As we arrive in the Le Virtù dining room, there is a saying written on one of the chalkboards: “Three are the powerful: the pope, the king, and he who doesn’t give a damn.” RayRay and I are feeling decidedly in the third category as we take our seats for our third La Panarda in three years. La Panarda, the 40-course, eight-hour meal, is as much a test of intestinal fortitude as you’ll find anywhere. But this isn’t the reason RayRay and I aren’t giving a damn; it’s just creeping on noon, we’re staring eight hours of unlimited wine in the face, and, idiots that we are, we’ve already had two beers.
We take our usual seats (we arrived an hour before the meal started to get the same seats we’ve sat in the last two years). We happen to be sitting with two of the same people from last year, so the same rules apply: pictures come first, and we cheers with every new wine.
The event starts off much the same as it has in the past: Le Virtù owner Francis Cratil Cretarola makes a quick speech, Sean from Artisan’s Cellar briefly explains the wine, and we are treated to some music from the zampogna, or Italian bagpipes. Throughout the fanfare, we’ve got our first glass of Cantina Frentana Cococciola Spumante, and the food begins to make its way out.
We begin similar to last year with a torta rustica, though we all agree that, from what we could remember, this year’s seems creamier. We also have crostini assortiti made with Abruzzese ricotta passita, mushroom, and cannellini. Finally, we’re treated to the olive all’Ascolana, which are stuffed with veal and beef and fried. With the olives, we already break our initial promise to try one taste of everything. They’re too delightfully salty (and too small, we tell ourselves) to eat only one.
For the next bit, we’re served a trio of raw fish dishes, starting with oysters with mignonette. Following the oysters is a tuna crudo with apple and fennel, which also demands multiple tastes, and scallop crudo with citrus. While raw scallop may have a texture most people don’t value, the salty taste of sea and the sweet citrus really make the dish pop. The tuna’s texture with the crunch of the apple is probably more palatable to most, however, and the flavor pops just as much.
Our next grouping leads with beef carpaccio with pecorino and salsa picante, burrata with brussels sprouts and anchovy, and sardines in salsa verde. As much as I eat, I’m never sure the proper way to eat a sardine, but the consensus at the table is to eat them whole – including the head. This isn’t a problem, and the fishy taste with the salsa is better than I thought it would be; there is a slight crunch from the bones. The real standout, however, is the burrata. Anything with fried brussels sprouts is a winner, and the fish complements the cheese perfectly.
To round out this section, we get our first non-family-style dish with the scrippelle ‘mbusse, a delicate crepe filled with cheese and floating in a light but heady broth.
Bringing the first third of the menu to an end is an Abruzzese tribute to Philadelphia by way of a smoked lamb hoagie with a stuffed pepper. After the hoagie is a hot cast iron tray of fried potatoes and scamorza, a cow’s milk cheese reminiscent of mozzarella.
After these dishes, we take our first break to stretch our legs, and everyone outside on the patio can’t stop talking about how good the lamb hoagie is. Basically made with lamb prosciutto, a red pepper-like spread gives the sandwich a nice zing and the oily, vinegary stuffed pepper plays perfectly beside it. Most people we talk to agree it is the best dish so far, and it should be added to the menu.
We come back in after our break, refreshed and rejuvenated by the slight chill in the air, which is by no means cold (especially for late January). We’re eased back into the meal with pizz’ e foje, a salad of cornbread over stewed mixed greens. The cornbread is a bit dry for my taste, but the next two dishes have plenty of sauce to fix that. First is a dish of shellfish with ‘nduja sausage, though a lot of the clams didn’t open, and prawns with garlic, peperoncino, and lemon. The prawns have a nice bit of heat to them, and as always sucking on the head is immensely enjoyable.
Next is a selection of charcuterie, beginning with sopressata (supersod for any South Philly Italians out there) with vegetable agrodolce, followed by capocollo (gabbagool) with eggplant oreganata, and finally chilled porchetta with roasted peppers. And while the meat is good, it’s surprising how tasty the accoutrement are – especially the lightly picked vegetables with the sopressata: tangy, but not overly so. This does not apply, however, to the porchetta, which itself has a slight vinegar essence to it, and is thin enough that multiple pieces aren’t out of the question.
Moving along, we’re gifted polpette all’Abruzzese, delicious little meatballs of which we don’t leave any leftovers. We are also brought sweet potatoes with golden raisins and pine nuts, which are better than any sweet potatoes have the right to be. Pine nuts add great flavor, but the raisins (which I usually don’t prefer in my savory dishes), brighten the salad and give it an extra dimension. Finally, we have a pure di fava with chicory, which may be the first time I’ve ever had chicory – at least as a main part of a dish.
