature of the Abruzzesi.
"It was about people thumbing their nose at the endemic hardships of life in these remote villages in Abruzzo, and at winter," says Cratil, whose grandfather was from the town of Castiglione Messer Raimondo. "It's people saying, 'While we have this bounty, we're going to celebrate. . . . We're going to be optimistic and put on this excessive celebration.' "
It's that aspect that especially appealed to Cratil. When Le Virtu opened, in 2007, its survival was by no means assured. It had opened during an economic downturn and was committed to focusing on the rustic food of a region that not many people were familiar with.
"A lot of people thought we were daft," Cratil says. In 2010, the opening chef, a talented but temperamental woman from Abruzzo, left. Cratil himself was ill with cancer.
But by the end of that year, things had begun to turn around. Le Virtu brought on Cicala, who had worked at Del Posto in New York and garnered good reviews. "We wanted to celebrate our own survival," says Cratil, who was in the hospital during the first Panarda, but has recovered.
The event is popular and sells out once it's announced, usually in less than an hour. In spite of the price tag, Cratil says, the restaurant does not profit from la Panarda. "We don't make a dime. We do it every year as a recommitment to our mission."
Cicala, sous-chef Brandon Howard, and pastry chef Angela Ranalli prepped for four days to get ready for this year's event. It was organized into 10 "servizii," or services, most of them consisting of four or five courses, with pauses in between. The flow followed a certain rhythm, with courses gradually becoming richer, then lighter, then richer again.
Typical Abruzzese ingredients were featured - seafood to reflect the Adriatic coast; lentils and beans, which are cultivated in the region; a variety of pastas; pork and lamb; and sheep's-milk cheeses - all accompanied by a selection of wines by Cantina Frentana, an Abruzzese producer.
Among the highlights were a shellfish brodetto; a hearty pasta e fagioli; house-made salumi; and a rich, tender lamb stew (agnello brasato) served toward the end that one diner described as "a lullaby." But the star of the show was Cicala's timballo di crespelle, an enormous baked dome of layered savory crepes, cheese, tiny meatballs, tender braised pork, and sauce.
As the snow piled up outside, and afternoon melted into evening, diners clinked glasses and gave toasts. People got up to stretch their legs or to check the score of the Eagles-Lions game. Some ventured outside to throw snowballs between courses.
As the meal drew to a close, the last of the toasts were exchanged, and people who had sat down as strangers or acquaintances stood up and shook hands or hugged as friends.
"The camaraderie with the others at my table helped us get through the end," said Shin. "The snowy backdrop made the experience even more special. It was a night I will never forget."
READ CRAIG LaBAN'S REVIEW
To read Craig LaBan's original review of Le Virtu, go to inquirer.com/levirtu.
Agnello Brasato (Lamb Stew)
Makes 6 servings
1/4 cup olive oil
3 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed of visible fat and cut into 11/2-inch pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
1 whole star anise
3 whole juniper berries
1 medium leek, white and light-green parts, cut into small dice
1 cup diced onion
1 cup dry white wine
3 cups homemade or no-salt-added chicken broth
1 cup canned whole tomatoes with their juices, preferably an Italian brand, hand-crushed
8 ounces parsnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
8 ounces carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 pound russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, cut into very thin slices
Leaves from 3 sprigs rosemary, minced
Best-quality extra-virgin olive oil, for garnish
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
1. Heat half of the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottom pot over medium-high heat. Lightly season the meat all over with salt and pepper. Once the oil shimmers, add half of the lamb; cook for 6 to 8 minutes, turning to brown on all sides. Transfer the browned pieces to a bowl as you work. Cook the remaining lamb; no need to add oil. Transfer to the bowl.
2. Add the bay leaves, star anise, and juniper berries to the pot; if desired, first wrap or tie them in a small piece of cheesecloth. Add the leek and onion, stirring to coat and to dislodge any browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Reduce the heat to medium; cook for 7 or 8 minutes, stirring often, until those ingredients have softened.
3. Add the wine, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until it has almost evaporated. Add the broth, the tomatoes, and their juices. Return all of the lamb and any accumulated juices to the pot, stirring to incorporate. Increase the heat to medium-high; once the mixture starts to bubble, reduce the heat to medium or as needed to maintain a low boil. Cover and cook for 11/2 hours, until the lamb is tender, stirring occasionally.
4. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the parsnips, carrots, potatoes, and garlic in a roasting pan that's large enough to hold them comfortably. Toss with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the rosemary, then season well with salt and pepper. Roast for 45 minutes, stirring every 20 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
5. Discard the spices wrapped in cheesecloth, or use a slotted spoon to remove, and discard the bay leaves, star anise, and juniper berries from the pot.
6. Add the roasted vegetables to the lamb mixture in the pot. Cook (uncovered) for 10 minutes to form a thick, glossy stew. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.
7. Divide among individual wide, shallow bowls. Serve hot, sprinkled with chopped parsley, and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil.
Per serving: 580 calories, 48 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 25 grams fat, 150 milligrams cholesterol, 360 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Pasta e Fagioli
Makes 4 servings
2 tablespoons best-quality extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 cup finely diced onion
1/4 cup well-scrubbed, finely diced carrot (from 1/2 medium carrot)
1/4 cup finely diced celery (from 1 medium rib)
3 ounces pancetta, chopped
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup white wine
6 cups no-salt-added chicken broth
2 (14.5-ounce) cans
of a combination
of no-salt-added beans (chickpeas, borlotti, cannellini, etc.), drained and rinsed
1/4 cup dried lentils, rinsed
1 cup canned Roma tomatoes with their juices, preferably an Italian brand, hand-crushed
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
4 ounces (1 cup) dried mixed pasta, such as a combination of ditalini, cavatelli,
Freshly ground/ cracked black pepper
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
1. Heat the 2 tablespoons of oil in a large pot over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion, carrot, celery, pancetta, garlic, and bay leaves, stirring to coat. Cook until the fat from the pancetta renders out and the vegetables become translucent, about 7 minutes.
2. Add the wine and cook for about 10 minutes, until it has nearly evaporated. Add the broth, beans, lentils, the tomatoes and their juices, and the rosemary. Increase the heat to high; cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, uncovered, until the lentils are tender, 20 to 22 minutes.
3. Use a slotted spoon to transfer 1 cup of the bean mixture and a little liquid to a blender. Remove the center knob so steam can escape. Hold a paper towel over the opening. Puree until smooth.
4. Add the dried pasta to the pot, stirring to incorporate; increase the heat to medium-high. Boil until the pasta is tender but still firm to the bite; the cooking time will depend on the brand and shape of the pasta; figure about 12 minutes. The soup will thicken a bit by the time the pasta is cooked. Remove and discard the bay leaves.
5. Stir the pureed bean mixture into the soup. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook briefly, until heated through.
6. Remove from heat; stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Let the soup sit for 5 minutes, then ladle it into individual bowls. Drizzle each portion with extra-virgin olive oil, then sprinkle with cheese.
Per serving: 580 calories, 27 grams protein, 71 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 18 grams fat, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 870 milligrams sodium, 14 grams dietary fiber.
Angela's Olive Oil Apple Cake
Makes 15 servings
For the apples:
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 medium or 3 small tart apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced (8 ounces sliced)
For the cake:
Scant 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for coating the pan
4 large eggs
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup fresh orange juice
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
For the topping:
11/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
11/4 cups sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature
1. For the apples: Whisk together the sugar and cinnamon in a mixing bowl. Add the apple slices; toss gently but thoroughly so the slices are well coated.
2. For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use a little oil to grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Whisk together the eggs, sugar, and vanilla extract in a mixing bowl. Pour in the scant cup of oil and the orange juice, whisking until well combined.
3. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a separate bowl, then add to the wet ingredients, whisking until smooth.
4. Pour half of the batter into the baking pan. Gently arrange the apple slices over the batter in a single layer, overlapping them slightly. (You might not need all of the apple slices.) Pour the remaining batter over the apples and use a flexible spatula to smooth and even out the batter. Bake for 30 minutes; the cake will not be done.
5. Meanwhile, make the topping: Combine the flour, sugar, cinnamon (to taste), and salt in a mixing bowl. Distribute the pieces of butter around the bowl; use your fingers to work the mixture into large crumbs, making sure all of the butter is well incorporated.
6. Remove the cake from the oven (after 30 minutes); immediately sprinkle the topping evenly over the surface of the cake. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the topping is golden brown, and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
7. Transfer the cake (in the baking pan) to a wire rack to cool for 1 hour before serving.
Per serving: 560 calories, 5 grams protein, 73 grams carbohydrates, 49 grams sugar, 28 grams fat, 90 milligrams cholesterol, 250 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
To inquire about next year's la Panarda, visit www.levirtu.com or call 215-271-5626.