Epic Meals: The 40-Course La Panarda Dinner At Le Virtù

“You don’t want a beer,” said the bartender.

One by one, they’d filed in–couples, friends, regulars, all piling up on top of each other, dampening other guests’ clothing with their own (repercussion of the spitting afternoon rain). Some ordered drinks, most didn’t—and for good reason as I’d find out later. The coat racks filled, and the muraled bar went from hush to roar as the anticipation became audible. There was an electricity in the room; an excitement that effortlessly translated from the already educated to the soon-would-be.

“You don’t want a beer,” she said, and the advice was sound. Not that the beer selection at Le Virtù isn’t worthy. With six taps parading cherry lambics, Italian lagers, and local brews, the selection would definitely be worth some rumination on any other night.

But not tonight. Tonight, there was some food to be had. 40 courses, in fact, and a beer, although tasty, just wouldn’t be sensible. A waste of valuable digestive real estate. So for me, it was some quick deliberation, a choice between a shot of Fernet or a Negroni, and I went with the latter. What better way to start off a feast than with an aperitif? I thought.

Amateur move.

Like the giant, metaphorical hourglass that it was, the bar area emptied with time, and everyone crowded around the dining room’s two long tables, settling on their seats both strategically and accidentally. I chose mine near the kitchen–mainly because of its location, moreso because it was one of the few seats left by the time I made it into the dining room. Introductions were thrown around, and as I made mine, others made theirs, and within some few minutes, strangers became friends. I heard my Negroni sink into itself and, right on cue, the waitstaff swarmed the room, filling water glasses and pouring Spumante.

The dining room at Le Virtù is small for the number of people it contained so the sound was thick, but through it all, a cowbell rang clear. Francis Cratil-Cretarola, one of Le Virtù’s co-owners, rang the bell hard, and went on to explain that it was a cowbell he brought back from his stay in Abruzzo; an important tool for getting his guests’ attention, its ringing traditional at events like these. His introduction was short and sweet: this night was a tribute to the panardas held in Abruzzo–parties that often go on for days. Le Virtù’s version would be a bit scaled down (one night only, 40 courses rather than countless variety, one small dining room and a handful of guests rather than a whole town) because this isn’t Abruzzo, Italy—it’s South Philadelphia, and when you can’t bring the beach, you bring the sand.

The feast is tradition, Cratil-Cretarola explained, and the Le Virtù crew would do their best to hold true to it. He advised everyone in the room to pace themselves and, of course, thanked everyone for joining, but that was it. A longer introduction would’ve been torturous. There were thirty hungry patrons with forty-coursed menus in front of them. Gilly and Raul, both sitting at my end of the table, had been to Le Virtù’s La Panarda dinner last year. Gilly enlightened us with a quick description of what to expect, and Raul regaled us with his raw description. “It’s like a marathon,” he said. “Same preemptive horror and fear, and roughly the same chance of self-defecation.”

Even still, he’d come back for seconds a year later, and was excited about it. So it began.

The Cantina Fertana Pecorino Spumante Brut was an easy start: bright, dry, and the citrus fell behind my molars and seemed to stick around, even through the plate of the first four courses consisted of primarily fried items. The crowd pleasing dish of  “Jewish style” deep-fried artichokes, baccala fritters, porchetta-stuffed olives, and “suppli al telefono”—fried rice balls with mozzarella that stretched from plate to mouth–hit the tables, and the relief in the room was palpable. Four courses on a plate essentially meant there were only 36 courses—still nothing to sniff at, but the roundness of the number 40 was overwhelming to some. Almost every course in the wake of the first, though, was brought out separately and by itself. And with every few, another wine. A Cococciola Terre Valse IGT was the night’s second pour–a rare wine for Italy, an even rarer find for the U.S.

Bottled out of the Cantina Fretana co-op (the only vineyard of the night), the Cococciola grape is usually used for blending and as a base for sparkling wines. This, however, was 100% Cococciola, and Le Virtù is one of the few places in the country that carries it. Grassy, bright, fruity, and with mild acidity, it complemented perfectly the stewed cuttlefish with which it was served. An odd pairing, yes, but the brine went unchallenged by the fruity Cococciola, and the cuttlefish’s buttery bite was cracked by the grape’s acid.