For the last section of part two of the menu, we begin with mushrooms sott’olio, which is simply a variety of roasted mushrooms in oil. Simple, woodsy, and bursting with a variety of umami mushroom flavors. We’re also given a bowl of arrositicini, or lamb skewers. Rounding us out is a personal-size bowl of sausage and lentils, which sounds like it is going to be a stomach bomb but is surprisingly light in its heartiness.
We take our second break at this point, and are greeted on the patio with a small fire and glasses of warm, mulled wine. This year may be the chilliest Panarda I’ve been to, even though the temperature is still in the mid- to high-40s. While I wouldn’t say we needed coats, the warm mulled wine keeps it that way.
We return from our break warmed with wine and heartened to be more than halfway through the meal, though the tough part looms: the pasta courses. They are upon us quickly, beginning with one of the restaurant’s specialties, maccheroni alla mugnaia with aglio, olio, and peperoncino. The pasta is a single-strand that can reach up to six feet long, and is wonderfully al dente. It seems if I’ve learned anything from Le Virtù, it’s that I want my pasta to be toothsome.
The other pastas include sagne e ceci, a rhomboid, flat pasta in tomato sauce with chickpeas, anellini with pistachio pesto, and orecchiette with spicy sausage and rabe. While they are all excellent, a grab a few more rings of the anellini before they’re gone, even though I know there is more pasta, and it’s the pasta last year that almost pushed me over the edge. I stay strong.
And then: more pasta. First, Chef Menapace joins us in the dining room to show off the full timballo alla pescolana, which we had a version of last year and we are all looking forward to. In addition to the timballo, we have tagliatelle with boar ragu and chitarra with lamb ragu. In hindsight, with the lack of large portions of meat this year, it almost seems like they are doubling up the meat and pasta dishes. This is fine with me, and my stomach.
Following the pasta is another break, and then lighter fare in the form of fish. A whole porgy with acqua pazza (the broth used to poach it), which we peel back the skin and dig in to. There is also a dish of meaty monkfish with potatoes and olives. Potatoes aren’t particularly appreciated at this point, but the saltiness of the olives help with the heaviness. Finally, as more of a side dish, are long hots – however, the one I take a bite of is more hot than anything. It may be the hottest long hot I’ve ever had, and the gentleman across from me agrees. We need a glass of milk – not the best idea this late in the evening – to counteract the heat.
Finally, we come to the final savory courses of the evening. The first out are a favorite from last year, the pork ribs agrodolce, which remain a favorite this year. We know the end is near, so we each take two ribs: we still have room, and the sweetness and flavor is worth the indulgence. If we were offered another plate, we would take it. Along with the ribs are roasted lamb with polenta and broccoli rabe. As good as the lamb is – and it is good – it pales in comparison to the ribs.
Before desert, we all take another break. Night has firmly set it, even though we are moving along quickly. Music plays throughout the restaurant, and every once in a while the band will come into the main dining room to play for us. Whether or not we know the words (and they’re mostly in Italian, so we don’t), after six-plus hours of drinking, everyone is singing along.
We come back in to a refreshing sorbetto, followed by some house-made digestivi. The digestif flavors include fennel, watermelon and pepper, and two others that it’s far too late to process. The watermelon was the best. We are also served a board of Abruzzese unpasturized formaggio with honey, preserves, and fruit, as well as dolci assortiti, and assorted dessert board. I am excited to see the return of cannoli, as our first Panarda had the best cannoli I’ve ever had. The board also has a favorite of RayRay’s, the olive oil dome cakes covered in chocolate.
We have a round of limoncello to finish the evening, and some of us stick around to enjoy the company, listen to more music, and chat with the owners. The meal has been wonderful, but the food is only part of it. To be able to want to spend an entire day at a restaurant, no matter how good the food is, speaks more to the company than anything else. And not only the fellow diners: Francis, Cathy, Freddie, Chef Menapace, and everyone else busting their asses to put together a massive meal and convivial atmosphere should be incredibly proud of what they are able to accomplish every year.
I used to look forward to Thanksgiving above all other meals throughout the year, but now Thanksgiving is just a training ground. It’s spending hours with people I enjoy and food I love in order to train for the same thing, only longer, bigger, and better. And you’ve got to love anything better than Thanksgiving.