La Panarda, or How To Give Up On All Your New Years Resolutions at Once

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.

Chef Menapace celebrates the end of Panarda with his crew.

La Panarda 2019: 40 Courses in 7 Hours

We’re gonna do this again, right?

My good friend Ray and I went into La Panarda 2018 as a once-in-a-lifetime experience: we would pay a lot of money to spend an entire Sunday, from noon until who knows when, eating and drinking non-stop. But then, about a week after we’d completed that task (and when we had finally started to feel hungry again), it became obvious to both of us that we were going to do it again.

This year we arrived early once again, wanting to get seats not only close to the end of the table, but also against one of the walls–when you’re sitting and eating for eight hours, having the option to lean back against something is very welcome. I once again wore my most comfortable shirt, my Canadiens jersey, and Ray wore a Flyers jersey; both sparked plenty of conversation with Le Virtu owner Francis Cratil Cretarola, who has been an avid hockey fan since before I was born.

I also was surprised to be recognized by many people who had read last year’s description of the meal, saying it was what they had shown friends who asked what they were getting into, and what they had used to plan for this year. I was asked for my advice on how to make it through the entire day, and I just echoed Francis’s advice from last year: the race isn’t always to the swift.

Soon after we were seated, Cantina Fretana Cococciola Spumante Brut was poured, and introductions were made to the folks we’d be spending the balance of our day with, Cretarola made a small introduction thanking everyone for being there and introducing us to a musician who would start us off with some “war music” played first on a goat’s bone, and then on what amounts to an Italian bagpipe.

The first item to come out was the torta rustica, a small quiche-like square served cold. I wasn’t expecting it to be cold, but it was delicious all the same, and just like that we were underway. No one having eaten breakfast, of course, the first few courses went quickly–we were all hungry and ready to eat.

Along with the torta was the mushroom polpette, an umami bomb of salty mushroom goodness served in ball form. At this stage in the game, despite repeated warnings not to get too ahead of themselves, a few people took some extra servings so as not to leave any food on the table. I admit I was one of them.

We then had a crostini with olives, and all the salt was working to get our saliva and digestive juices flowing. It also made me pretty thirsty, so the first few glasses of wine went down a little easier than they probably should have.

The final course of our first section was vegetable fritto misto, a selection of vegetables lightly fried in a tempura-like batter that worked because it was neither heavy nor greasy.

How do you eat this thing?

After the initial amuse offerings, we got started with fish–a change from last year’s movement into cheese and charcuterie. The first course, octopus with fennel and red chili pesto, would stand the test of time and remain a favorite of everyone by the end of the meal.

With the octopus were mussels and calamari with saffron, another delicious dish that was light and easy to eat. It was at this point I realized the day would move a little more swiftly than last year: courses were coming out two or three together rather than one at a time, which was definitely a step in the right direction for moving things along.

Next were baccala polpette, little salty bombs of fried salt cod. These were much smaller than the mushroom polpette but just as delicious, and everyone got two (and I took one extra).

One of the final fish dishes was shrimp with brodo piccante, whole shrimp in a spicy broth. While the broth wasn’t too spicy, it definitely had a slow burn and was the spiciest dish we’ve had in the two years I’ve done this. We made sure to suck the brains out of the shrimp as best we could, and between this and the mussels, it was really hard not to ask for bread to soak up all the delicious sauce we were missing out on. Bread, however, would have been a terrible idea, and we had to be happy with spoonfuls of the broth.

The final fish course was sardines with salsa verde, and was the first course that was not served family style: we each got our own sardine. And while I’ve eaten a lot of food, I am very rarely faced with an entire animal to try to get through, so I was a little unsure of how to proceed. The gentleman across from me–a hearty Italian who knew his way around–pulled the spine out like some kind of cartoon cat and was left with only the meat.

I gave up on that method almost immediately and ended up treating the fish like pulled pork, pulling it apart with my fork. That worked, for the most part. I still ended up swallowing some small bones, but on the whole I made it through the entire sardine, despite it being one of my least favorite dishes thus far.

Oh, just what we need: beans

Following the fish course was our first break. Everyone got up, went outside, stretched their legs, and chatted about the nine courses we’d just eaten. Francis made his rounds, talking hockey and once again thanking everyone for coming out for the meal. Once again, we’d lucked out with a beautiful late January afternoon, and no coats were necessary.

We returned from our short break to personal bowls of lentil soup and while it looked like a lot, it was just a small layer on the bottom of the bowl. Still, lentils and bread aren’t really what you want to load up on this early in the game, so most people opted to not finish. I was not one of those people.

More groans came as we were delivered sausage with white beans, another course that was sure to be heavy. Of course, as with almost everything else, it was exceptionally tasty despite the heaviness, and it was very hard to leave any remnants in the bowl–but we did, leaving most of the beans to be taken away. It was for the best.

