Doesn’t this look like a lovely pastoral scene — a picturesque Italian village, people dressed in traditional costumes, dancers swaying as musicians play in the background, and a picnic spread on the grass? You’d think it’s a painting, and it is — sort of. But it’s not hanging on the wall of any museum. It’s a mural ON a wall along Passyunk Street in Philadelphia. It also happens to depict Santo Stefano di Sessanio – the village where I’ll be co-teaching a writing workshop with Kathryn Abajian called “Italy, In Other Words.”
I was flabbergasted when I saw it for the first time last week, right next to a restaurant called “Le Virtu” where I went to hear a group of musicians from Abruzzo called “DisCanto.” They had performed in Princeton years ago at the Italian cultural institute I’m involved with, and I didn’t want to miss the chance to hear these talented musicians a second time. Drinks and munchies would be served and I was eager to try some of the restaurant’s food, focusing on the cuisine of Abruzzo.
I met up with Helen Free, who came up from Washington, D.C. for the evening. I’ll be taking over her role this year in the Italy, In Other Words workshop, leaving her the time to organize a new blogging workshop in Santo Stefano for later in the year – Hands on L’Aquila.
Many of the walls at the restaurant are decorated in ceramics made in the town of Castelli, one of the excursions planned during the writing workshop in Italy.
The evening started out with wine and small bites of delectable offerings, including succulent lamb spiedini, and these outrageously delicious stuffed olives.
The star of the show however, (food-wise) was the roast suckling pig, prepared by Chef Joe Cicala, whose culinary talents have been honed in restaurants in Salerno, Italy; Washington, D.C. and New York City (including Del Posto, one of my favorites).
Everyone was salivating at the first smack of the knife, when the crackling skin gave way to the tender, well-seasoned meat inside, infused with rosemary and sage.
The authentic regional food set the stage for the talented musicians, who alternated among a myriad of instruments, including guitar, cello, mandolin, clarinet, accordion, violin and bagpipes. Yes, that’s right — bagpipes — or zampogne — as they’re called in Italian. Scotland has nothing on Italy when it comes to bagpipes. Southern Italy has a long tradition of bagpipe music, hailing back to shepherds who were away from their families tending their flocks for long periods of time. They would descend from the mountains at Christmas time, surrounded by their sheep as they played the instruments they made using available materials. The well-known Italian Christmas carol “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle” (You came down from the stars) is traditionally accompanied by bagpipes.
Members of DisCanto in the photo below are, Sara Ciancone on the cello, Michele Avolio on guitar, Antonello Di Matteo on clarinet and Domenico Mancini on violin.
Here’s a video of the group that night, performing “La Luna Si Fermo'” (The moon stopped.)
It was a fun-filled night of great music, delicious food, renewing old friendships and making new ones.
Among the new ones were Francis Cratil (below) and his wife, Catherine Lee, owners of Le Virtu who were instrumental in bringing DisCanto to the U.S.
We ate a limited sampling of Le Virtu’s food, but it was enough for me to know that I want to go back again and again to try everything on the menu. The flavors were so evocative of real Abruzzese cooking, even though some of the dishes take a more modern twist, but always using authentic ingredients from the region, like saffron from Navelli, and lentils from Santo Stefano, for example.
On the way out, the mural looked even more magical, as decorative street lights provided drama.
And if you zoom in on the mural, take a good look at who’s playing the ciaramella, that wooden instrument that looks like a recorder (but is really related to the oboe). It’s a member of Discanto – Michele – whom the artist used as a model.
The musicians have gone back to Italy, but you can still feel the Abruzzo vibe on Passyunk Ave at Le Virtu. If you can’t get to Philly though, Francis was kind enough to send me a recipe – coniglio in porchetta — or rabbit rolled and cooked in the style of a porchetta. So now you can have a little bit of Abruzzo and Le Virtu in your home too.
Coniglio in Porchetta
photo and recipe courtesy of Le Virtu printable recipe here
1 whole boneless Lancaster County rabbit (available from Sonny D’Angelo on Philadelphia’s 9th St.)
3 sprigs of rosemary
2 cloves of garlic
1T kosher salt
1/2 T black peppercorns
1/2tsp red pepper flake
4 oz extra virgin olive oil
1 bay leaf
2 juniper berries
In a spice/coffee grinder pulverize the black pepper, bay leaf, juniper berries, and cloves to a fine powder. set aside.
Lay the boneless rabbit flat over plastic wrap. cover with a second sheet of plastic and lightly beat with a meat mallet until a universal thickness of about 1/2 inch.
Season liberally with olive oil, salt, spice mixture, red pepper flake. Roll the rabbit into a roast, tucking in the sides as you go.
Tie the roast up with butcher string and season the outside with any remaining spice mix and salt in a hot saute pan add 2 oz of extra virgin olive oil. when the oil starts to smoke add the rabbit.
Let sear heavily on one side for 2 minutes or until golden brown.
Flip the roast and sear for an adittional two minutes.
Move the hot pan into a preheated oven at 350 degrees
Cook for an additional 20 minutes
Remove roast from oven and let rest for 10 minutes at room temperature
Remove butcher strings and slice into medallions.
1 small carrot
1 stalk of celery
2 cloves of garlic
2 bay leaves
2 oz extra virgin olive oil
3 sprigs of thyme
1 sprig of rosemary
1 sprig of sage
500 grams brown lentils (from Santo Stefano di Sessanio…or castelluccio lentils if S.S. di S. lentil not available)
1 kilo (2.2 lbs.) shelled chestnuts (either roasted or boiled and peeled
salt and pepper to taste
1 gallon rabbit stock (chicken stock works just fine)
Peel onion and carrot and place them with the celery and garlic in a food processor and pulse until you ahve a fine mince.
In a large pot sweat the vegetable mixture in the olive oil on low heat until they become translucent.
Add chestnuts and cook for an additional 5 minutes until the chestnuts become tender and start to break apart
Add lentils and stirr with wooden spoon to mix.
tie the herbs together with butcher string to for a bouquet garnis, add to the pot.
Add the stock and season with salt and pepper
Cook over low heat (a light simmer) until the lentils are tender (about 30 minutes)
if additional liquid is needed add water a little at a time until the lentils are cooked. (much like the style of a risotto)
serve immediately under roasted rabbit in porchetta, or add additional stock to make a great soup. Garnish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.