The occasion was the third annual Panarda, a nine-hour, 40-course banquet at Le Virtù, a South Philadelphia restaurant that focuses almost exclusively on the food of Abruzzo, in central Italy. On a snowy Sunday in December, 30 diners who paid $250 gathered to enjoy the epic meal made by executive chef Joe Cicala and his small staff, which started at 1:41 p.m. with fried olives stuffed with braised pheasant and ended somewhere around 10:30 p.m. with nougat-studded chocolate semifreddo and crumb-topped apple cake.
“It’s a marathon,” said Shin, a computer programmer at a health-care start-up, who walked into the restaurant just as the snow flurries were beginning to pick up speed. “I’m a former Boy Scout. I know to always be prepared.”
For some, like Shin, the goal was to eat every bite of every judiciously portioned dish. For others, the draw was just being at one of the two communal tables set up in the small, softly lit main dining room.
“Both sides of my family are from Abruzzo,” said Nick Starinieri, a lawyer from Montgomery County, Pa. “I got a little misty when I saw stewed cuttlefish on the menu. My mother used to make that.”
La Panarda is indeed a marathon, but not the eat-all-you-can-as-fast-as-you-can kind that you find at county fairs or see on bad food TV. The feast is a centuries-old tradition steeped in cultural and religious significance, and in lore. It still takes place in some Abruzzo villages, especially in the mountains, where winters can be bitter and where a celebratory meal that requires days of preparation goes a long way toward providing purpose, not to mention comfort.
Historically, la Panarda was hosted by a town’s aristocracy for those who labored on their behalf, says Francis Cratil, who together with his wife, Catherine Lee, owns Le Virtù. It was a communal celebration of the harvest, held at a time of year when the annual pig slaughter took place and when the larder was full.
The first documented Panarda, in 1657, took place in the town of Villavallelonga. According to legend, a young mother of a clan called Serafini left her infant in its crib while she went to the well for water. When she returned, the baby was clamped in the jaws of a wolf. She prayed to Saint Antonio Abate, protector of those who raise animals, and the wolf released the baby unharmed. The young woman vowed to hold a yearly feast in Saint Antonio’s honor.
Every year since then, the Serafini family has had a hand in hosting Villavallelonga’s Panarda, which is held Jan. 17 to coincide with the saint’s feast day. But beyond the religious and civic celebration, says Cratil, la Panarda has always been, to some degree, an act of defiance, in keeping with the tough and stubborn nature of the Abruzzesi.
“It was about people thumbing their nose at the endemic hardships of life in these remote villages in Abruzzo, and at winter,” says Cratil, whose grandfather was from the town of Castiglione Messer Raimondo, in Abruzzo’s Teramo province. “It’s people saying, ‘While we have this bounty, this food in our larders, we’re going to celebrate. We’re not going to hold on to it. We’re going to be optimistic and put on this excessive celebration.’”
It’s that aspect that especially appealed to Cratil. When Le Virtù opened, in 2007, its survival was by no means assured. For one thing, it had opened during an economic downturn. For another, it was committed to focusing on the rustic food of a region that not many people are familiar with. “A lot of people thought we were daft,” Cratil says. In 2010, the opening chef, a talented but temperamental woman from Abruzzo, left. Cratil himself was ill with cancer.
But by the end of that year, things had begun to turn around. Le Virtù brought on Cicala, a D.C. native who had worked at Galileo and Cafe Milano, and at Del Posto in New York. The restaurant garnered good reviews in the Philadelphia press. “We wanted to celebrate our own survival,” says Cratil, who was in the hospital during the first Panarda but has recovered.
The event is popular and sells out fast once it’s announced — usually in under an hour. In spite of the high price tag, Cratil says, the restaurant does not reap a profit from la Panarda. “We don’t make a dime. We do it every year as a recommitment to our mission.”
Cicala, sous-chef Brandon Howard and pastry chef Angela Ranalli prepped for four days to get ready for this year’s event. The menu was modeled after a 1994 Panarda held at Villa Santa Maria, the renowned cooking school in Abruzzo that has turned out some of Italy’s best chefs. It was organized into 10 “servizii,” or services, most of them consisting of four or five courses, with pauses in between. The flow followed a certain rhythm, with courses gradually becoming richer, then lighter, then richer again.
Typical Abruzzese ingredients were featured — seafood to reflect the Adriatic coast; lentils and beans, which are cultivated in the region; a variety of pastas; pork and lamb; and sheep’s milk cheeses — all washed down with a selection of wines by Cantina Frentana, an Abruzzese producer.
Among the many highlights were a shellfish brodetto, a hearty pasta e fagioli, house-made salumi, and a rich, tender lamb stew (agnello brasato) served toward the end of the meal that one diner described as “a lullaby.” But the star of the show was Cicala’s timballo di crespelle, an enormous baked dome of layered savory crepes, cheese, tiny meatballs, tender braised pork and sauce.
As the snow piled up outside and afternoon melted into evening, diners clinked glasses and gave toasts. People got up to stretch their legs or to check the score of the Eagles-Lions game. Some ventured outside to throw snowballs between courses.
A group of four arrived somewhere around course 11 (cotechino sausage with lentils) and did some speed-eating to catch up. Among them was Daniel Chadwick, a Philadelphia restaurant manager, and his brother, Jay, chef de cuisine at Alba Restaurant. They had gotten stuck on Interstate 76 and were 21
2 hours late but undeterred. “This is where I got married,” said Chadwick, who is part Abruzzese. “We got into two accidents on the way, but we were not going to miss this.”
As the meal drew to a close, the die-hards willed themselves and their tablemates to finish the last bites of fried rosette and apple cake. The last of the toasts were exchanged, and people who had sat down as strangers or acquaintances stood up and shook hands or hugged as friends.
“The camaraderie with the others at my table helped us get through the end,” said Shin. “The snowy backdrop made the experience even more special. It was a night I will never forget.”
To inquire about next year’s la Panarda, visit www.levirtu.com or call 215-271-5626. Marchetti is the author of several cookbooks; the most recent is “The Glorious Vegetables of Italy” (Chronicle Books, 2013).