Back to the Source: Taking Chef Poli to Abruzzo
Updated: Jul 10, 2021
Apolinar “Poli” Tlapaya Sanchez, for eleven years our co-worker and Le Virtú’s current Executive Chef, crossed a desert to get to the US. He was seventeen (coincidentally, the same age my Abruzzese grandfather was when he made his voyage to America). If you’ve heard this story before, you’re about to hear some of it again. No apologies: because every time I think about his journey, it astonishes me. He came directly to Philly, started out in restaurants with a bucket and a mop, and gradually worked his way up. By the time he’d arrived at Le Virtú, he was an accomplished line cook who’d been integral to some of the city’s better kitchens. And he’d also risked everything, his status in this country, future, and life, by testifying against a group of armed thugs who’d been preying on the city’s immigrant community. That act of bravery earned him a shot at a Green Card. But that meant long years of bureaucratic limbo, hoop jumping, and uncertainty. All the while, Poli made himself essential in our kitchen, holding things together under three different chefs, eventually rising to the position of Sous Chef.
Several years ago, after he got word that his Green Card had finally been approved, he asked us for time off to go back home to Puebla to see his mom and dad. He’d not seen them in over seventeen years. Half of his life. Can you imagine? I can’t.
Just after New Year’s Eve 2020, when former Executive Chef Damon Menapace (a friend to this restaurant and occasional guest at my brother Fred’s popular – though completely unsanctioned - daytime café at the restaurant) decided he was done with restaurant kitchens, he suggested Poli as his replacement. It made perfect sense: Poli had spent the previous ten years cooking the food of Abruzzo and under every manner of executive chef, from preening diva to Damon’s grounded, self-effacing cool. He’d first been instructed on the region’s culinary virtues by Abruzzo-born Massimo Conocchioli, our Sous from 2009 to 2012, who’d just returned to the restaurant as a consultant and meat-curing expert. Everything seemed to have come full circle. Poli had earned this shot and the kitchen’s loyalty to him was unquestioned. And then came COVID. About which you know enough already.
In addition to making what is, under the best circumstances, a biz with a permanent view of the abyss a daily exercise in existential dread, the pandemic also denied Poli what was his rightful reward and the experience that we’ve given every chef who’s helmed our kitchen: the trip to Abruzzo to see and experience the culture, visit our producers, and sample the food as it’s prepared in the region. And that bothered us almost as much as anything: that this guy who’d busted his culo, serially saved our bacon, and held a kitchen crew together through chef changes and now a global health crisis, might not get the chance to actually see the place he’d been helping us to honor for over a decade. If we survived – and ask anyone in this industry, that was an enormous “IF” – we promised ourselves that taking Poli to Abruzzo would be one of the first things we’d do. Well – knock wood – here we are. Thanks to every one of you who played a role in our survival. But there’s more: Poli was given the opportunity, along with his wife, to apply for citizenship. He passed his test (as I’ve said, ad nauseam, he’d passed any real test of what at being a citizen means a long time ago). On June 7, 2021, he became a US citizen. There’s no way to describe how improbable that seems. Especially after four years of people like him being vilified and labeled as not their country’s best. So, I won’t try to describe it. But we’ll never forget the folks who banged the drum against people like him. Never.
And we’re going to Abruzzo: this August, Poli, his wife Victoria, and Floor Manager Andrew Whalen will accompany us on a giro through Abruzzo’s four provinces, parts of Molise, the Salento and Murgia in Puglia, and the stunning city of Matera in Basilicata. And, for the first leg of the trip in Abruzzo’s Teramo province (home to the Cretarola family), Consulting Chef Massimo Conocchioli will help us guide. Cathy and I will arrive early to attend Massimo’s parents’ 50th anniversary party in the village of Colonnella, and then Massimo, his mom (a former restaurant cook), and father (an expert butcher and meat curer) will give Poli – and the rest of us – lessons in la cucina termana. If experience tells us anything, it will be an intensive and exhaustive immersion, not for the faint of heart. This will not be Cathy and my first rodeo with Massimo’s mom. We’ll also hit some amazing agriturismi, a cheese maker, the storied restaurant of Daniele Zunica in Civitella del Tronto, and maybe a winery or three before we move to Loreto Aprutino in Abruzzo’s Pescara province. And then, and then… well, you'll hear about it.
Because it’s my intention to chronicle some of our trip in these pages. We’ll try to photo-document it as well. My language and observations will be frank, whatever’s necessary to tell it all truthfully. There’s a lot to cover (and we’ve not even left the country). I mean to tell it without gloss or embellishment. Abruzzo and southern Italy almost always open up channels to what’s important, what matters, and what too often gets short shrift when we, in this country, discuss restaurants and cuisine. But we no longer give a jot about certain proprieties. After fourteen years and staring down a global plague, we might have finally learned what to focus on. We hope so, anyway. So, on to wild, rustic, unvarnished, and beautifully uncompromising Abruzzo and southern Italy. There might not be gold in them thar hills, but there’s stuff that’s sustaining, stuff that might help us build community, and stuff that will speak to the broad and deep constituency we serve. Stuff that matters. I hope you’ll get some vicarious enjoyment from it. You folks made it possible. I know Poli surely deserves it. (all photos by Kateri Likoudis Connolly)