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  • Le Virtu Philadelphia

Back to the Source, VI: Reentry, Family

Updated: Sep 10


(Castiglione Messer Raimondo, Teramo Province, Abruzzo, my grandfather's birthplace) We’re back from Abruzzo. It was a 28-hour journey getting home to Philly (a long story as boring and awful as the day itself, including my first - and hopefully last - stop in Dallas, multiple flight delays, and a 1:30-3:30 am drive from JFK to South 13th Street), a real shitty end to what was an important and worthwhile trip. But Poli got experiences he needed to have, and my jones got fed. Cathy and I even managed to have some “us” time before the gang arrived. This was the longest period we’d ever gone without visiting Abruzzo since our first trip there in 1997. Depression creeps in, sets up house when we go too long without seeing the place and our friends. This trip provided the injection we need to maybe get through another long period of COVID-related deprivation. We’ll see. A few months ago, when the nearly twenty-five years of traveling to the region had started to seem like a dream, events from another life, I’ll admit I started to crater. Connection to Abruzzo, the inspiration it provides, makes LV possible and meaningful, provides the fuel that drives us. We’re less restaurateurs than people who own and operate an Abruzzese restaurant. It’s probably the only type of place we’re qualified to run. And the jury’s out on that. We sure as hell didn’t set out to Abruzzo in ’97 with a restaurant in mind. My desire, obsession to discover Abruzzo, to go there, find our family, and come to understand the place has a complicated genesis. There was moving to South Philly, which reignited my love of Italian culture and people. I’m from Reading, PA. The city, not one of its suburbs (Southeast Reading, to be precise, 15th and Cotton; it’s stupid how important it is to me that you know that). I’d grown up with a grandfather from Abruzzo slowly dying of emphysema in our rowhome, telling stories about the place where he was born, and surrounded (entertained and influenced) by my dad’s childhood friends from the city’s old (and by then, already gone) Italian neighborhood, his brothers from other mothers and my “uncles,” as much family to us as any blood relative. I was proud of being Italian growing up. But I’d moved away, off to college, and then Boston and DC. My new circumstances and friends were much removed from my blue-collar upbringing, and while I never felt at home in the milieus my friends inhabited, I loved them and tried to fit in. But it was coming to Philly that put me back in touch, back in a rowhome in the Italian section of town, the “Christmas Miracle Block” of South 13th (re: the Christmas lights and décor each holiday season: you don’t want to know how that sausage gets made). And those stories my grandfather told me, and the love I had for him, the memories of playing with my toy soldiers on the peeling parquet pattern linoleum floor in his room while he talked to me from his sick bed, they all came rushing back in this neighborhood. All around me were older guys who looked, dressed, and spoke just like him. Same permanent five o’clock shadow, same cropped hair, short but solid build, somber clothing, soft, gruff voice. Guys from Abruzzo, from towns walking distances away from his. I heard Italian spoken all around me (one still can, if one listens; most newcomers don’t, and many journalists writing about the neighborhood’s transitions don’t seem to want to spend the time to find and speak with these folks who hide in plain sight; I repeat this complaint every chance I get, so forgive me if you’ve already heard it), and knew I had to learn it. So, I left my publishing job and did that. (Thank you, again, Cathy.)

But the real reason for this deep dive, all the work (learning Italian, reading libraries of books in Italian about the region, moving there and traveling to every part of it) was my father. I wanted to give him something he couldn’t give himself. The guy who when I was a kid often worked 70-hour weeks at three jobs but never missed an important moment, was a constant presence in my life and the lives of many of my friends, but had not had the educational opportunities he’d afforded me. The guy who, when I asked him what he thought about my quitting my own job at 35 and going to Italia to learn the language, responded: “How many lives do you expect to have?” Who’d provided me and my siblings (and on several occasions, clandestinely, some of my extended family) with what we needed. We never wanted for anything, including affection. I wanted to give him something that would touch him, recall his own father.

(my dad, center with mustache, and my Italian "uncles") He’d never met another member of my grandfather’s family. None of us had. There’d been a physical separation of nearly ninety years, and no contact since my grandfather refused ownership of his birth home after his mother died. I ended all that, found, and met the family. I called my dad that day from their home in Castiglione Messer Raimondo, Provincia di Teramo. My dad choked up at the other end. And, as he did at the close of every call, he told me he loved me. But he never went to Abruzzo. Never met the family in person. This guy who never backed down from a challenge (or, as I learned from his friends and my uncle Charlie, a fight), who was abundantly and fearlessly present whenever any of us where in need, couldn’t travel. Not just couldn’t fly. Something in him, some potent form of anxiety (my god, did he and I share a general propensity toward that malady, an ability to vividly imagine the worst outcomes, anticipate dark clouds on the sunniest day) took hold in his later years. Growing up, we’d almost never gone on any kind of vacation that required an overnight stay. But this was something else. It seemed to pick up momentum after my mom’s death in ’89. He couldn’t comfortably spend a night outside his own house. He devoured the photos I showed him (along with the aged pecorino from Castiglione I gave him as a gift). He wrote a letter of thanks to our Abruzzese family which I translated. It moved me, at least. But he never got on a plane. He wanted to but couldn’t. He died in 2003. Before his Eagles got back to the Super Bowl. Before the Phillies won their second World Series. Before we opened Le Virtú. He never saw the place Cathy and I created, a love letter to his dad and his dad’s birthplace. I think he’d have been proud. And also nervous, scared for us. It still hurts.

