Philly's Le Virtù Team Took The Trip Of Your Dreams To Abruzzo, Italy

Philadelphia's Le Virtù co-owners Cathy Lee and Francis Cretarola have been traveling in Abruzzo for two decades. They've toured and studied the region extensively, and for a time lived in Assergi, a small mountain village that is part of Abruzzo's capital. The opening of Le Virtù in 2007 represented their personal homage to the Italian region. The duo also co-own Philly's Brigantessa, a trattoria-pizzeria dedicated to the cuisine of southern Italy.

We visit Abruzzo every year to deepen our understanding of the region, look for new dishes and ingredients to bring back, see old friends, recommit to our mission and hit the reset button. It's our inspiration and refuge.

Abruzzo is why we do what we do. Our time spent living in the region — in the village of Assergi — part of the comune of the capital city L'Aquila, inspired Le Virtù's creation. That stay, the longest of many over the past 20 years, changed our path. We first traveled to Abruzzo to search for my paternal family roots. My grandfather, Alfonso Cretarola, lived with us in my childhood home in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he filled my head with talk of a village beneath the mountains that was not far from the sea.

He was from Abruzzo's Teramo Province (and our name derives from a dish made there every 1st of May), but we fell in love with the whole region. Abruzzo is over 30 percent parkland. Wolves, bear, lynx and roe deer still roam its mountains (the highest points in the Apennine chain, which have helped insulate it and preserve ancient ways). Traditional vocations and customs persist here — farming, shepherding, festivals with pagan origins, music and, of course, cuisine.

Culinarily, Abruzzo is the proverbial merda. Its geographical diversity and historical position (in Central Italy but culturally tied to the South) make it a bridge between Central/Northern and Southern cuisines. Cathy and I began our venture into the food world by offering culinary tours of the region — 15 people maximum. Abruzzo's hinterlands don't attract and can't accommodate mass tourism. In 2007, we opened Le Virtù, determined to bring what we'd found back to Philadelphia.

This year, Cantina Frentana winery and Ursini olive oil wanted to host us for part of our itinerary. But we were also going to visit our cheese farms, buy Navelli saffron (which many think is the best in Europe) from our little cooperative, see friends and eat as many meals — from mom-and-pop trattorie and agriturismi (farm restaurants) to chef-driven joints on the cutting edge — as we could.

We drove directly from Rome's airport to the village of Scanno. The drive was part of our immersion. Abruzzo is less than one and a half hours from Rome, but it seemed like another world. Once off the highway, getting to Scanno involved negotiating a winding road through a deep rocky gorge that is, itself, a WWF reserve. A 15-minute, vertigo-inducing drive through the gorge brought us to Scanno.

Scanno is a town of just under 2,000 inhabitants. Listed among Italy's most beautiful villages, it retains its traditional rhythms and character. Romans ski here in the winter and escape the heat in the summer. But Scanno remains its own world, nestled above a blue-green lake, beneath sheltering, wooded heights, and perfumed by wood smoke in November. The town occupies a small valley at the mouth of the oldest of Abruzzo's three national parks. Between its wider, arterial pathways, narrow alleys wind, climb and descend, opening onto small piazze and scenes of village life. Scattered throughout the town, bottega windows of orafi (goldsmiths) display the filigree gold and silver jewelry particular to Abruzzo and the village. Some of the older women can still be seen wearing traditional costume, which, like the local dialect, is believed to trace its origins to Asia Minor. The town owes its existence to the importance of the pastoral economy and wool production.

Scanno is convenient to both cheese farms we use at Le Virtù. We've been visiting these places since the late '90s and consider them friends. La Porta dei Parchi (door of the parks) is at the beginning of the gorge leading to Scanno. Valle Scannese, the other farm, is just past the village, before the park entrance. The cheeses here are unpasteurized and mostly made from sheep's milk. The hundreds of grasses and herbs the sheep feed on come through in the cheeses. Cutting into a traditional pecorino, one gets the aromas of the farm: grass, mountain flowers, wild herbs, oregano and barnyard.

