As a general rule, I don’t walk into a restaurant expecting to be bowled over by a lentil. But that’s exactly what happened to me recently at Le Virtù, the East Passyunk favorite that quietly has become one of the finest Italian restaurants in the city since it opened back in 2007.
Those lentils formed the base of a dish of coniglio in porchetta, a fabulous Lancaster County rabbit painted with a paste of bay leaf, rosemary, garlic and olive oil, rolled in on itself, and roasted until it took on a depth of flavor usually associated with any sort of protein but the famously lean rabbit. (One of Le Virtù’s secrets: Theirs is half wild and half domesticated, which allows for a subtle gaminess and a bit more fat.) Still, for all the succulence and excitement of the meat itself, it was the lentils that stopped me in my tracks: Lovingly cooked in a chestnut ragu seamed with a gorgeous rabbit stock, they were as deeply savory and comforting as anything you’ll likely have this winter.
Dining at Le Virtù is full of unexpected moments like that. Executive chef Joe Cicala understands what makes the foods of Abruzzo—on the Adriatic side of Italy above the spur of the boot—so special. On paper, his compositions read as straightforward enough. On the plate, however, they pop with a vigor that embodies all the glories of great rustic Italian eating.
A mason jar of n’duja arrived looking like some sort of midway point between rillettes and tartare. This spreadable Calabrese salame, all pastel pink and glistening from its generous pork-belly fats, punctuated by slices of vivid Calabrian chilies, was a spicy, convincing argument against starting dinners with salads. I just wish the grilled bread served with it, as a palette for the n’duja to be spread on, had been warm.
Cicale and his team are wizards with meats, and through a range of techniques. Their charcuterie has earned a passionate following in the city, and justifiably so. So, too, have their ragus, as demonstrated by a recent penne special with a heady goat ragu given a salty-earthy spine by the addition of house-made goat’s milk ricotta salata. Tacozzelle, a broad handkerchief of a pasta, was silken in texture, luxuriated in umber-toned sauce lifted by the floral notes of Italian saffron, and anchored by porcini, truffle paste and the bouncy heft of homemade Abruzzese sausage.
Brodetto, a transfixing seafood stew, was infinitely more interesting than its menu description read: The tomato broth walked the tightrope between acid, sweetness and herbal complexity. Swimming within it were tender calamari, unexpectedly light mussels and clams, monkfish, shrimp and langoustines, all given further smoky depth by grilled red peppers. Like a great paella or a perfect bouillabaisse, Cicala’s brodetto succeeded in pulling off the difficult trick of ensuring that all the components have been cooked for the right amount of time, affording each the opportunity to shine, as opposed to devolving into the mealy mess that too often happens elsewhere with dishes like this.
All of this is enjoyed in one of two dining rooms, both of them warm and convivial, both of them staffed by a team that is well versed in the food and justifiably passionate about it. In the summertime, outdoor seating doubles the number of guests the restaurant can accommodate. A recent visit would have benefited from having one more server to work the front room, as we had to wait a bit longer between courses than we would have liked to. I love nothing more than a leisurely meal, but the pauses between each course should be more or less similar, which wasn’t always the case here. Regardless, it was the one hiccup—and a minor one at that, to be fair—in an otherwise remarkable overall experience.
Even the wine list finds its footing in the unapologetically authentic. The wines of southern Italy are among the most food-friendly and interesting you’ll find, and yet too few consumers ever really take the time to explore. You should do so here. Order a spicy glass of Gaglioppo, a steely rosé of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a Verdicchio like the lovechild of a lemon and piece of slate. They will change what you think Italian wine is capable of.
And then wash it all down with dessert by Cicala’s wife, the excellent pastry chef Angela Ranalli: perhaps an order of subtle olive-oil carrot cake, three thin slabs marching across a rectangular plate, each crowned with a dollop of vanilla-scented mascarpone; or torcinelli, fried potato-and-yeast doughnuts like anise-perfumed and raisin-studded churros. Maybe an espresso, followed by a quick shot of Sambuca.
By this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in Italy. The din of other guests working their way through their wine, the clink of glasses and utensils, the totally unselfconscious food whose flavors—honest, exuberant, deeply soulful—are somehow magnified beyond all logic. This is what Italian dining should be in Philadelphia. It sure is what it’s like in Italy.
1927 East Passyunk Ave.
215-271-5626 | levirtu.com
Photography by Alison Dunlap