My maternal grandfather, Frank DeGiovanni, was from Abruzzo. specifically, Guardia Vomano in Teramo, which is near L’Aquila, site of the devastating 2009 earthquake. Life there was always tough, so young Frank found his way to the United States, where he met and married my grandmother (from Lombardy, far north). They built a good life in Princeton, purchasing their house on Pine Street for $5,000 in the early 1900s. (How my mother wished we’d kept that house, as she would have loved to live uptown in her later years!)
While I remember some of my grandmother’s delicious meals (she had trained to be a cook for wealthy families), much of it escaped me, so in 2012 I was excited to hear about Le Virtù in Philadelphia, which presents the foods of Abruzzo. I finally had dinner there a couple weekends ago (a rare break in the weather!), thanks to a friend who is a fearless driver.
I wrote about Le Virtù in fall 2012 when Dorothea’s House in Princeton hosted a book signing for “Roads to Tradition: Le Virtù in Abruzzo,” by Francis Cratil Cretarola, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Cathy Lee. The name comes from a rich minestrone soup that is made on the 1st of May in Teramo each year. 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.
Executive Chef Joe Cicala has won a Star Chefs award for charcuterie, been named to the State Department’s National Chef Corps and twice been a semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef Award. Of course, the humble Abruzzese dishes are inevitably elevated at this top-rated restaurant. But the honest roots are there, and the restaurant makes their own salumi and pastas, plus they get artisanal Abruzzese cheeses from Abruzzo Pantry (more on them below).
I was so taken with one of our appetizers, a simple plate of thinly sliced capocollo with Pecorino di Parco, that I took home an order of assorted salumi with marinated vegetables (The Affettati misti photo below). The capocollo in the restaurant was lightly drizzled with flavorful olive oil, and they also serve that oil with the very good bread and focaccia. I was sorely tempted to just drink the saucer of oil “neat,” so good was it. Our wine was the Valle Reale DOC 2008 (Pescara) – 100% Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and just perfect with our meal.
When I visited the restaurant’s website again later on, I saw a link to Abruzzo Pantry, which imports organic artisan products, so of course I had to order a package of cheeses, pastas, and honey. The round cheeseboard you see below was a little tasting I had with fellow food writer Pat Tanner. These cheeses are all quite good, but my favorite remains the one I had at the restaurant, the Pecorino di Parco, because it is not as salty as most pecorinos, so I enjoy eating it on its own as opposed to just grated. Pat also favored that one, remarking that it’s unusually creamy for a pecorino. Be sure to read all the information about the Marcelli family on the “About Us” page on the website. It made me wonder if my distant relatives in the old country might be making fabulous artisanal products nowadays, as happened to the Marcelli family, and therefore enjoying a better life today. (If you are interested in ordering from Abruzzo Pantry, I found the shipping quite reasonable, since they are nearby in Little Falls. Next time I’ll have to try the olive oil, too.)
My uncle Alex DeGiovanni, who lives in Washington, sent me a nice, long email, describing the foods he ate growing up on Pine Street, and one thing that made me laugh was this:
“Mainly, Papa would not abide soup, because, being from a really poor family, watery broth was what he grew up with. Also, in spite of the fact that he worked so hard on our pretty large garden every year, he wanted MEAT, not vegetables, and would complain, not quite loudly, if served green beans WITHOUT tomatoes!!” He would have liked to have pasta more frequently that the once weekly that was usual, but surely appreciated that my grandmother was apparently a master of roasting, especially of pork, lamb, and chicken.
Alex continued, “Mama also did vegetables so well, not overcooked as so many people used to do. Being from a mountain village you would have to wonder where she picked up her fish cooking skill, and that too has to be traced to Florence [where she trained], and to Princeton, where as you know she was cook to a wealthy family on Mercer (or Stockton) Street. It was while she was there that she met Papa. The only fish meal Papa liked was eels. I do wonder if that might not come from his childhood home on the Vomao River in Abruzzo. I caught eels in Carnegie Lake and always took them home, though Mama was not happy to see them. She much preferred to prepare other fish I caught, and sole or flounder from Frazee’s Market.”
It really is true that when immigrants get to the US, their diets tend to become rather meat-centric, because they were so deprived in the old country. I noticed the same thing with my father’s Armenian cooking. Now, of course, we’re trying to find a happy (and healthier) middle ground. But the porchetta you see below, made with pork belly no less, was totally decadent.
Le Virtù, I salute you!