Next were lamb polpette, a succulent lamb meatball served with cherry tomatoes that almost tasted as if they were candied. While I only wanted one of the meatballs, I ended up taking an extra spoonful of the tomatoes–they were that good.

One of the highlights of the day was the pork ribs agrodolce, ribs in a sweet and spicy sauce that would win my family’s yearly wing competition without a problem. And while we all hemmed and hawed over how great the sauce was, Chef Damon Menapace told us it was simply water, honey, vinegar, chili, and garlic.

The final course of this portion of the meal, and course #14 overall, was scrippelle ‘mbusse, delicate crepes rolled up in a clear broth and sprinkled with cheese. These were soft and fluffy with a subdued flavor that was a bit out of place with the other courses in this section.

What is this? Salad??

After the scrippelle, we were delivered two types of salad: escarole with citrus, and arugula with pistachio and pecorino. While we all jokingly complained that we were being given salad instead of real food, this turned out to be a brilliant move as far as meal pacing went. We were too fond of the escarole with citrus, but the acid probably went a long way to helping digest what was coming up. The arugula salad, however, was a big hit, and there was none left as we got up to venture outside to stretch our legs once again.

After our brief respite, we were treated to a course of charcuterie. As with the salad, this was a perfect way to slow things down before the pasta courses came up: we were given light ruffage, as well as a few small pieces of cured meat–not a lot of food to take up room before we got to the hard part. All the meat was house-cured, and included capocollo (or gabbagool for all your South Philadelphians), salame aquilano, ventricina vastese, fennel salame, and mixed pickles.

The fennel salame was the overwhelming favorite of the group we’d established, in no small part due to the delicious beets served with it. And being a sucker for anything pickled, I made short work of whatever was left of them once everyone had their share. The stewed tomatoes on top of the ventricina were also excellent.

You just have to make it through the pasta

The one thing that has stuck with me from all the articles I’ve read about Panarda is: you just have to make it through the pasta courses. Once you’re through them, it’s all downhill from there. This year, however, was slightly different. Chef Menapace said he went hard on the pasta, and it showed. Last year, there were five pasta courses and five offal courses. This year, offal was cut out entirely and we’d have to make it through eight pasta courses, separated by some vegetables.

It was time to put our game faces on. The first pasta to come out was the gnocchi with saffron and baccala, our second go-round with the salt cod. The gnocchi was dense, but the little pillows mixed in with the cod were all delicious.

Following the gnocchi was one of my favorite dishes of the night: juniper-smoked ricotta ravioli. Anyone who knows me knows I love smoke, and it was a subtle and delicious addition to these little raviolis. I definitely ate too many of them.

Next, the fazzoletti with swordfish and lemon may have been my favorite dish of the night. I don’t know why. Fazzoletti is known as “the handkerchief pasta” because it’s a long, flat sheet, and combined with the lemon flavor it was perfect. I love lemon as it is, and I think that contributed to my spooning serving after serving onto my plate.

I should mention that, after last year’s meal, I either wasn’t super full or don’t remember being super full. We had played the meal conservatively, being our first time, and so I felt I could dive a little deeper into the dishes this year. This thought process–especially as it relates to the fazzoletti–is where my hubris got the best of me.

The final course of the first round of pasta was the maccheroni alla mugnaia with garlic, olive oil, and peperoncino. This is an uneven, long, fresh pasta, and was very chewy, which I have really come to love in my noodles. This one was very good, but I only had one serving since I kept spooning the fazzoletti onto my plate.

After the first round of pasta (and after the first abandonment due to vomit out front of the restaurant), we of course went back outside to stretch and give everything a chance to digest. We came back to the duck and porcini timballo, which is a baked dish usually containing pasta, rice, or potatoes. This one, we were told, we should consider to be like duck lasagna, but the noodles were replaced with crepe, so it wouldn’t be as filling.

Despite looking like an odd lump, this turned into a quick favorite, and was the only thing I took home a portion of. After eating two slices, I couldn’t bring myself to eat any more, but also couldn’t bear to see any go to waste. Our tablemates seemed surprised that I claimed I could’ve eaten the entire portion were it the only thing served at dinner.

Along with the timballo was mushrooms with garlic and honey, a variety of grilled mushrooms that was meaty without being too filling. On any other day, I could’ve eaten much more than I did (I love mushrooms), but under the circumstances–as well as sharing the table with the timballo–the mushrooms were more of an afterthought.

The final dish in our pasta break was radicchio with apples and red wine vinaigrette, another salad that served it purpose: it was light, but delivered much-needed acid to combat all the heavy, fatty foods we were getting into.

And just like that, we were once again under attack, this time with anellini with pistachio and panchetta. The pasta was toothsome enough that some of the people at the table posited that it may be undercooked, but once again I really liked the bite the pasta had. I don’t know enough to know if it was undercooked or not, but I certainly enjoyed it.

