"Tradition is important," says Francis Cretarola, "but food isn't a museum. It is OK to evolve."
That's a deep thought and something of a revelation from Cretarola, who, with wife Cathy Lee, has been something of a curator of traditional flavors from central Italy - Abruzzo in particular - since opening Le Virtù 3½ years ago.
Steeped in strict regionalismo, from its rare Montepulciano wines to the accordion-pumping soundtrack of DisCanto, the Abruzzese folk band that Cretarola helps promote on U.S. tours, this East Passyunk dining room has been as heartfelt and as painstakingly authentic as a restaurant homage gets.
The olives are stuffed with meat ragu before they're fried into irresistibility. The handmade pastas are tossed with gamy, slow-braised meats. And the golden chicken brodo for traditional scrippelle m'busse, a soulful crepe soup many South Philadelphians also grew up eating, is not only steeped grandma-style with a cinnamon stick. The silky rolls of crepe are also filled with the distinctive tang of a sheep's milk "pecorino canestrato," from a cherished Abruzzese cheesemaker, La Porta dei Parchi, that Cretarola says was featured first in America at Le Virtù.
Such dedication to the regional classics has been a worthy calling card, indeed, for South Philadelphia's best authentic Italian restaurant, a warm and personal space with long wood country tables (perfect for large parties) inside, and a sunny muraled patio with a "campo grill" sizzling skewered meats that is in its alfresco glory in spring.
But strict tradition also has its limitations - especially in a city an ocean away from its inspiration, a town with its own sophisticated New World sensibility for Italian cooking and a growing pantry of natural bounties that should be heeded.
So when convention-bound chef Luciana Spurio left the restaurant last summer, Cretarola and Lee took advantage of an opportunity to push the restaurant to the next level. Part of that was to promote the curing talents of Abruzzo-born sous chef and butcher Massimo Conocchioli, who's crafted an impressive array of aging meats from Berks County pigs that hangs beneath the cellar stairs like a salumi forest of wine- and salt-rubbed guanciales, ventricinas, and capocollos.
The stellar "affettati misti" is the showcase for those efforts, an antipasto board with at least six or seven of his various creations, such as an air-dried bresaola that is cured to an almost translucent amber sheet; and La 'Nduja, a spreadable Calabrian sausage that is something like spicy rillettes.
The most important choice Lee and Cretarola had to make, however, was a chef who could lead this kitchen on its delicate mission: remaining faithful to the spirit of tradition while also freshening those classics with an individual touch and some local flavors.
They found him in Joe Cicala, a 28-year-old Sicilian American from Maryland whose culinary journey led him through two years in Italy (at Al Cenacolo in Salerno) followed by stints back home at Galileo and Cafe Milano (around D.C.), and cranking fresh pastas at celebrated Del Posto in New York. Pedigrees matter only so much. But after three fantastic meals at Le Virtù in the last few months, it's clear this well-traveled newcomer - once also an aspiring minor-league hockey player - has quickly proven himself one of the city's young kitchen talents to watch.
The menu is still full of rustic flavors that rise on well-crafted combinations of good ingredients - like the thick rounds of coarse cotechino sausage scented with cinnamon and clove that come posed over a clay crock of Santo Stefano lentils and roast chestnuts. Or the platter of Pecorino del Parco, a marvelously sheepy firm cheese from La Porta dei Parchi that comes drizzled with chestnut honey from Teramo. Or the pancetta-tanged roast sausage with peppers over a creamy flow of polenta and ground farro. The delicate chew of frilly-ribboned tripe "in umido," stewed with tomatoes and marjoram with the neighborhood bocce league in mind, is as good as stomach gets.
But there is also a new refinement to the food here that seems to elevate virtually every dish. The beet salad paired with creamy smears of house-made ricotta looks like a naturalist still-life of multicolor roots, shaved radishes, and baby greens. The occasional lasagna night brings little crocks of delicate crepes layered with artichoke cream that practically melts off the fork.
Pastas such as the "handkerchief" fazzoletti topped with duck ragu, always a favorite, were better than ever. But there are also elegant agnolotti stuffed with braised porchetta meat tossed in truffled brown butter and a dusting of amaretti crumbs from crushed biscotti. Chanterelles and a rich porcini butter were an unexpected luxury in a special ravioli filled with sweetbreads.
Toothy fettuccine tangled in the vivid tomato gravy of a richly meaty "butcher's ragu" topped elegantly with a bending rib of tender meat. Slow-stewed Lancaster County lamb hit startlingly deeper notes of earthiness over gnocchi made from potatoes kissed with juniper-wood smoke. That combination - lamb and smoked juniper wood - made another memorable appearance as an entrée, with a perfectly roasted loin oozing its campfire juices into lentils and a silky puree of cardoons (artichokes on the current menu).
It's not exactly authentic, but the spirit is true enough. And such liberties have freed Cicala to reinterpret and refine dishes for an American audience - especially the entrees - in ways I often found thrilling. The crispy chicken livers, for example, found a compelling new pairing in risotto enriched with tangy Gregoriano cheese. Whole Lancaster County rabbits were deboned and trussed into roasted cylinders seasoned boldly with garlicky porchetta spice. (The roast porchetta itself could have been a shade more tender. But the flavors, goosed by the swagger of white beans and broccoli rabe, were powerfully good.)
And yet, one of the best dishes was pure tradition - a brodetto seafood stew inspired by a recipe from the coastal town of Martinsicuro, a saffron- and wine-steeped broth rich with the zing of red peppers and brimming with cockles and meaty chunks of monkfish, curls of Dover sole, tender head-on shrimp, and calamari.
And so, Le Virtù has not abandoned its curatorial mission one bit. Certainly not yet with its desserts, which remain humbly true to homespun sweets like the "pizza dolce" layer cake soaked in herbal liqueur, or the creamy panna cotta topped with a honeyed tumble of marble-sized strufoli, fried pastry bits dusted with multicolored jimmies.
"That's weird," observed one of my guests.
I kind of liked them, homey as they were, even as Cicala concedes that a modern makeover for the desserts is imminent, too.
I'm optimistic. So far, Cretarola and his new team have been rock-solid in their evolution from preservation hall to a living, breathing local restaurant, where something fresh emerges from Conocchioli's curing room beneath the staircase virtually every day.
This week came a hunk of pork shoulder from Country Time Farm rubbed with salt, herbs, and wine that, after six months of hang time, sliced down into sheer ribbons of amber flesh and creamy fat that practically dissolved on the tongue.
In Abruzzo, it would be called "spalletta." At the new-attitude Le Virtù, however, Cretarola prefers to say: "The Prosciutto di Philly is ready."