That seemed to also be the trend in Joe Cicala’s cooking. A matchmaker of texture and flavor, with every component of a dish balanced by another, he has a purpose for every ingredient and an objective to his preparation. “Gamberi in padella,” was prawns in a chick pea puree–a perfect union of snap and cream. The robust and delicate roasted turbot, served with a fingerling potato and cerignola olive mash, brought a little heat by way of chili flakes and was immediately mellowed by the sweet cerignolas. The brodetto of assorted fish was made friendly with white wine, roasted peppers, cockles, and mussels, and though simple, had all flavors represented. The broth screamed for some bread, but fortunately for the weak-willed, bread is never on the menu of a 40-course dinner.

It seemed like in every dish, if there was a push, Cicala had a pull, and if there was a pull, he shoved. Take, for example, the farrotto n’ndocca n’docca—a traditional Abruzzese dish, which in the region’s dialect, means a broth of pig ears, pig snout, and tripe. Farrotto, or for the layman, farro cooked in the style of risotto, is pure comfort food. Similar to barley in feel, the farro is cooked down with stock and cheese to a rich, velvety texture, and if done right, each grain still possesses a slight bounce to the bite. The pork bits took an otherwise traditional farrotto, and incorporated some gratifying body and chew. That was only course twelve, so we broke for a few minutes. Some went outside to smoke, and others went outside just to breathe.

Our return marked the arrival of the “terzo servizio di apertura”–a trinity of courses made up of various vegetables, fruits, and cheeses. Morsels of roasted baby beets, flecked with crumbles of gorgonzola and toasted pine nuts, posed as a pseudo-palate cleanser. Then, a charming dome of warm burrata, topped with whole charred scallions, drizzled with a very nice mosto cotto. And lastly, a simple plate of Pecorino Canestrato, a playfully intense sheep’s milk cheese, drizzled with chestnut honey.

“Life is good,” Gilly said, “It never gets old.”

“And then you’re dead for a long time,” replied his friend Bruce.

We pondered over the grandiose feast unfolding before us while in a weird limbo of uncomfortable bliss and euphoric discomfort. And then, a remedy: A fourth bottle was poured—and with it, all discomfort disappeared. The jokes became dirtier, the conversations became louder, and the heartbeats of the room had skipped.

The next course, the “primo servizio dei piatti forti” came out much like the first, with all five courses on one plate. A crostino of delightfully musky black truffle and fatty guanciale, and another of “n’duja”, their housemade, spicy, spreadable salame. “Salame nostrano” with an eggplant oreganata, capocollo with an onion agrodolce, and spalla with a caponata siciliana sat next to each other—a tasting of their house-hung salumi. Each cured meat paired wonderfully, all their fatty goodness sliced in two by their sweet, sour, and sapid counterparts.

Then the Timballo, which looked exactly as how one would imagine something named a “Timballo” would look–a giant, cake-like freak of a domed “lasagna,” though it wasn’t lasagna at all. Layers of crêpes, their rounded edges crisped, encompassed the delectable monstrosity, and inside: layers upon layers of lamb ragu, sausage, mini meatballs, spinach, pecorino, and mozzarella. And as chef Cicala presented the Timballo–wheeling it on a wooden cart into the dining room–the oohs and ahhs of the diners slowly subsided. Shock set in. And when he had brought the Timballo all the way around to the head of the table, Cicala said simply, “Hope you guys are hungry.”

The crowd roared.

And out poured the first red: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo T.V. DOC. A jammy, dark cherried, easy-drinkin’ wine. It had very little acidity—tomato sauces and ragouts take care of that, so it paired comfortably with pastas.

And it’d be a cliché to talk here about chef Cicala’s house-made pastas. It’s overdone. Everybody already knows how delectable, how fresh, how imaginative, how inspiring they are. Everybody knows about his perfect and vibrant ragouts and tomato sauces. There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said, but nevertheless, it’s something worth revisiting, because without Cicala’s pastas, Le Virtù probably wouldn’t be where it is today.

