“Piu la’ che Abruzzi” or “more out there than Abruzzo,” Cretarola offers to underscore the point—this from Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century Decameron, one of many texts Cretarola brushed up against while studying medieval history and religion in Florence. The quote was used as a frame of reference to stress not just distance, but something beyond the normal realm of experience and imagination.
Which is fitting, since you can drive 2 ½ hours from gelato, trattorias, and window shopping in Rome to a change in climate and elevation in one of Abruzzo’s many national parks, where bears and wolves are a distinctive enough possibility to put spiked collars on the local sheep dogs.
The Mad Max/Old Yeller look of one such sheep dog is one of many images in a book commissioned and captioned by Cretarola that conveys the region’s otherworldliness. There’s the permanence of stonework, a rustic architectural elegance, and the perpetuation of crafts tied to history, land, and livestock.
“It’s a stark, rugged place” photographer and Le Virtu server Kateri Likoudis says, quick to add it’s full of contrasts. “It’s also incredibly beautiful. And so much of that is encapsulated in how warm and hospitable the people are.”
Cicala isn’t far removed from another trip to Abruzzo—his 24th by his count. To prep for the restaurant’s 2nd La Panarda on December 16th, he was there in November to sure up the menu, with a particular interest in learning more about their approach to anti-pasta.
The more I talk to anyone at Le Virtú, the more a striving for authenticity is reinforced. Whether the discussion relates to the preparation, execution, or experience of a given course, or the selection of a rare wine or cheese seen nowhere else in the states, the dinner on every level is about getting not just a taste of another culture, but also experiencing a different way of doing things that has persisted through time.
Hence, the dinner can be seen as a hefty dissertation on the restaurant’s role of swimming against the evolutionary trend from Old World to New World cuisine, of reclaiming, along with all the other principle players of the food movement, all that we turned away from in the last 60 years as a collective immigrant community. Besides focusing on the quality of each individual ingredient—everything from the flour, cheeses, and saffron are all shipped from Abruzzo—an adherence to tradition assures a proper, yet artful balancing of those ingredients, especially when that tradition was guided by necessity.