Maccheroni alla chitarra with lamb ragu. This is where things started to blend together and get difficult to remember, and where I started to really regret taking fourths of the fazzoletti. If it makes things any better, I don’t remember this dish being bad.

Sagne e ceci, a flat pasta served with chickpeas–just what we needed, more beans to fill us up.

Finally, course 32 and the final pasta course: taccozelle with pork sausage, truffle, and saffron. Truffle and saffron makes this pretty decadent, and I am usually a truffle slut, but once again I couldn’t enjoy this dish to its fullest potential as all I could think of was getting up and going outside to get some fresh air.

Ryan, are you okay?

We came back in from our break to find a citrus sorbetto placed at our seat, which would have been a nice break from the pasta had I not been already getting too full. I made sure to eat it, though, as it was quite good and very refreshing. And then the piles of meat came out.

We started with aged ribeye with fried potatoes, cooked extremely rare. As put-off as some people would probably be, I ate an entire slice. It was soft, tender, and delicious. I did not find the “undercooked” texture off-putting at all, as some others claimed it to be.

With the ribeye was porchetta with long hots and broccoli rabe–an Abruzze nod to the Philly classic roast pork sandwich. The pork itself was succulent and tasted phenomenal, and I wish I had more room. I took one piece and struggled with that as it was.

Thankfully, there was only one more meat course to go, which was a lamb shank with polenta. Being in the same city as Zahav, I’m always leery of anyone serving any kind of lamb shank, but this stood on its own merits and I would order it again, despite only taking a small piece to taste, and not having any of the polenta.

After our final meat course, I immediately went outside and laid down on the convenient little wall they have in the courtyard. The cold concrete felt wonderful on my back, and my stomach felt like it was reaching to the sky, nine months pregnant. At one point I stood up and got the spins–maybe the two shots of limoncello among the endless wine wasn’t such a good idea. At one point Cathy Lee, one of the owners, came over to make sure I was okay. It was nice to feel cared about.

We went back in (with a little reluctance on my part) to a 75% ABV Centerba sorbetto and decided it would be a good idea to order espresso. When it arrived, I took a sip and almost immediately felt the pushing sensation on the bottom of my chin that signifies vomit is imminent. I excused myself from the table and walked to the bathroom, where there was a line. I waited, I took deep breaths. Luckily, I was able to get myself under control while I was in line so nothing came back in when it was finally my turn to go in. Disaster averted.

I came back to the table no worse for the wear (though no better, either) to find something I would have enjoyed seven hours before: cheese. There was a pecorino canestrato with honey, a ricotta passita with citrus preserves, and caprino stagionato with pepeoncino jam. They were all great–especially the sides served with them–but I could only bring myself to take a small bite of each.

We were also brought housemade lu parazzo, another plate of small desserts I only had a bite each of. This was the only thing that doubled up from last year, and the olive oil cake was definitely welcome back.

Finally, we had cicerchie, which was almost like a caramelized gnocchi. It was sweet, chewy, and had I been in a better state of mind and body, I could have eaten it all on my own.

We’re gonna do this again, right?

For Ray and I, La Panarda has transitioned from a once-in-a-lifetime marathon of food to a yearly friends day out, so we will most certainly be back next year. Last year I under-ate, this year I over-ate, so I feel like I’m really going to hit the sweet spot on the next go-round. I asked everyone at the table if they would do it again, and they all said yes. Whether I actually see them there next year, time will tell.

The whole ordeal is a great testament to the entire staff at Le Virtu: from the owners and servers making everyone feel welcomed and appreciated to the chef and his staff for the marathon of cooking they have to go through for us to have our marathon of eating. To do something like this really shows a love for and dedication to the Abruzzo region of Italy, and I almost feel like I’ve been there. I certainly know what their food is like.

A special shout-out, too, to Cantina Frentana, who supplied the wines for the evening. The wines we were served were Cantina Frentana Cococciola Spumante Brut (sparkling), Terre Valse Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2016, Cirelli Bianco Organic Terbbiano Pecorino 2017, Costa del Mulino Pecorino 2016 (all white), Terre Valse Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo 2015 (rose), Cantina Frentana Organic Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2015, Cantina Frentana Rubesto Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva 2014, and Cantina Frentana Panarda Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riverva 2012 (all red). I don’t know much about wine, but I would drink them all again.

To put something like this on with two new chefs in two years, and to not repeat a single dish (other than the dessert cookies) seems astounding to me, as does the ability to get it done in less than 12 hours. This year moved even more quickly than last, and we were done eating by 7:30 at the latest. In my short experience, it seems to get better every year, and the people in charge are able to tweak enough to make it run just a little more smoothly each time.

So, as things stand, I will see you next year. We’ll be in our loose, billowy hockey jerseys, hopefully not eating too much pasta or drinking too much wine. Although if we did, who could really blame us?