This point is related beautifully when I ask Cicala how much surplus he could end up with after the dinner.
“Anything we don’t use, we’ll turn into specials throughout the week. That’s the beauty of cooking a poor culture’s cuisine—there’s so much leeway with everything we use,” he says.
As much as the restaurant catches off-guard anyone expecting American Italian food, the dinner is far from the pretensions that can accompany such mega-tastings.
“We don’t offer tastings throughout the year,” he says. “It’s not something Italians do. We’re not that kind of a place—it’s not about my ego.”
In addition to bringing a bit of Abruzzo to East Passyunk, there is again, as with last year’s La Panarda which fell on their 3rd anniversary, a sense of saying thank you to a group of loyal regulars. With 8 ½ hours of food plus unlimited wine throughout the night—“we’re doing this close to cost,” Cretarola says of the $200 price—they’re also bringing a bit of Abruzzi hospitality.
Before I watch Cicala break down that 30lb suckling pig, he goes over the menu for me, saying he’s telling his bussers to clear plates fast so they can quickly bring other dishes in.
“You’re not expected to finish everything. The best most people did [last year] was get into the 30s. One guy finished, but he wasn’t finishing every plate,” he says.
Nearly an arm’s length, the menu looks like a sprawling poem or song, the stanzas an enjambment of Italian hardly broken by English parentheticals, each section containing 3-6 dishes. The only respite for lesser appetites is the fact that Cicala is paring back the menu just a bit to roughly 3-5 bites per plate. Additionally, timing will be everything.
“They’ll be intervals, he says, “for everyone to get up, walk around, and go outside by the fire. We’ll take a break for instance after the terzo [fourth stanza] since I’ll need enough time to bring everything for the next courses up from the basement.”
Any sense of a lulling break disappears when Cicala surmises that this gap will only be 15-20 minutes. “Once it’s upstairs, it’s just cook it and get it out.” Equally comforting, is the look of exhaustion, the slight bit of concern on his face as he gives the menu a quick scan ahead of descriptively speeding through it.
But besides the lighter portions and the infrequent breaks, Cicala has laid out a menu that ebbs and flows, that progressively builds before settling back towards lighter fare, with the wine pairings—one per stanza, minus the dessert offering—equally rising in boldness and body, from a sparkling, to three whites, to a rose, then on to 3 Montepulcianos d’Abruzzo that get “successively bigger and bigger” with the food.
It all starts with the apertivo, a series of fried amuse bouche meant to open the palate. There’s the floral and salty notes of a Jewish style fried artichoke; the floral element of saffron in a baccala fritter “that opens up the nose”; the meshing of brine and fat in breaded porchetta stuffed olives; the delicate fat of mozz cutting through a fried rice ball that’s meant to coat the tongue and, along with all the other elements, get you ready for everything else.
The primo servizio di apertura, or first of the opening plates, brings in light fish in broths—“nothing heavy”—including a brodetto of assorted shellfish—mussels, clams, and razor clams “if we can find them,” Cicala says—opened up with garlic, herbs, and a vibrant olive oil.
There’s also a fish dish similar to Aqua Pazza—a dish popular in Naples—that pairs a spicy tomato broth with baccala.
“It’s downstairs soaking right now,” Cicala says of the reconstitution of the salted fish.
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