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Le Virtu, DisCanto and rabbit too!

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
2 cloves

  • 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.
  • Serve immediately
Chestnut-lentil ragu:
1 small carrot
1 onion
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.

Philly Ramblings

OK, so there’s no food in the lead photo, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t food involved in this post. Stay with me, you’ll see. This is a shot of Philadelphia taken last Friday, March 23, when the temperature reached 80 degrees and people were walking about wearing shorts and t-shirts. This isn’t normal folks. It’s typically about 55 degrees this time of year here. As much as I wanted to spend the day outdoors, I had tickets to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Even with the nice weather, it was no sacrifice to stay indoors amid all the fabulous works of art here.
If you have a chance to get to the exhibit before it closes on May 6, don’t miss it. After that, it goes to Ottawa, Canada. You’ll see some stunning works of art, like this one (field with wheat stacks):
and this one (wheatfields at Auvers under clouded sky) :
If you go, make a reservation to eat lunch at the museum’s restaurant, Granite Hill. It’s quiet, elegant and the food is good too. After the exhibit, there was still time to enjoy the nice weather, so I headed down to 9th Street, the Italian neighborhood. You’ll still find plenty of stores selling Italian food and wares, but it’s nothing like what it used to be when I was a kid. Over the years, other ethnicities have moved in as the Italians improved their economic lot and moved to the suburbs.
I parked my car right next to a house whose facade looked like another work of art – all made from ceramic shards:

My first stop was Isgro Pasticceria on Christian Street, a business dating back to 1904. You can find all sorts of Italian pastries there, including these pesche alla crema, a confection you can make at home using this recipe.

 

 

I have a weakness for chocolate covered coconut-cream Easter eggs and the ones here, covered in dark chocolate ganache, were about the best I’ve ever eaten (next to this recipe).
These marzipan lambs were each made by hand by the shop’s 92-year old matriarch.
Most of the shops are located around the corner from Isgro’s on 9th Street. If you know Philadelphia, you know that murals are a big part of the city landscape. The Mural Arts Program was started in 1984 to eradicate graffiti and now there are more than 3,000 murals throughout the city. This one on 9th Street is a mural of Frank Rizzo, the city’s mayor in the 1970s and police commissioner before that.
Fante’s is a great kitchenware store that has everything a home cook could want or need – from espresso pots and gnocchi boards to the paper forms needed to make an Easter colomba you see here.
There are two cheese stores/delis almost next to each other – DiBruno Brothers (below) and Claudio’s. Both have a large selection of great Italian products – cheeses, salumi, and other temptations.
I couldn’t resist the burrata cheese from DiBruno’s, wrapped in leek leaves.
Would you have been able to resist this creamy deliciousness?
Although each store had similar products and a similar look (this is Claudio’s below), there were differences too.
Among the items I bought at Claudio’s was this lemon ricotta cheese. A slice of this tasted just like ricotta cheesecake, although there were no eggs or flour at all. Back at home, I ate it straight from the store with some sliced strawberries.
That was after the burrata cheese and roasted tomatoes, the prosciutto di Parma, marinated artichokes and olives.
Happy Springtime!

 

Do you have stories from your past you want to get down on paper? Have you thought about writing a memoir? What about doing it in Italy in a beautiful village and stimulating company, with great food each day and excursions to interesting places nearby? Then don’t dally – sign up right now – there are a couple of spots left for “Italy in Other Words.”