Mark, Scott, and I exchange glances that quickly turn serious. We’re in it for the long haul—though we’re all feeling it. Finally, the food has caught up with us and the course ahead is potentially rife with bloated hills and uninviting, unsettling hairpin turns.
Thankfully, that isn’t the case.
But the saving grace here goes well beyond lightness as the cheese plate triggers both taste bud and synapse. It’s nearly 11:30 p.m. and Cicala isn’t about to let anyone fall asleep.
The selections to follow are from 3 herds of sheep in the small town of Aversa di Abruzzi. Le Virtú gets their cheese from the organic farm La Porta dei Parchi via an adopt-a-sheep program that supports the organic co-op the farm started.
A creamy ricotta plays with memory as sweet herbal flavors from the lamb—also smoked with juniper—stands out more in my mind.
Next, is the Gregoriano pecorino, which goes beyond the usual, table cheese firmness of Italian sheep’s milk cheese. It came about some 20 years ago after famed Abruzzi cheesemaker Gregoriano Rotolo went abroad to share his skills. There, he met a Frenchman who shared his enthusiasm for softer fromage.
The cheese turns limbo into a delicious place, its texture and flavor hinting at further creaminess, just as a gingery tartness jumps out, with grassy notes off in the background.
The next pecorino, a muffato, lives up to its name, which translates as moldy. But, in addition to the sharpness from the incandescent veining, there’s a bit of barnyard and light herbal flavor, which stems from the cheese being aged in hay, mint, majoram, and chamomile.
Cicala sneaks in an unlisted pecorino brigantaccio, the preferred cheese of bandits or brigante. Just as the term brigante evolved from that of a simple bandit, the cheese is transformed by being cave aged in clay pots, covered with straw, and sealed with a candle that knocks out all the oxygen—resulting in a lengthy maturation process that was perfect for a people constantly on the run. I get jarring, yet pleasant inflections of fruit along with more barnyard flavor from the straw, as well as a bit of nuttiness from the bran that the cheese is dried in—truly, it’s a cheese that ambushes the tongue.
Thankfully, the wine is much more subdued than the Rubesto Montepulciano. Perhaps owing to the fact I lost count a long time ago, the Panarda Montepulciano d’Abruzzo doesn’t do much to stand out—or maybe that just means it’s the perfect complement as it didn’t get in the way.
With another reawakening, the ensuing dessert plate is more a reward than burden.
Brimming with anise, the fried potato and raisin packed torcinelli get dragged through a mini lake of hot chocolate, the experience reminding me of late night counter time with churros in Barcelona, the moment furthered as I transition to a cinnamon dusted fried doughnut luxuriating in a vanilla cream sauce. Between the delicate, gamey flavor in the goat’s milk yogurt gelato and the savory blessing of rosemary lent its crisp, apple crostada dais, it’s clear that our taste buds would get a workout till the very end. And then I try the love child of wine and the fruity tartness and sweetness of pears, poaching an apt metaphor as I amplify the flavors with the Panarda Montepulciano. I try the soft, creamy pillow that is the accompanying pecorino panna cotta at first by itself, and then with wine and pears. Somehow I don’t travel back in time.
And then, it’s over. With so many people gone, I exude utter happiness, exhaustion while thanking Catherine Lee for one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I sit with Joe Cicala and Angela Ranalli as we pour Centerba, drinking to our respective perseverance. Just as I think that a drink originally intended to cure skin disease is just the digestif I need, I add to the fire in my stomach via Cicala’s saffron infused Everclear.
I’m soon out into the rain, walking back up East Passyunk, thinking how much I would love to go with the Le Virtú crew on their upcoming tour of Abruzzo, in which a lucky view get to join them as they visit the shepherds of La Porta dei Parchi, the winemakers and farmers of Cantina Frentana, along with a myriad of other artisans. I would remain intrigued, eager to go, but at the same time, infused with some of the experience that the day’s guided tour provided. It was a story told so well that you were there. A hell of a jaunt.