La Panarda: A Tale of 40 Courses Over Nine Hours

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At the end of January, my friend Ray and I continued our month of indulgence and finally ticked La Panarda off of our bucket list: an epic nine-hour feast with a menu of 42 courses at Philadelphia restaurant Le Virtu.  Though, saying 42 “items” would probably be more accurate, as the menu was broken down into nine “courses” that grouped like-minded dishes.

There were also nine different Abruzzo wines (four white, a rose, and four red), which were paired with each of the courses, and topped off as necessary.  Needless to say, I really could have used a nap about six hours into the meal, but I powered on.

We were told to wear “comfortable and expandable” clothing – I went with my Canadiens hockey jersey, which actually started a lot of conversations, in addition to being roomy enough for me to eat for nine hours.

If you would like to read more about La Panarda and the history behind it, I would suggest Drew Lazor’s piece in Saveur Magazine about it. If you would like to read about the absolute indulgence I feel I had been training my whole life for, please continue.

As a fair warning, the light started to wane near the end – compounded with hours of wine and people being less patient as the night went on, some of the pictures become a little less practiced near the end. But for the most part, everyone at our part of the table was very open to waiting until everyone had snapped their pictures before taking anything.

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Ray and I arrived about 15 minutes early, just as they were opening the restaurant and letting us take our seats.  We picked seats at the end of a table, against a wall and close to the door to Le Virtu’s outside porch area.  Not only did it afford us great lighting for photos, but we had a quick way out of the table as well as a wall to lean back on when the going got tough. Owner Francis Cratil Cretarola and his brother Fred, the manager, immediately commented on my Habs jersey, as they’re both hockey fans.

At the table in front of us was a bowl of mushroom sott’olio, a variety of cooked mushrooms in oil.  We nervously eyed them as we waited for the rest of the guests to arrive, for our welcome champagne to be poured, and for Francis to give his welcome talk. The best piece of advice he gave us was the line, “The race is not always to the swift.”

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The first item that was actually delivered to our table was the Salumi and Formaggi meat and cheese board, which contained pancetta, coppa, guanciale, ‘nduja, mortadella, and mangalitsa cacciatorini for the meat, three types of pecorino (canestrato, muffato, and brigantaccio – with the muffato bring slightly softer, stinkier, and more delicious), as well as a 36-month aged parmigiano that was delightful.  Also on the board was pepperonata, eggplant, carrots, pickled onions, and grilled bread.

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Once we were nearing the end of the board, with people hesitantly picking at what was left.  The first course, and already the mental strategy had to kick in: Ray and I are the type of guys who will pick at food as long as it’s in front of us, and we’ll finish shared plates if no one else wants them.  But today, we had to stay strong and not overdo it.  We’d have to have tastes, and then leave the rest until the next course.

Then, they brought out another board.  “Ohh, what’s this?” we asked.  “More of the same.”

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More picking, and then came the oliva ascolana, little fried balls filled with green olive and shredded meat.

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The opening course also included palotta cac e ove, which are basically vegetarian meatballs made with bread and cheese.  They were just as good as any “regular” meatball.

 

Thus ended the “Sfizi” and “Salumi and Formaggi” courses, and thankfully ended the piles of meat and cheese still sitting on the table.  Next came the “Crudi” course, starting with Ikijime fluke with olive, fennel, and citrus.  There were also some peppers on top that helped spice things up a bit.

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It was about this time that we could look outside on the porch and see the chefs preparing the roasted suckling pig in their box outside – another of the perks of sitting near the window.

 

As we were watching the pig be prepared, another dish was brought to the table, this time a bowl of bay scallops with Calabrese chili and mustard oil. This was a standout, and would become one of the dishes I had to take multiple servings of.

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Following the scallops was a top-notch tuna with porcini powder, celery root, and pomegranate seeds.  I knew it was early, and I knew I had to pace myself, but I also knew I had to have more than one piece. It was so good.

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Next in our parade of food was the peppercorn crusted venison carpaccio with arugula, grana, and lemon. Some people complained about the arugula for some reason, but I loved it and as such had no problem with it.

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Finally, rounding out the “Crudi” section and quickly becoming what everyone thought of as the dish of the night was the charred wagyu with sunchoke, black garlic, and capers. This may have been the only bowl that was sent back completely empty.  We couldn’t stop raving about it, and couldn’t stop eating it.  If you ever see this on the menu at Le Virtu, do not hesitate.

