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Back to the Source, Part II: This Is My Job!

(Santo Stefano di Sessanio) One of the questions I’m most often asked about Le Virtú is what (“the hell” is often inserted here) I actually do at the place. I don’t cook. I don’t serve or bus. I don’t answer the phone, manage reservations, supervise shifts, et cetera. The list of what I don’t do might look like someone else’s “to do” list. Namely, Cathy’s. So, it’s a valid question. And one - in those dark moments of the soul when one questions one’s self-worth and integrity (read: waking) - I sometimes ask myself. I’m a restaurateur who feels awkward in, doesn’t enjoy, and generally avoids crowds. One who’s bereft of social skills and graces, almost completely ignorant of social mores, whose blue-collar family never dined out, and who didn’t have his first real restaurant experience until college. I’d never worked in a restaurant until we owned one. I often feel, when walking among diners in our own place, like a pig in a tiara: comically absurd and inappropriate; surreal. As though I’m getting away with something and about to be caught. While I enjoy talking about Abruzzo with individual diners, I’d be paralyzed with terror if I regularly performed as host. So, yeah, “What the hell?” Well, I do have a job. Maybe even “jobs.” Though I’m not sure they will or even should be taken seriously, I do them sincerely. Let me explain:

Because we’d no real experience in restaurants when we (truthfully: Cathy and my brother, with me coming along reluctantly) decided to open one, we conceived of Le Virtú as a paean to Abruzzo, where we’d lived for a time and spent significant portions of each year (at least until we opened the restaurant). We figured that, as we’d been so taken with the unaffected and ingenuous charms of the region, reproducing something of Abruzzo’s convivial vibe and sincere hospitality might be appreciated. And, of course, the food would have to be on point. For a few years that briefly overlapped with the opening of the restaurant, we’d organized culinary tours of the region, from arrosticini shacks and mom-and-pop joints to decadent, high temples of gastronomic excess. Places we’d come to love during our stays. So, we felt on solid ground about the food.

(Civitaretenga, buying saffron at La Casa Verde) Anyway, Abruzzo was really all we knew enough about to actually think we could do.

By 2007, the year we opened, I’d spent the better part of a decade studying, embedded in, and obsessed with Abruzzo’s history and culture. Though my family was from the region’s Teramo province, my interests were pan-Abruzzese, and I could extemporaneously discuss Abruzzo with more facility than most of the native-born Abruzzese I knew. If you’d been naïve enough to ask me a simple question about Abruzzo back then you’d have ended up on the receiving end of an overwhelming, firehose-like spray of information delivered with sincere but maybe, at times, insufferable enthusiasm. Somehow word got out about this Abruzzo freak in Philly, kind of like the fictional Upper Montclair, NJ-based Komodo Dragon expert from the classic "Bob and Ray" sketch. One thing about staking your claim in obscure, mostly undiscovered territory: you rise on the depth chart really quickly. I consulted on stories about the region, which for the past thirty years has been described as “on the cusp” of exploding, for The New York Times, Elle, and, since we opened the restaurant, Food & Wine, Saveur, and Food Republic. We led a film crew around Abruzzo, producing shows for local Comcast and PBS. We helped bring an Abruzzese folk band to Philly, put them up in our house, and served as roadies for their tours.

(Santo Stefano di Sessanio)

(Traboccho fishing platform, Punta Aderci Natural Reserve, Vasto)

So, when we decided that the restaurant’s theme would be Abruzzese, it fell to me to determine what that meant: décor, feel, mission, and, in collaboration with our opening, Abruzzo-raised chef, menu. I drilled our staff on Abruzzese culture, tried to give them enough info so they knew what they were honoring, could speak with some authority about a region most of them had never, at that time, visited. I tried to impart my enthusiasm, instill them with pride about our mission. I created a set and gave them the rudiments of a script. And then I learned to get out of their way.

At the beginning, every night felt - for me, anyway - like a play with a constant theme but requiring lots of improv. Guests with their unpredictable needs and behaviors provided the variables. Sometimes we missed our marks and blew a line, and some of the actors didn’t work out. But after the first few years we had a team in place that pretty much nailed it nightly. Though the person in the star’s dressing room changed from time to time, the supporting cast carried the show. Some of them got to go to Abruzzo with us. And the grounded nature, strength, and consistency of their performance allowed us to bring genuine Abruzzese flavors and experiences to South Philly: dishes like maccheroni alla mugnaia, arrosticini, taccozzelle alla pescolana, rintrocilo al ragú di castrato, timballo alla teramana, pallotte cac e ove, zuppa di lenticchie di Santo Stefano, and, of course, the eponymous Le Virtú minestrone; and events like the winter Sagne di Sant’Antonio festa from Scanno and the 40+-course, 8+-hour Panarda feast, which (until the pandemic) became a fixture of the city’s winter and summer dining calendar. We pulled all these off, I think, because they came to us naturally. The restaurant wasn’t and isn’t based on one person’s culinary vision or talent set. It’s rooted in a rich tradition that’s intensely specific and centuries old. And it runs on teamwork. It was my job to create that culture. And it’s my job now to make sure it continues. So, these trips to Abruzzo with staff are integral to our mission. And my responsibility.

(Bominaco, Oratorio di San Pellegrino)

It wasn’t having an Abruzzo-born grandfather, a fount of evocative stories and history, embedded in my row home growing up that led to this affection for and connection to the region, though that provided the genesis for exploration and sure didn’t hurt. It was going to Abruzzo, seeing its natural beauty, dramatic topography, experiencing its persisting traditions and the almost overwhelming hospitality and generosity of its people that gave us this jones. I’ve got strong opinions about how the region should be presented and seen (more on that later). After a year and-a-half of pandemic, I’m again about to put them to the test. And with a person, Chef Poli Sanchez, who began in a supporting role but who is as responsible for our success and survival as anyone. I cannot wait to proffer this gift. Or to reap the reciprocal rewards it will bring to the restaurant.

Abruzzo, we think, offers a lot of what this century needs in terms of green policy and the appreciation of nature, learning how to live in the moment, focus on what’s essential, and glean the most out of our time here. Without artifice and stripped of gloss, content to be what it is, happy in its own skin, the region allows us space to find our own comfort zones. We try to bring a little of Abruzzo to Le Virtú. Wish us luck. (all photos by Kateri Likoudis Connolly)

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