An American Story: Apolinar Sanchez of Le Virtù

How did you make the crossing?
It’s like everybody else. You’re looking for somebody—you know, coyotes. You have to pay money for them. Not me. Somebody else. Then you have to come here and first, pay the money back.

How much money?
At that time, I paid three thousand dollars. Right now, I’m not sure, but they say it’s three times that amount.

Why do that? That’s a lot of money. There’s the risk. Why did you want to come here?
First of all, always in Mexico we have the poor family. We didn’t have a lot of jobs. All people come here for the dream—the dream American. I say, okay, I’m going to the United States and just making the money, making my own business—like everybody does. The first thing, they say, go to America, make a little money, and go back. Sometimes you don’t make it because it’s hard to find a job when you don’t have papers. You watch the news and you see how people are and you don’t know…I come here because I try to help my mom and my dad—they’re in a small town where I grew up—in farmland in Puebla. A small village where you don’t’ have water, you don’t have internet or signal for cell phones. You come here, you say, I want to get a better life for my family, for myself. You do that, but you’re missing a lot of things. You’re missing your mom, your family. It’s good living here, but you’re missing a lot. First of all your mom and your dad.

So you’ve been living in South Philly since you came here?

Same area?
I just moved a couple blocks. I lived in the same house for almost fourteen years. But I had to move because the owner sold the house.

You worked at Paradiso. Where else have you worked?
My first job when I came here, I worked as a dishwasher. That was at 2nd and Walnut. That was called Lamberti’s Cucina. Now it’s Positano Coast. I worked there for two years as a dishwasher. Cleaned the kitchen. Sweeped and mopped. After that, I worked at a restaurant at Philly International Airport with the same company. I worked there for a bit. Then, after 9/11 they asked all people for papers. All Mexicans worked there. Because I didn’t have papers, I went to Center City and worked with Pietro’s Pizzeria. I worked there for maybe four years from 2001 to 2005. I did the pastas, which I like. I don’t know why, but I like doing Italian food.

Everybody likes Italian food.
Yes. It is my passion.

Where did you go next?
I quit there and I went to Paradiso. I worked there for maybe four years. After Paradiso, I came here [to Le Virtù]. Francis is a good person. Someone recommended that I come here. I worked here for two days [in a trial or stage] and they liked the way I work. Now I’ve been working here for seven years. I cook the pasta, I do prep, and help the chef [Joe Cicala].

What is your favorite pasta to make?
My favorite pasta is the most important in this restaurant—the mugnaia. Because it is very simple. The dish has garlic, hot pepper, cheese. When you start to eat it, you can’t believe it’s that simple and very very flavorful. I really enjoy making the pasta and cooking for the people who come here. I like to hear that the pasta is delicious. People can see that I’m not Italian but they pass along praise for the cook. Everyone else in the kitchen, they like working here and doing a good job.

What else have you picked up working here?
I learned the chef’s way of working in the kitchen. How he makes salumi. How to make these dishes that are very simple. You don’t need a lot of ingredients. You don’t need fancy food. You’re making it with love, this rustic cuisine.

You’re in South Philly with a lot of Italians whose families came over between 60-100 hundred years ago. You’re helping the restaurant’s mission of bringing the food of their ancestors’ here.
Exactly. This is authentic Italian food. This is what I like. The most important thing is that this is very simple food. It’s Italian, man!

How does it compare to cooking Mexican cuisine?
To be honest, I don’t know much about cooking Mexican food. When I was there, I was very young. My mom always cooked. Maybe I can cook a little bit but I feel like Mexican food is a little harder because there are many ingredients. There are maybe twenty-five things to make a mole. There can be many things to making tamales. You’re adding cheese, salsa. You have to process the masa. I feel like it’s a little more complicated but maybe not that much. In Italy, they eat a lot of beans. We eat a lot of beans. Different way, but it’s almost the same. A lot of pork. We both eat a lot of hot peppers.

Did you work in Mexico?
I worked in Puebla for the police. I went to the school for the municipal police for one year. They trained me. It was my first job. I worked there for two years. They teach a little bit of English because there are many travelers there.

So no restaurant experience.
Yes. When I come here, I was a dishwasher for two years at Lamberti Cuicina. As soon I started working at restaurants, I saw the kitchen, I saw the food, and I got interested to make the food. I’d do my pots and make my station clean and right away I’d go to see how the people made the pastas, cooked…Just watching. The chef was very, very strict. He’d say, what are you doing there. Go back to your station. Do beans, dishes, or prep garlic—something. He never liked me watching how people cooked, but you know, I don’t care about that, and I go back again! Clean my station and go. The chef said, so you want to work in the kitchen, on the line—okay. Gave me first of all the salads. I said, I don’t like to do the salads because I want to do the sauté, the pastas. First he give me one day, then little by little, he give me more days. I like it, working in a kitchen. I don’t know what happened with me because I never worked in a kitchen before, but I like it.


Making the mugnaia. Courtesy of Le Virtù.

When did you start making fresh pasta?
Here [at Le Virtù]. Always, the other restaurants would buy frozen or dried pasta. So when I came here the first time it was amazing to see how to make the fresh pasta. Like I said, it’s very simple to make the fresh pasta. It’s just how much egg, how much flour according to the recipe. Very simple.

First time making salumi, as well, right?
I only make a little bit. Joe [Cicala] is making the salumi and I watch, I learn how to make some. He’s downstairs doing that and I’m up here doing prep [for service].

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