How much good stuff can you squeeze into a single bowl of soup? At Le Virtù on East Passyunk, the answer is around 49 ingredients — plus a healthy helping of ideology.
The soup is question is called le virtù, and yes, the restaurant was named after this dish. Made with a hodgepodge of beans, meats, pasta, vegetables and spices, it’s a minestrone, but a very special one. It hails from Teramo, Abruzzo, the Italian province where co-owner Francis Cratil Cretarola’s grandfather grew up, and it’s prepared just once a year to be served on May 1.
In keeping with tradition, it’s being served this weekend in South Philly, too.
Although there’s no set recipe for le virtù, it always includes dozens of ingredients (usually in multiples of seven, since seven plays such a huge part in Catholic culture). The idea is to make room in the cupboard by using up winter’s remaining stores — dried legumes, cured salamis, whatever’s left in the larder — and toss in a few early spring vegetables for extra pop. The soup meant to be eaten with family and shared with friends in celebration of surviving another cold season, and a way to welcome spring.
“The dish really exemplifies Abruzzese culture,” Cratil Cretarola says. “It’s these resourceful, innovative people who are basically just making do with what they have, but end up making amazing things.”
Cratil Cretarola’s formative le virtù experience came in 2004. He and partner Cathy Lee were traveling in Teramo, and all of a sudden they realized it was April 30, the day before the region-wide soup party they’d heard so much about. They quickly tried to get reservations for the next day, but everything was booked, or closed so proprietors could celebrate with their own families.
On May 1, they drove through three different towns, knocking on restaurant doors to no avail. When they had almost given up, luck found them.
“We were standing outside a closed bakery,” Cratil Cretarola remembers, “but we must have looked very pathetic.” The baker poked her head outside, took one look at the disappointed Americans, and invited them in for the meal.
“We’re just making the soup for our friends and relatives, not to sell,” she told them, “but you can join us anyway.”
Once inside, serendipity struck. Cratil Cretarola heard a name that sounded familiar. “Meloni?” he asked, leaning forward with excitement. “My favorite butcher back in Philly was Sam Meloni. Are you related to him, by chance?”
Turned out they were. As the night progressed, even more connections were made — there were at least four people at the table who had relatives in Philadelphia.
In 2007, when Lee and Cratil Cretarola opened their restaurant on East Passyunk, they knew they would adopt the annual tradition. When May 1 approached, they asked their opening chef, an Abruzzo native, to create a version of the namesake soup. But something was missing — the spark of local terroir.
“In Teramo, every version of the dish is different because the ingredients change depending on the village. The chef we started with wanted to cook like she was still in coastal Italy; she refused to embrace her surroundings and take advantage of the local bounty we have here,” says Cratil Cretarola. “That’s what I love about Joe.”
Before he started working at Le Virtù in 2010, chef Joe Cicala had never heard of its namesake soup. But he quickly grasped the idea.
“It’s about not letting anything go to waste, but also using whatever’s fresh,” Cicala says. “That’s the philosophy we follow here all the time. Plus,” he adds, “the dish is great for food costs.”
To make this year’s single giant batch, Cicala didn’t place any special orders with suppliers. Instead, he scoured the restaurant pantry. Into a rich stock made from leftover rabbit bones, he tossed all sorts of dried beans. Next into the 25-gallon pot went scraps from assorted salame (porchetta, guanciale, pancetta, lardo, fennel sausage, guinea hen sausage), several pastas (ditalini, casarecce, broken up spaghetti and reginette, chopped fettucine) and various other ingredients. Last, he added a few fresh vegetables from Green Meadow Farm, like favas, new potatoes and spring peas.
“This is the first year I used ramps,” he says. “Of course they would never be used in Italy, since they’re native to this region—”
“But that’s fine!” interjects Cratil Cretarola. “We’re making something unique to this region right here.”
The soup will be offered at the restaurant for $12 a bowl, starting on May 1. It’s not expected to last much longer than a day or two, especially because — new this year — it will also be available for purchase in pints to take home (show up on Sunday between 4 to 6 p.m. to score yours).
Additionally, Cicala plans to honor the tradition of sharing it with neighbors by taking bowls to chefs at restaurants up and down East Passyunk Ave.
“I haven’t quite worked out the logistics of how I’m going to do that,” he says, laughing at a scenario that has him pulling a cauldron in a little red wagon along the sidewalk. “But in Teramo, if you forget to give le virtù to someone, it seriously damages your relationship. I definitely don’t want that to happen, so I’ll figure something out.”