Last December, my friend Helen convinced me to hop a train to Philadelphia with her and have dinner at a place called Le Virtù. I had heard of the restaurant specializing in the cuisine of Abruzzo, which (as you all know) is the region my family is from. But, let’s face it, on a chilly weeknight in December, I barely have the drive to drive into DC to dine out. Philly seemed an awfully long way to go for dinner.
Helen has a gentle but persuasive way about her (indeed, Abruzzo’s motto, forte e gentile (strong and gentle), might also be used to describe Helen, which is only fitting since she, too, has roots in the region.) And so, I found myself sitting with her at one of Le Virtù’s heavy wooden tables, swapping stories with owner Francis Cratil while enjoying the beautifully crafted food ~ salumi, pasta and more ~ of Executive Chef Joe Cicala.
There was a bit of magic about the evening, which I thought might be due to the selection of liqueurs (house made and from Abruzzo) that we shared at the end of the meal. But really it was about the way Le Virtù has succeeded in capturing the feel of a typical Abruzzese ristorante, one that might be tucked away in the countryside or on a cobbled street in a mountain village. It’s casual, convivial, genuine. So much so that when Helen and I stepped outside at the end of the evening I was a little startled to find myself looking out on a South Philadelphia street rather than that cobbled mountain one. (Here’s a piece I wrote about Joe Cicala and Le Virtù for American Food Roots.)
When The Glorious Vegetables of Italy was published, I knew I wanted Le Virtù to be part of the celebration. That celebration, I’m delighted to say, is happening next Thursday, Oct. 24, when Le Virtù hosts a multi-course Glorious Vegetables of Italy dinner. If you are in the vicinity and looking for something delicious to do, I hope you’ll come.
The dinner will feature recipes from the new book, including Pizza Bianca with Roasted Fennel and Winter Risotto with Butternut Squash and Kale; plus Chef Cicala’s own contributions ~ we’re talking whole-roasted suckling pig porchetta to go with those glorious vegetables. For dessert: Autumn-Spiced Pumpkin Semifreddo, and, from the book, Sweet Potato Frittelle, as interpreted by Le Virtu’ Pastry Chef Angela Ranalli. There’s more ~ you can read the entire menu, plus details about the dinner on Le Virtù’s events page.
There are only a few spots left, so if you’d like to join us (we’d love to have you) don’t dilly dally. Even if you have to hop a train to get there.
I’d like to share one of the recipes that will be featured at the dinner: Winter Risotto with Butternut Squash and Kale. Buon appetito ~ here’s to fall’s glorious vegetables.
Whoever coined the phrase "opposites attract" must have had winter squash and Tuscan kale in mind. One is sweet and smooth and the other is pungent and hearty. And yet, here they are, happily hand in hand in this colorful cold-weather risotto.
Tuscan kale, also known as cavolo nero, dinosaur kale or lacinato kale, has slim, crinkled leaves that are deep blue-green in color and a flavor that is hearty and pungent, but also sweet.
From The Glorious Vegetables of Italy (Chronicle Books, 2013)
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup diced yellow onion
- 1 pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 8 ounces Tuscan kale, coarsely shredded
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 cups Arborio rice
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 5 to 6 cups vegetable or chicken broth, heated
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
- Freshly ground black pepper
Warm the olive oil and the onion in a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring often, for 7 to 8 minutes, or until the onion is softened and translucent. Add the squash and kale and toss to coat them with the oil. Sprinkle in the salt. Cover the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the kale is completely wilted and the cubes of squash are just tender.
Pour in the rice and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the grains are shiny and glassy-looking. Raise the heat to medium-high and pour in the wine. Let it bubble for a minute or so, until it is almost absorbed. Reduce the heat to medium-low and begin to add the broth, a ladleful at a time, stirring frequently, until the liquid is almost absorbed. You do not need to stir the risotto constantly, but be sure that you do stir it often, and take care that the rice grains do not stick to the bottom of the pot.
Continue to cook the risotto and add broth, 1 or 2 ladlefuls at a time, for 20 to 25 minutes, until the rice is almost but not completely cooked. It should be al dente--still rather firm and chalky at the center. Check by tasting a few grains. Stir in the butter and cheese. Then stir in a final ladleful of broth to achieve a creamy texture. The risotto should not be stiff or runny; it should mound softly on a spoon. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if you like.
Spoon the risotto into shallow rimmed bowls and serve immediately, with additional Parmigiano cheese on the side.