The new Passyunk ristorante avoids the cliches.
At East Passyunk tenderfoot Le Virt�, the first thing to arrive at your table is an amuse of mozzarella-and-sage-stuffed zeppole--lightly golden, speckled green with parsley, and resting on a salt-stippled canvas of butcher paper.
Yo, cuz, where's the Sarcone's?
Named after a traditional springtime stew from the province of Abruzzo (just above Italy's heel) the virtues of this sunny ristorante are many. The food is good, the service is nice, the place is attractive, but Le Virt�'s best attribute is negative�--it's not the sort of red-checked-tablecloth trattoria Billy Joel would sing about. Sure, there's a bottle of red and a bottle of white, but they're fruity Barberas and crisp Falanghinas that weren't smuggled into Pennsylvania from Canal's and later toted from home.
There's no chicken parm on this menu. The pastas aren't enormously portioned, and the china (imported and hand-painted with blue-and-yellow blossoms) didn't fall off a truck. The weighty flatware is Mikasa, not casa mia, and the only Angelina here is the raven-haired Goretti grad sipping Brooklyn Lager at the bar.
The kitchen takes its cues from centuries-old recipes, but the food feels fresh. Mint lends the pesto sauce on the Taleggio-stuffed gnocchi an Alpine clarity. Frilly rabbit-filled ravioli capture an ephemeral sweetness from cocoa powder and grated Amaretti cookies. Even meek filet mignon becomes a stud with a sprezzatura of anchovies and Claudio's mozzarella.
Recipes hail from Abruzzo, where owners Francis Cratil Cretarola and Catherine Lee run culinary tours. It's poetic that Le Virt� is cooking the same recipes you would've found simmering in Passyunk's narrow row-house kitchens a century ago. In the 1900s this 'hood was ground zero for immigrants from Abruzzo. The scrippelle m'busse soup? My grandmom, who lives a few blocks away, makes that. What's ironic is that it took a new wave of immigrants (the kinds with tattoos and/or Vespas) to make East Passyunk the type of buzz-worthy neighborhood that could sustain a regional cucina like Le Virt�.
It's as if Brenda and Eddie had forgone marriage, opened a yoga studio and cohabitated in the rehabbed apartment upstairs.
Rehabbing Le Virt�'s building was a long and arduous process punctuated by delays from L&I. (Imagine that.) The result: a multiroomed mosaic of exposed brick, terracotta, dark wood and textured walls sprayed a cheery shade of yellow. Italian journals, fresh flowers and painted pottery give the space a homey, unpretentious style.
At the bar, an Italian Red Riding Hood mural looks out over Bobby Bacala look-alikes and scruffy graphic designers chatting about civic association meetings over negronis. In the main dining room, French doors spill onto a tiled terrace. Once warm weather arrives, it'll be a perfect spot to enjoy charred calamari-and-cherry-tomato spiedini with a view of suburban drivers attempting to parallel park their Lexus SUVs.
Through a wall of open shelving dividing the open kitchen and dining room, you can garner a peek of chef Luciana Spurio toiling on the other side, quick-grilling succulent prawns and monkfish for the lemon-splashed grigliata mista, and layering eggy crepes, spinach, mozzarella, tomato sauce and meatballs the size of peas into a Big Night timballo.
The fritto misto ascolano, hailing from Spurio's hometown of Ascoli Piceno in Le Marche, might be her signature. Rabbit cutlet, lamb chop, asparagus and green olives stuffed with pork, beef and chicken are either breaded or battered tempura-style and fried till their casings are crisp and brown. I'd gladly eat an entire plate of just the cremini--fried cream. Bite into the golden shell and the solidified cream jets out, rich and thick like mascarpone and lightly sweet like cannoli filling.
The waiter is so schoolgirl-gushy about Spurio's from-scratch desserts, I wouldn't be surprised if his check presenter arrived covered in lovey doodles with their names entangled in bubble hearts. He's right to be an admirer. Fluffy tiramisu. Dense dark chocolate and apricot cake. The zesty lemon mousse tart is like a refreshing glass of lemonade in cake form. And the springy, not-too-sweet vanilla panna cotta is earth-shakingly awesome.
1927 E. Passyunk Ave. 215.271.5626. www.levirtu.com
Cuisine: Regional Italian.
Hours: Sun.-Mon., and Wed.-Sat., 5:30-10pm; bar until 2am.
Sound advice: Lively.
Atmosphere: Contessa's country kitchen.
Service: Affable and unobtrusive.
Food: That's amore.
Dinner with Luke Palladino