For me, it was the Taccozelle that did it. Short flat noodles, doused in a rich concoction of Abruzzese-style sausage and porcini, accented by saffron and black truffle. The combination of porcini and truffle brought a startlingly intense earthiness, and was immediately rounded out by the saffron’s prominent heat. And when I asked Cicala if it was fresh or canned black truffle, he answered by shaving a little more on top of my plate.

He then took it down a notch with “maccheroni alla chitarra in sugo teramana”. Maccheroni alla chitarra means something like “pasta from the guitar” and to make it, pasta sheets are rolled on top of a “guitar compress”–a wooden board with closely-spaced wires that cut through the pasta sheets, leaving thin, long, square shaped noodles in the instrument’s repository. The pasta, tossed with a bright tomato sugo and small but mighty meatballs was as classic a dish as pasta comes, and it left me enamored, to say the least.

Another few glasses, and a new bottle: the Rubesto Riserva Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. This was the “biggest” bottle, with the boldest tannins, with the strongest grip, that carried notes of dark red fruits, earth, and oak. It was a warrior, which was good because it had to fight with the kitchen’s “terzo servizio dei piatti forti”—or, more laconically, the meats.

And of the rabbit, oven roasted duck, sliced steak, and lamb, it was the Porchetta that was the most fun. Not to take away from any of the other meats (the roasted duck might have been my favorite dish of the night), but chef Cicala threw the pig’s head on a plate, and my friend Darren (@phillyfooddude) and I took off with it, wine in hand to the bar area, where we tore in, savoring each cheek, each tuft of neck meat, and each bit of crackling we could get our forks under. It was a disgusting, disrespectful, and completely insulting performance on our part, but we (or at least I), was too proud and/or inebriated to care.

The night was “finished” with a glass of Panarda Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC which drank similar to a port. An array of cheeses were presented before us—a selection of juniper smoked ricotta, Gregario pecorino, and Muffato Pecorino. This may have been the hardest course to endure. Not that the cheese wasn’t good, it was very good indeed, but it was also course 34 for me, and after 34 courses, cheese is a hard take. The Muffato, a semi-soft, raw sheep’s milk cheese, packed a punch. Spicy, tangy, rich, and somewhat bitter, harmonized by sweet honey drizzled over top of it. All in all, it was a handsomely curated assortment, one that would’ve been more appreciated if I weren’t already stuffed to the larynx with guitar pasta and pig face.

I feel badly for Angela Ranalli, Le Virtù’s pastry chef. Her moment to shine was course 37-40, and that’s a shame. In the dining room, most were too full, too drunk, or had left already–unable to bear the site of one more course. I’ll admit, I wasn’t feeling very good at this point in the evening, but I remember closing my eyes in absolute delight as I spooned her pecorino panna cotta with Montepulciano poached pears into my mouth. I remember sinking back into my chair, in defeat and in jubilation. And as chef Cicala walked into the dining room with his glass of wine, his final entrance was the most telling gesture of the night. La Panarda was over. Francis brought over six different amaros, some imported, some homemade, and encouraged us to drink.

After that point, I only know what time I got home. I know that I walked from East Passyunk to City Hall in the rain, and I know I was beaming like an idiot the entire way.

Obviously, putting together an event of this magnitude is difficult. Hell, owning a successful restaurant in general is difficult. But owning a restaurant, and meeting your own and others’ expectations, and holding a standard, and respecting a tradition, and honoring a cuisine, all while making a lucrative business out of it? That’s near impossible, and we see that every day. Every week in this city, another restaurant shuts its doors because they just couldn’t pull through. The restaurant business is grueling. Francis does it with his wife, Catherine, day in and day out, and together they’ve created a beautiful, Abruzzese microcosm on East Passyunk. He and his wife, along with chef Cicala and his kitchen crew, hold events like La Panarda to bring together the community in much the same way as they do in Abruzzo. They use it as a vessel to share their spirit, and to unleash their love for the Abruzzese culture on anybody willing to embrace it alongside them.