 

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After this cluster of dishes, we had our first break.  People got up, walked around, hung out in the courtyard outside for a bit.  We chatted, stretched out legs, and just generally relaxed.  Our plates were changed, our wine was refilled, and preparations for the next course were begun.  When it was time to go back in, the owner rang a little dinner bell and we all headed back to our seats to continue the feast.

Up next on the docket was “Antipasti” – and crazy to think that we had gone through 15 dishes already and hadn’t even made it to the appetizers. First up was a heavy and rich fegato – a duck liver mousse with Amarena cherry and fennel puree. At this point, it was the heaviest thing we had eaten all day, and would remain so until the pasta courses.

 

Following the mousse was a much lighter grilled baby octopus with Umbrian chickpeas and chicory. The idea of chickpeas didn’t thrill me from a trying-not-to-fill-up perspective, but it was still worth eating.

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Alongside this was a house-made Calabrese sausage with broccoli rabe, chili, and agrumato. I don’t know how many times I can get away with just saying “this was delicious.”

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Up next were some “real” meatballs – Mangalitsa pork meatballs with marinara and ricotta salata.  It was nice to have them as a counterpoint to the palotte we’d had, and I almost wish we could have had them side-by-side to compare.

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Rounding out the Antipasti was arrosticini with rosemary, garlic, and preserved lemon.  It was a bit of a surprise, because in my mind I was thinking arancini, and so expected another little fried ball rather than the skewered and grilled pork that we got.

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After this course was another break, and from here on out everyone seemed to be in full agreement that after every course or grouping, we’d need to wander outside and stretch our legs, walk around, or get fresh air.

When we came back, we had the prospect of the “Primi” course – pasta – staring us down. As much as I absolutely love carbs and all things noodle, this was the course that made me nervous, and could easily derail the entire meal if you weren’t careful. As I’d read in the Saveur article ahead of time, if you can make it past the pasta course, you’re home free.

I wouldn’t say it’s as easy as that, but it is a large hump in the middle of the meal.  We started with probably the best dish of the group, cavatelli with mushroom ragu, egg yolk, and grana padana.  The egg yolk was fashioned into a firm kind of custard, and I could’ve eaten the entire plate of this stuff if I hadn’t still had 23 dishes ahead of me.

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Alongside the cavatelli, we were treated to gnocchi with sweet shrimp, piennolo tomato, Calabrese chili, and basil. Thanks to a meal at the French Laundry a few years ago, all gnocchi is basically garbage to me, but this was still good.  And sucking out shrimp heads is always a delight – which is why I went through four of them.

 

Once those two were done, we were served crespelle with sheep’s milk ricotta and artichoke ragu. These were like little Abruzzo crepes filled with cheese, which makes them infinitely more delicious than regular crepes.

 

After the crespelles was chitarra with lamb ragu alla Silvana at Villa Vetiche and pecorino.  It looks like normal spaghetti, but was cooked so perfectly al dente I had to take a second helping.  I’ve eaten lots of pasta – at expensive Italian restaurants and all over Italy, but I had never had al dente pasta like this.  It was a real eye-opener.

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The final course of the pastas was the mugnaia with peperoncino, aglio e olio. This comes out as a single six-foot long thick noodle, which makes it a little difficult to eat family-style, but we made do.

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Another break – this one the longest of them all – and we came back in for some heavy hitters in the “Pesce” courses.  We returned to find a large pot on the table and bowls in front of us for a seafood stew: brodetto vastese with monkfish, sea robins, shrimp, tilefish, clams, mussels, and saffron.

 

Along with the stew was stuffed calimari with ‘nduja, caper, and raisin. These were delicious, but spicy.  As in, eat too much of the sauce and start coughing spicy.  This, of course, I know from experience.

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Next up was scungilli with button mushrooms, veal jus, parsley salsa verde, and grilled bread. Scungilli is a kind of mollusk that when cooked came out very similar to snails, but is much more fun to say.  Scungilli.  Skoon-jee-lee.

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Rounding out the fish course was a platter of fritto misto: whole fried branzino, tentacles, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, greens, and aioli. One of our tablemates said this was his favorite thing that Le Virtu did.  It was good, but we’d already had plenty that I’d preferred.

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Another break, and then we were back in for the course I had probably been looking forward to most: “Frattaglie (offal) e Fermentati (fermenteds).” Ray and I love this stuff, and a lot of these dishes were no different. I think it may have been about this time that we had our first espresso to keep us going.

We started with honeycomb tripe with Reid’s corn polenta and parmigiana, which turned out much better than I’d hoped and shot to the top part of my experience thus far.  It was a bit chewy, but not unpleasantly so, and certainly not as stringy as the stuff I’d had in pho that, for the most part, turned me off of tripe.