(The gang in Castiglione MR: Poli's wife Victoria, Chef Poli Sanchez, F. M. Andrew Whalen)

(A vicolo in Castiglione MR)

This trip to Abruzzo with Chef Apolinar “Poli” Tlapaya Sanchez (in our kitchen now eleven years) and floor manager Andrew Whalen (with us for fourteen) was a celebration of survival and an act of defiance. I hoped the entire time we were there, as COVID news from the States got worse and worse, that it wasn’t a stupid one. And as I noted in an earlier post, introducing something you love to someone else, someone whose reaction matters to you, can be fraught. And some of the folks we’ve taken to Abruzzo and Southern Italia took everything for granted or sometimes thought they knew more than the people who’d originated the cuisine. Sometimes they were blind to the intrinsic beauty of the cultures in which we try to embed.

This was not one of those occasions. Poli devoured everything (literally and figuratively). He remarked constantly how kind, welcoming, and generous the people were, and not just our purveyors or the folks working in the restaurants, but also the people he and his wife interacted with in the streets. The civility and conviviality of the culture moved him, as it does us. I can’t tell you why that matters as much or more to me as the exposure he got to the provincial and regional cucine, only that it does. Cuisine amputated from its original culture, that ignores its original impulses, is meaningless to me. Empty. A monument to ego and the self.

From the Bib Gourmand-level meals at Zunica (Civitella del Tronto), Font’Artana (Picciano), Ristorante Clemente (Sulmona), and La Corniola (Pescocostanzo) to the simple mountain fare at VinNoir (Capestrano) and La Porta dei Parchi (Anversa degli Abruzzi), and the home-cooked feast prepared by Massimo’s mother, then mourning her recently deceased husband, in Colonnella, tradition, pride, family, and love were constants. Conviviality reigned (I know I talk about this quality a lot, but it matters). It was embarrassingly gratifying to be recognized, welcomed, and feted so thoroughly by people we’d not seen in over two years. Not just in Abruzzo, but also in Matera and Locorotondo. And to make new friends in Termoli and Ostuni. It was also difficult and harrowing to listen to their COVID tales, discuss the precarity of their present situations, and the obstacles still ahead of them (and, I fear, us). But there were also their passion and resolve. And we’ll be stealing from all of them: “bistecca” del pastore (La Porta dei Parchi, unpasteurized caprino cheese baked and toasted red onions over rustic bread soaked in milk; a dish made by Abruzzo’s shepherds while they tended their flocks); gnocchi con stracciatella, colatura di alici, e noci (inspired by a dish at Convivio Girasole in Loreto Aprutino, Abruzzo, Abruzzese-style gnocchi with creamy strands of stracciatella, colatura (an ancient Roman fish sauce similar to the Vietnamese variety, and walnuts); troccoli con ricotta e peperoni cruschi (from just about everywhere in and around Matera, but memorably Osteria L’Arco, chewy, rustic pasta with ricotta and dried cruschi sweet peppers); maccheroni alla chitarra con ragu’ d’agnello in bianco (from friend Clemente Maiorano’s eponymous ristorante in Sulmona, Abruzzo, the classic Abruzzese pasta with a rich tomato-less lamb ragu’); coratella d’agnello (Chefs Massimo’s mother’s recipe, a rich dish of lamb liver and offal, soffritto of carrots, onions, and - Maria’s innovation - bits of salumi, cooked with white wine); torta di ricotta e cioccolato con salsa d’arancia piccante (also from Matera, a ricotta and chocolate cake with an orange sauce spiced with pepperoncino); and torta di genziana con gelato di alloro (also inspired by Ristorante Clemente in Sulmona, a genziana liqueur-infused cake topped with bay leaf gelato). For now. There’ll be more coming. From Sotto Sale Osteria di Mare (San Vito Chietino, Abruzzo), Ristorante Zenobi (Colonnella, Abruzzo), and Fave e Fogghje (Ostuni, Puglia). And new wines added to our list from CantinArte (Navelli, Abruzzo) and the inestimable Emidio Pepe (Torano Nuovo, Abruzzo).

(Maccheroncini con ragu' d'agnello in bianco)

(Gnocchi con colatura di alici, stracciatella, e noci)

I know you come for the food. And we’re doing our best to provide something delicious and interesting, to honor the places and people we emulate, not shame them, and stay on and deepen our commitment to the mission.

I’ve explained some of our reasons for doing this. But there’s other stuff, too. Why we keep at it. At our age you start to consider what you’ll leave behind, what kind of impact (dent, in my case) you’ve made. It’s also an age when you’ve usually experienced some significant losses and scares (we sure have), when late-night and early-morning phone calls terrify, and people you love and admire start departing more frequently for places unknown. A time for reflection and taking stock, and hopefully not self-important navel gazing. We’ve been praised and pilloried, had intoxicating ups and soul-crushing downs, road waves of adulation and survived doldrums of irrelevance. How we walk the next stretch matters. Whether we can make positive differences in the lives of our staff, give back to our neighborhood and city, maybe help the region and people of Abruzzo who provided the example we try to follow, and carve out space – in Abruzzo, hopefully - for ourselves all matters. This ain’t about money (though we’d like to make money, are open to the idea; if you’ve got money you don’t need, we’ll take it). Money’s just what makes it all go. We know the food’s got to be good. And the environment welcoming. We go back to Abruzzo to remind ourselves of how that gets done. Thank you for making that possible.

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