At La Porta we tried a new cheese, unique to the farm, Fiorello (named after the shepherd who invented and served it to us), a combination sheep- and cow's-milk cheese that uses yogurt to give it a creamy texture. Rich, grassy, with some sourness and funk, it was a revelation. On the other side of the gorge, at Valle Scannese, Gregorio Rotolo, the larger-than-life shepherd/owner of the farm, cut open his own peculiar creation, Gregoriano, a soft pecorino that has the consistency of brie. Creamy, almost runny when young and buttery, but also grassy, it is one of the rarest cheeses in the world. Both farms make a muffato, a "molded" blue pecorino. This stuff is incredibly sharp, with strong funk.

This year we'd come to catch the Glorie di San Martino, an ancient winter festival honoring the kindness of Saint Martin but tied to the celebration of Indian summer. On three hills above the town, pyres towering more than 50 feet are built by boys and young men from the town's neighborhoods. On the night of November 10, they are simultaneously ignited.

Our meals in Scanno were at simple trattorie. Local pork and lamb salumi and prosciutto, aged pecorino and a basket of warm, fresh sheep's-milk ricotta with local honey were simple but memorable antipastos. Large ravioli stuffed with goat's-milk ricotta and dressed in saffron and porcini were otherworldly. At Gregorio's agriturismo, gnocchi al pastore, a local dish of small flour-and-water gnocchi in a sauce of melted pecorino was transformed by the substitution of the Gregoriano cheese — decadently rich, creamy and earthy. As in much of Abruzzo's hinterland, grilled lamb was the go-to secondo. The lamb in Abruzzo is the best in Italy, period. And they usually don't mess with it. Lightly grilled, a little salt, with an optional lemon wedge. In Abruzzo, it's only "lamb" until it's weaned, and flavors of the grasses in the mother's milk come through powerfully in the meat.

The next part of our itinerary deviated somewhat from the plan when the people at Cantina Frentana and nearby Ursini olive oil conspired to kidnap us for several days. We've worked with the Cantina for years, and we use their wines at our annual panarda feast (a 40-course, 10-hour Abruzzese ordeal by food). Ursini is a small company producing artisanal olive oil (we use their oil exclusively at Le Virtù). These two companies are located along the southern coast in Chieti Province, the region's most unspoiled shoreline, which is often called La Costa dei Trabocchi after the "trabocchi" fishing platforms that project from the rocky coast into the Adriatic's cyan blue. One can stare from the beach deep into the sea, almost to the Dalmation coast, it seems. In every direction, olive groves and grapevines stretch across the flatlands and navigate the swells of the hills.

We drove from the snowcapped mountains, down through green-hill country, to the coast where palm trees waved in the breeze. The drive took a little more than 90 minutes.

Cantina Frentana is located just outside the tiny village of Rocca San Giovanni, which perches on a cliff above the Adriatic and is also listed among the most beautiful villages of Italy. We stayed in an old farmhouse just outside of town, surrounded by vines and olive groves. The cantina is a cooperative providing a living for over 400 local families who produce grapes for the winery.

The cantina's enologist selects only the best grapes to produce the wines marketed by the cooperative, which include some exceptional examples of Abruzzo's traditional wines: organic Trebbiano (straw yellow, floral and green apple notes) and Montepulciano (ruby red color, black cherry, plum, red currants, a little spice), as well as Cerasuolo (a deep, relatively full-bodied rosé made from Montepulciano, with cherry notes and pleasing acidity), Pecorino (a rediscovered grape that creates a medium-bodied white, with notes of pineapple, green apple, pear and pleasing minerality and acidity) and the extremely rare Cococciola (a once nearly extinct grape that produces a white with lemon, green apple and white flowers on the nose, a taste of apricot and pear, and a stony minerality). The unselected grapes are used to make the wines used by local families during the year. So a community and its traditions survive.