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Following the tripe was probably the oddest dish of the night, made even more so because it was served cold.  It was neonata di sardelle: fermented baby eels on black garlic bread. As horrifying as it sounds, it was just as delicious.

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Next up were spiedini: grilled duck hearts with Agrodolce. These duck hearts would have a lot to live up to – the version at Zahav is one of my favorite dishes – but these were cooked perfectly and tasted almost as good.

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After the hearts was another one of the best dishes of the night, animelle: glazed veal heart sweetbreads. These were topped with a chili sauce that made them taste like chicken nuggest with sriracha multiplied to the 1,000th power.  I could eat a bucket of these things.

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The final offal dish turned out to be my least favorite dish of the night.  I love delicious and interesting innards, but when you get too much of the pasty, mouth-coating kidney flavor in something, it just ruins it for me.  This was the mazzarelle teramane: lamb, goat, and pork offal in a grape leaf. I’m not even sure what kind of pieces and parts were in there, but the one flavor dominated the entire roll.  Thankfully, Ray and I split one so I only had half.

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Now we were nearing the end.  Only two more sections of the menu to go.  We were still feeling good, and not nearly as full or as drunk as we thought we would as we neared the 6.5-7 hour mark.  We were really more sleepy than full after all of that, and I took a cue from a helpful gentleman outside.

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By this point, some people had even abandoned the meal and left early.  I couldn’t imagine paying all that money and not sticking around to have some more drinks and maybe a bite of everything, even if you were full.  And I certainly can’t imagine leaving after seeing the pig being taken in.

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Which happened to the the beginning of the next course, “Carni arrosto (from Four Story Hill Farms).” This was maialino (suckling pig) with fennel pollen and potato. The skin wasn’t quite done enough to chew on, but the rest of the meat was delightful.

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Along with the pork came roasted chicken, which was not on the original menu. While this probably would have been delicious on any other night, chicken was a little boring after everything else we’d had. Accompanying it was a delicious crock of beans, because we needed more filler at this point.

 

Following the chicken was probably my favorite meat course, also accompanied by a crock of beans, in the salt baby lamb in a China box (which is what they cooked the pig in).

 

Following the lamb was roasted milk-fed avian poularde with red wine prunes. I usually like my duck rare, but this was extremely rare and I wasn’t very into it.  I’m sure it was delicious, but the nearly raw bird texture turned me off.

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Finally, the final savory dish and one of the most delicious of the night, was the 50-day dry-aged PA pasture-raised cote de beouf. This beef was seasoned perfectly and cooked perfectly.  I’m not usually one to get hyped up over beef (there’s so much more out there.  I mean, look at everything that came before this!) but this was well worth the wait and a worthy cap to the meal before dessert.

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One more break, and then we were ready for dessert. While there was unfortunately no dessert wine (which I’m a sucker for), Ray and I each ordered an espresso and a limoncello to help us chug along through the “Dolci” course.  This began with a biscotti plate: polenta, pine nut, raspberry, biscotti, red wine, pizzelle torrone.

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The cookies were nice, but the chocolate olive oil cake with pistachio and cannoli cream that came next was much better.  And, as I’ve mentioned before, I generally hate chocolate.  As it turns out, though, my love of olive oil cake trumps that.

 

The penultimate dessert, a cannoli with pistachio and chocolate chip, was one of the highlights of the night.  The cream was the lightest, fluffiest cannoli cream I’d ever had, and Ray and I both agreed it was the best cannoli either of us had ever eaten – and Ray is a baker. Who makes cannoli.  I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth, but I’d eat one of these every day.

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Finally, the last item: buttermilk panna cotta with brown butter cake, cranberry and apple. It wasn’t as firm as you would expect from panna cotta – it was more of a pudding – but man was it good.  I probably would have preferred to end the night with the cannoli, but this was just as nice a way to finish.

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In the end, the meal was as much physical as it was mental, but we never ended up as drunk or as full as we thought we would.  We paced ourselves well, and we made it through relatively unscarred (though I did drag a bit at work the following day).

The food was wonderful – over 40 or so dishes, there is bound to be something you don’t like.  But to only find two or three plates that I didn’t prefer, I feel, is really something astounding.  Especially with as many dishes that would just flat out delicious.  And it was a great tour of the cuisine of Abruzze, besides, which was something I didn’t have much experience with.  Plus we got a gift bag, which is always cool.

We had a great all-around experience, and it quickly changed from “this is a once-in-a-lifetime meal” to “what are we going to wear next year?”  Whatever we decide on, I hope you’re there to see it.

 

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