My grandmother is Sicilian and the other half of my family is Irish, so I never got the whole big “Sunday Dinner” experience like some of my friends, especially some of them whose parents were immigrants or second-generation Italians here in America (My grandmother also called it sauce and not gravy, but that’s a debate for another time). I always loved Italian food and when I was in college, I worked at an Italian restaurant as a hostess. I sneered at people who ordered chicken parm: like my high school ex-boyfriend who would order it at the diner, or my spanish co-worker who put ketchup on it and then ordered it with a side of french fries at our office holiday party. My go-to dishes were penne vodka or tortellini carbonara; I was never a big red sauce or baked pasta fan. However, when I moved to Philadelphia, these so-called “red sauce joints” in South Philly seemed to be my only option. Plus, they put peas in the penne vodka – what kind of Communist country is this?!
But then, a friend introduced me to Le Virtu on East Passyunk Ave. When I walked in, a beautiful, Mediterranean style dining room welcomed me with low lighting and soft music. I sat at the bar and received a basket of crunchy, Tuscan style bread with a plate of olive oil, ordered up a glass of Pinot Grigio and sunk into the menu. No fried cutlets slathered in sauce and cheese. No kids in high chairs crying while eating spaghetti and meatballs. This was exactly the kind of place I was looking for.
The special salad for the evening was topped with cherry tomatoes, roasted peppers, topped with shaved mozzarella (!) and dressed in a balsamic reduction. I was originally only planning on getting pasta but this sounded amazing. It tasted even better. The fresh mozzarella really made the dish. I know salads are supposed to be “healthy” and all, but to me – the more cheese, the better!
For my main course, I went with the Maccheroni alla mugnaia: A hand-pulled, single-strand of pasta, tossed with garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, hot pepper and sprinkled with pecorino. They also provide a basket of various peppers if you’d like to spice it up even more. I am a baby when it comes to spicy and hot things, so I left it as is (plus, I figured it was better to try it in it’s “virgin” state ). The pasta had a wonderful flavor and consistency. I had heard about this dish – and the uniqueness of the single strand pasta in the Abruzzo region – for quite some time and was excited to finally try it; it exceeded all my expectations.
But wait, there’s more! What Italian dinner wouldn’t be complete without dessert and an espresso? Don’t expect tiramisu or cannoli here, but definitely try the Semifreddo al torrone di cioccolato if you’re looking for something sweet and delicious: It’s a dark chocolate semifreddo, torrone crumble, drizzled with salted caramel sauce. It was so rich and creamy, it’s a good thing I was splitting it with a friend.
Molto bene! È squisito!
Le Virtu immediately reminded me of the the rustic vibe of the osteria that I’d worked at, and when I’d finished my meal, I knew that this would instantly become my favorite dinner spot. It was like finding a lake after so many years scouring the desert. I can’t wait to come back again (my skinny jeans are already quivering in fear!).