by Len Lear
Joseph Cicala, 28, who has been the executive chef at Le Virtu, 1927 East Passyunk Ave. (at Juniper, off McKean), for one year, knows how to deliver a perfect slap shot to a slab of beef in the kitchen. That’s because the suburban Washington, D.C., native played professional ice hockey for the Lowell Lock Monsters and Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League throughout the 2000/2001 season.
But Cicala decided that he’d suffer fewer broken bones and concussions in professional kitchens than on a hockey rink, so he made a sharp U-turn on his skates and began a two-year apprenticeship with Michelin star Chef Pietro Rispoli at Ristorante Al Cenacolo in Salerno, Italy, followed by two years of training under another world-class chef, Roberto Donna at Galileo in D.C. After Galileo, Cicala spent a year working for celebrity chef Mario Batali at Del Posto in New York, and was then executive chef at Palio Ristorante in Leesburg, VA.
So when executive chef Luciana Spurio left Le Virtu last summer, owners Francis Cratil and his wife, Catherine Lee, quickly scooped up Cicala to take over the reins at the four-year-old South Philly restaurant that specializes in the food of Abruzzo. Cratil and Lee began their Le Virtu project in 2005, but it took two years of navigating the city’s bureaucracy before they could open the restaurant. (The name Le Virtu, meaning “virtue,” is also the name of a traditional Abruzzese minestrone soup.) The Abruzzo region on the eastern coast of Italy, 50 miles east of Rome, just happens to be where the forebears of so many Italian-Americans in the Delaware Valley came from.
“We have lived and traveled for extended periods in Abruzzo,” said Catherine. “We stayed in small mountain villages and larger cities, and we have a love and passion for the people and culture of Abruzzo. We have even guided culinary tours of the region.” Since 2006 they have also been the North American representatives for DisCanto, an Abruzzo-based quintet which performs traditional Abruzzese music.
While tourists in Italy invariably rhapsodize over Tuscan cuisine, Abruzzese chefs are masters at turning simple ingredients like freshly picked beans, gleaming black mussels, golden noodles, fruity olive oil and aromatic saffron into exciting adventures. Just-caught fish are usually marinated in a vinegary brine, and rich soups are created from dozens of types of fish.
To honor the traditions of Abruzzo for bold, rustic flavors, Cicala uses locally grown ingredients and wherever possible, organically grown products. They also cure their own pancetta, guanciale, salami and Abruzzese-style sausages, and they get their pork from Berks County, lamb from Lancaster County and poultry and produce from rural New Jersey.
An octopus appetizer was a refined luxury, beautifully presented in a crock kissed with a tomato sauce ($9), but we were disappointed in a plate of breaded, fried olives stuffed with braised pork shoulder ($10). The fried, breaded taste overwhelmed the taste of the olives.
The day before visiting Le Virtu, I checked out www.zagat.com and found 79 customer comments about Le Virtu, 74 of which were favorable. One woman said their “agnolotti was the best thing we’ve ever eaten.” When we mentioned that to our server, he said he actually preferred the gnocchi, so we ordered both entrees. The agnolotti, filled with pork shoulder and perfumed with black truffles ($16), was rich and piquant, but we also liked the potato gnocchi stuffed with lamb shoulder and pecorino ($16) even more. It’s a simple dish, but the vivid flavor contrasts allow the pristine ingredients to really stand out.
A special-of-the-day dessert from pastry chef Angela Ranalli which may not always be available was one of the most amazing desserts we have had in years. It was a plate of profiteroles — flaky spheres of pastry filled with white chocolate mousse and drizzled with dark chocolate ($8.50). It is ultra-indulgent and creamy and decadent.
Le Virtu has a small selection of wines by the glass and an extensive selection of craft beers. I thoroughly enjoyed a glass of Tiefenbrunner Chardonnay ($9), earthy and flavorful with a pleasant after-taste. A limoncello martini was too strong on the alcohol for our taste, but we definitely enjoyed an expresso martini ($10), which could even serve as an after-dinner drink. One spectacular after-dinner drink is the Meletti Cioccolato ($8.50), an obscenely rich chocolate liqueur that makes Godiva seem like Hershey’s chocolate sauce.
Le Virtu can seat 60 indoors, 12 at the bar and 24 in a lovely outdoor garden overseen by a spectacular mural by local artist Brian Senft, which was formally dedicated by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program last October 14.
Parking is definitely an issue for any restaurant on Passyunk Avenue, but on weekends Le Virtu does offer valet parking for $8.
For more information or reservations, call 215-271-5626 or visit www.levirtu.com. To watch a video of Cicala introducing himself in front of the mural facing Le Virtu, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbfbfBOXSME.