This is my September 21 In the Kitchen column from the Lifestlye page of the Packet. Since it is not yet online, I reproduce my original text here, so I can be sure to share this with online readers.
Food and Traditions of Abruzzo
I was all set to write about kale -very trendy! – for today’s column, when something far more intriguing landed in my Inbox.
It was about an October 7 event at Dorothea’s House in Princeton, our local Italian-American cultural organization, which involves a beautiful new book about Abruzzo, a region whose culinary traditions have never gotten their due.
The slide-show and book signing event celebrates the publication of “Roads to Tradition: Le Virtù in Abruzzo,” by Francis Cratil Cretarola, owner of the acclaimed Philadelphia Ristorante Le Virtù (www.levirtu.com), and photographer Kateri Likoudis.
The book, which would be a nice holiday gift, presents photographs and commentary on a largely undiscovered and unspoiled region, and was photographed during an extended visit last March that also included the restaurant’s Chef, Joe Cicala, a 2012 James Beard Rising Chef semifinalist.
I am surprised I hadn’t heard about Le Virtù, which opened in 2007, even missing an April write-up on Dorothea House board member Linda Prospero’s blog, ciaochowlinda.blogspot.com. There are glowing reviews online, and the mouthwatering menu includes dishes rarely, if ever, seen here, such as Maccheroni alla Mugnaia, a pasta made in one long, continuous strand, and Scripelle m’Busse, a pecorino-filled crepe in chicken broth, and one of my mother’s favorites.
The restaurant is named after “a rich minestrone…made on the 1st of May in Teramo, Abruzzo. Traditionally, the town’s most virtuous girls use the legumes, pastas and other ingredients left in the cupboard and larder after the hard Abruzzese winter. Mr. Cretola’s paternal grandfather was from Teramo, as was my own maternal grandfather.
Mr. Cretola owns Le Virtù with his wife, Cathy Lee, and the couple was inspired to open the restaurant after many stays in the region. He describes the cuisine as “… kind of a happy bridge between central and southern Italian culinary cultures…We had no experience in the culinary field. Zilch. But we lived in South Philly, which was kind of ground zero for a lot of the Abruzzese diaspora, and we found we missed the authentic, ingenious and diverse food we’d gotten used to eating.
“There was nothing in the neighborhood that did anything close…the ambitious places offering authentic (even rustic) Italian elsewhere in Philly and the rest of the country were focused on more northern regions with higher profiles. We thought the cucina Abruzzese could more than hold its own with any other and exemplified the best aspects of Italian cooking: a few fresh, quality local ingredients, not overly manipulated so their qualities are expressed, simply (but often ingenious) preparations, and maybe the most diverse palette of any regional cuisine.
“We import stuff like our cheeses, saffron, flour for our fresh pasta,” he continued, “but the ethos we found in Abruzzo also was a good model for exploiting the bounty of the rural countryside outside of Philly…Berks and Lancaster Counties in PA, produce in Southern Jersey. We buy naturally raised heritage meats, etc.,” he continued. Indeed, the restaurant butchers its meats on premises and does their own curing of the salumi used in house.
Some of the book’s profits support initiatives to sustain Abruzzo’s pastoral culture and economy (see http://www.tratturomagno.it/), especially needed after the devastating earthquake of 2009, and the restaurant has recently joined the State Department’s “Chef Corps” program, an outreach initiative using food and chefs as cultural ambassadors.
The following recipe, for a dish found in Abruzzo’s mountainous interior, was provided by Le Virtù chef Joe Cicala. They use frozen chestnuts, but you can cook and shell your own, then measure 6 ounces. If they’ve cooled, reheat briefly before passing through ricer or food mill.
Gnocchi di Castagne con Ragù di Cinghiale (Chestnut Gnocchi with Wild Boar Ragu)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound cubed wild boar shoulder (McCaffrey’s butcher can order)
1 ounce all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
8 ounces ground mirepoix (onions, carrots and celery)
3 cloves minced garlic
1 cup red wine
4 cups San Marzano tomatoes passed through food mill
1 bay leaf
2 sprig rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs sage
1/2 cup milk
Season cubed boar with salt and pepper; toss in flour until coated evenly. In a hot wide, shallow, pan, sear the cubed meat in olive oil until well browned. Remove meat and add mirepoix and garlic, the juice from the mirepoix will deglaze the pan. Continue cooking until the mirepoix is also lightly browned. Deglaze the pan again with the red wine and reduce to nearly dry. Add tomatoes and herbs and cook until meat is tender and starts to shred into the sauce. When ragu is almost ready, stir in milk.
3 medium-large Idaho potatoes (just under 2 pounds)
6 ounces shelled chestnuts
1 cup 00 flour (gourmet markets or King Arthur Flour)
1/4 cup chestnut flour (gourmet/Italian markets)
Boil potatoes whole, skin on until tender. Remove from water, peel and pass through a ricer or food mill. Boil the chestnuts in water until tender. Drain and, while still hot, pass through a ricer or food mill. Mix the two passed items together; add eggs, salt and flours. Knead until homogeneous. Cut the dough and roll into cigar shapes, dice the cigars into 1 inch rounds and roll on a gnocchi board (or fork) to create the gnocchi shape. Boil in salted boiling water, remove from the water once they float, add to desired sauce to finish cooking.
Francis Cratil Cretarola and Kateri Likoudis will give a slide presentation on their book, “Roads to Tradition: Le Virtù in Abruzzo,” Sunday, October 7 at 5:00pm. Dorothea’s House (http://www.dorotheashouse.org/) is at 12 John St., Princeton. The event is free; attendees are encouraged to bring a dish or beverage to share after the presentation.