Sex and Candy at Le Virtu

Mystery and sex: Angela Ranalli’s two secret ingredients. She wants her guests to wonder, “Is it going to be too hot? Is it going to be sweet?”

As the new pastry chef in the Abruzzese kitchen at Le Virtu, Ranalli delights in spicing up some of her desserts with an ancient and provocative flavor combination, one she considers an aphrodisiac.

The combination is chocolate and chile, discovered by South Americans nearly 4000 years ago and adopted (read: stolen) by some Italians after Christopher Columbus lubricated his suspected lover Queen Isabella’s interest by presenting her with cocoa beans from the New World.

For her part, Ranalli’s been mixing the two ingredients since she was a kid. Growing up in a house with dozens of older relatives from Abruzzo, she learned to cook their old-fashioned recipes. Chocolate and hot peppers are commonly used together in this region, but Americans typically associate the pairing exclusively with pre-Columbian societies–one of the very few instances where Americans seem to appreciate the source of a thing, not the inventiveness of those who later borrowed it. In this case, according to Ranalli, it’s because most people outside of Abruzzo aren’t familiar with its food.

“It’s a small place,” she says. “Out of the way, mountainous and closed off.”

Ranalli’s mission at Le Virtu – whose principals, coincidentally, hail from villages that neighbor her own family’s – is to recreate the dishes that have been passed down through generations, but to do so with a modern interpretation.

So she’s concocted a signature dessert (for now, the only one on the menu that uses the scintillating chocolate and chile). It’s called Ravioli Fritti al Cioccolato ($10), which to you and me means Fried Chocolate Ravioli. To make it, she rolls out chocolate pasta-like ribbons for shells and stuffs them with Ricotta, sugar, rum, vanilla, and orange zest. She then fries them up and serves them with a chocolate sauce dosed with cayenne pepper. At first, she made it taste mild. Now, because the owners wanted it hotter, she puts “a lot of cayenne pepper in that chocolate sauce.”

In the United States, circa the early 21st century, foods spiked with chocolate and chile are arousing a lot of interest. Remember the Aztec Drinking Chocolate that debuted in Philadelphia at the dearly departed Naked Chocolate Café? Or your favorite high-end chocolate shop, which more than likely sells chile-chocolate truffles? For a serious jolt of heat, there’s the Man v. Food challenge at the Haute Chocolate Cafe in Reading where the kitchen makes a chocolate lava cake spiked with ghost chiles and all you have to do is eat it–and not die. For you beer drinkers, contemplate, if you will, Dogfish Head’s Theobroma (named for the original breed of cocoa trees and branded with a sexy Aztec logo) and Cigar City’s much ballyhooed Hunaphu, both of which employ cacao nibs and chiles, in addition to some other panty-removing ingredients like vanilla, cinnamon and honey.

Ranalli’s take on the fervor reveals her to be a pretty spicy lady herself: “It’s seductive, like a pleasure and pain kind of thing. It’s a little unexpected and something a little strange. They think, ‘How the hell is that going to taste?’”

Just a guess here but considering that it’s chocolate and reminds us of sex … yes, yes, yes … it’s probably fairly damn orgasmic.

Le Virtu [Official website]

Photo courtesy [link includes a nice recipe for hot chile chocolate]