Our stay with the Cantina was a blur of wonderful reunions (many of the Cantina's principals have been to Le Virtù) and bacchanalian feeds. One of the first and most memorable was a lunch at a simple roadside trattoria, Da Peppone. This roadside joint serves only dishes made with baccalà (dried salted cod). Peppone, the chef-owner — a huge, affable man — took us into the kitchen and showed us the steps for several of his signature dishes. The first was a kind of baccalà crudo dressed with freshly pressed olive oil, lemon, parsley and, unexpectedly and to wonderful effect, grana padano cheese. Each dish was simple, allowing the ingredients to express themselves: lightly fried croquettes, Tropea onions agrodolce (sweet-and-sour) on thinly sliced fillets, linguine with baccala cheek, lightly breaded, pan-fried baccala with potatoes. We washed the whole meal down with sparkling Cococciola and Pecorino from the winery.

The next day, Cantina Frentana's vice president treated us to lunch on a trabocco. We began with the Cantina's sparkling Cococciola. In between courses — eight of the freshest, most perfectly and simply prepared seafood served crudo, sautéed, fried, and grilled-style — we discussed the region's traditions. And the food kept coming: fritto misto di pesce, fresh whole gamberi and langostini, insalata di mare, mackerel filet with pomodorini, grilled mantis shrimp, mussels stuffed with egg and breadcrumbs in tomato broth, linguine with shrimp, mussels and polpo, roasted spigola over potato puree. All the fish had been caught on the trabocco or right up the coast.

Ursini's witty and congenial traveling representative, Camillo Bianco, took possession of us the next morning. We went first to the oil press. Unfiltered oil spilled from a tap into a large basin — we took small cups and drank directly from the tap. The oil was still warm from the press, full-bodied and complex, with a spice that tickled the back of the throat. This olio novello was used in late fall to finish some of our dishes at Le Virtù. Camillo then took us to one of Ursini's most important olive groves, located just beneath the 12th-century abbey San Giovanni in Venere, a still-active monastery overlooking the Adriatic at the town of Fossacesia. From the terrace behind the complex, we stared out at a sloping hill of olive trees, which descended to the sea. Trabocchi extended from the shore into the Adriatic. This is the grove that produces the oil we use for much of our cooking at Le Virtù. Lunch at the elegantly modern Sotto Sale was followed by a visit to the company's main offices — it remains an artisanal company, and the faces of its workers on Ursini's packaging serve as a reminder of its roots and commitment to community.

The next day, we drove from the coast toward the Majella Mountain. Our goal was an agriturismo, Pietrantica, in Decontra, a village of about 30 souls. There would be hiking above the Orfento and Santo Spirito canyons, dinner with friends from all over the region and absolute calm. But first, we stopped for a night in Guardiagrele. The town straddles a rocky rise just before the entrance to the Majella National Park, and is known for its iron and copper smiths. We wanted to see how the cooking ware we'd ordered was coming along. We've used copper ware from the town to cook and present some of the dishes at Le Virtù since 2012.

Along the way, we stopped at a pastry shop for the town specialty, Sise delle Monache (nun's breasts), yellow pastry cream sandwiched between two pieces of pan di spagna, the top piece having the appearance of three nipples (medieval nuns supposedly once wore an artificial third "breast" to obscure their natural form). We inhaled these as we strolled toward the medieval gate, Porta San Giovanni, and our coppersmith's shop. Spilling from the shop entrance were copper and iron articles of every type: cooking implements, decorative flowers and animals, basins, conche (water vessels once carried by women on their heads from the town fountain to homes), religious articles. We were greeted warmly. The round, copper pans lined with tin chef Cicala now uses for his palott' cac' e ove (tomato-braised egg and cheese croquettes), brodetto (fish stew) and other dishes were nearly finished.

That night we drove just outside of town to the rustically elegant La Grotta dei Rasselli, where the local dishes and ingredients are reverentially revisited by chefs Franco and Anna Spadiccini. We began with local salumi and cheeses, a fava crema with dried sweet cruschi peppers, and Marchigiana beef carpaccio. The pastas were our main reason for coming, and they didn't disappoint: thick rintrocilo solina grain chitarra with a three-meat ragù, farro chitarrini with rabbit and saffron sauce; cece and potato gnocchi with parmigiano and white truffle — we nearly didn't make it to the grilled duck breast with wild herbs and mustard and the rabbit stuffed with cheese and egg. We washed it all down Marina Cvetic Montepulciano, which had tasting notes of blackberries, bitter chocolate, leather, grilled herbs and spice. Just beautiful.