The Gist: http://levirtu.com/
The Why: Located on East Passyunk and raved by many to make the best pasta in a town where Marc Vetri and Peter McAndrews each own more than a couple of restaurants I simply had to investigate for myself; was it really possible that the small Abruzzese inspired Le Virtu was the best in town? Owned, operated, and helmed by Americans all well-traveled and trained in Abruzzo with ingredients both indigenous to Italy and from local farms, fields, and fisheries and armed with an ethos based on the Slow Food traditions the reviews and the expectations were admittedly high and I was once again fortunate enough to have a local co-diner with whom I could share to experiment with more of the diverse menu.
The Reservation: Taken by phone only, a reservation was made for two persons at 7:30pm – a time that even on a Wednesday found the restaurant and its patio at capacity.
The Setting: Dark and perhaps (to some) romantic, the feel of Le Virtu was heavy – lots of wood, thick oil paintings on the wall, and hefty linens with sturdy chairs and candles plus overhead lighting providing a light glow. Packed to capacity and with a patio recently opened to the nice weather I’ll additionally say the place was loud, though after a long day with a lot of food and even more walking perhaps my mood was affected adversely and in part to blame.
The Service: While the owner herself was impressively friendly in stopping around to each table throughout the evening I personally found the service at Le Virtu to be perfunctory at best. Perhaps put off by our not selecting any of the “items I’d recommend” or perhaps a simple effect of too few servers for such a large crowd plates arrived appropriately, though perhaps a bit faster than I’d have hoped, but interaction was minimal despite myself asking a number of questions about some of the ingredients. Generally not a fan of overly elaborate descriptors of farms, terroir, and animal husbandry in restaurants I do expect a bit of detail when specific questions are asked.
The food: Complimentary Bread, 2 Antipasti, 3 Pasti, 2 Dolci.
Focaccia and Crusty White with Olive Oil: Baked in house and served with a veritable pool of high quality olive oil that was so fruity it was almost sweet this was the first case in some time where I found myself more drawn to the crusty white than the focaccia – an effect of the later being a bit dry – and given the fact that I wasn’t feeling 100% when I entered the restaurant it was probably for the best that I did not overindulge.
Ricotta di pecora collo zafferano di Navelli: I like cheese, but only a handful of presentations have truly wowed me to the extent that this first taste of menu did. Described simply as imported sheep’s-milk ricotta infused with Navelli saffron and served with chestnut honey and toasted almonds this smooth yet slightly funky cheese was literally as smooth as butter with heavy aromatics from the saffron deftly balanced by the sweetness of the honey and smoky almonds. Easily edible on its own but even better on the grilled bread I’d be hard pressed to name three cheese courses I’ve enjoyed more anywhere.
N’duja: The lowlight of the meal for myself, largely because my stomach simply wasn’t up to it after so much food throughout the day, this Calabrese salame spread accompanied by grilled rustic bread, and vegetables agrodolce was simply like canned heat – a plethora of spices that I couldn’t place and our server couldn’t enlighten me with. Thankful that my dining buddy seemed to enjoy this dish as much as I enjoyed the Ricotta everything worked out nicely, but for my part I prefer N’duja with something more to cut the heat.
Taccozzelle: Beginning with a base of thick al dente noodles paired with house-made Abruzzese-style sausage and finished with a light sauce of olive oil, porcini mushrooms, black truffles, and Navelli saffron my first bite of pasta from Le Virtu was an aromatic assault on the palate with the ribbons of soft dough largely serving as a delivery mechanism for the beautiful blend of earthy notes and slightly spicy sausage. A rich dish, as with the majority of those at Le Virtu, I was happy to have someone with whom to share.
Gnocchi affumicati: Having noted the “best pasta” claims made by the media and local gourmands alike I knew going into this dish that I was setting Le Virtu up for failure – I figured there was no way this could stand up to Marc Vetri’s standard-bearer Spinach Gnocchi – and in the end I was right, yet at the same time these were still extremely good. One of the many courses on the menu blending local goods with those imported and anchored by the tender smoked potato gnocchi the highlight of this plate was actually the thick ragu of Lancaster Co. lamb shoulder and olives topped lightly with pecorino canestrato from Abruzzese, a decidedly savory composition brought in check by the assertive acidity of the tomatoes.
Agnolotti alla porchetta: Featuring slow roasted pork with crispy skin packed inside of delicate agnolotti and topped with sage, butter, black truffles, and crushed amaretti cookie this dish sold itself and although I found the truffles a bit understated it would be hard to quibble with any aspect of this dish otherwise. Rich and hearty yet delicate and balanced I certainly understand how Le Virtu’s pastas draw comparison to the best in town – a coin flip could decide the winner just as easily as any judge in most categories.
Semifreddo al torrone di cioccolato: Unable to pass on dessert no matter what my mood or capacity but unable to justify the $25 tab for the black truffle semifreddo we opted for this $12 selection and although nicely paired with salted caramel sauce, caramel toffee, and whipped cream the texture of the semifreddo was a bit more ‘cakey’ than I was used to – a slightly sticky mouthfeel that although rich with chocolate simply seemed more like angelfood than ice cream, a matter of style perhaps, but not what I’d expected from past experience.
Ricotta Fritta: Four deep fried and dense bites, somewhere between a doughnut and fried cheesecake, these ricotta dumplings were outstanding – each one delightful on its own but even better when dipped into the lemon cream sauce at its side (or the salty caramel accompanying the semifreddo.)
The Verdict: Undoubtedly colored by the fact that I entered the restaurant feeling a bit under the weather and couldn’t fully enjoy as much of each dish as I would have liked I have to give credit where it is due and say that although I did not love the service, setting, or everything we were at Le Virtu that evening there are certainly things to love about any restaurant choosing to focus on such a specific and underrepresented region, especially one with such devout beliefs in quality and sourcing. Dollar for dollar not as good an experience as Modo Mio and bite for bite not as wowing as Vetri I’d still consider going back to Le Virtu in the future if only for some cheese and pasta…besides, in 99% of North American cities it would easily be the best Italian restaurant in town.