In Abruzzo, winter attacks from both land and sea. Situated in Italy's rocky heart, the Eastern-Central region scales the Apennine Mountains before spilling into the Adriatic. It even has its own "Little Tibet," the nickname for Il Campo Imperatore, a snow-draped Alpine meadow home to one of Europe's oldest ski resorts.
In the 14th century, peasants in the province of Teramo weren't celebrating the snows on skis. Winter was long, hard and fraught with danger and death. Those who survived the season rejoiced by putting on a pot of le virtù, a celebratory soup that's still made today.
"[Le virtù] is made on the first of May, when winter should be sufficiently at the backs of Teramo's farmers and villagers," explains Francis Cratil Cretarola, who owns the East Passyunk restaurant named for the soup with his brother, Fred, and wife, Cathy Lee. "Making this elaborate dish was an act of celebration and defiance. They'd survived another winter and all the discomfort, sickness and deprivation associated with that season."
For the annual rite, Abruzzese housewives perform a cathartic clearing of pantries and cupboards, dispatching the leftover dry goods accumulated during the winter. Various pastas (tortellini, ditalini), beans (cannellini, borlotti) harvested and dried in high summer, as well as cured meats like salami, pancetta and pig's ears, might make appearances in le virtù. It all depends on what's on hand, and it all lands traditionally in a community cauldron tended to by the most "virtuous" girls in each village.
Like the snowflakes that blanket Abruzzo's peaks, no two virtùs are alike. One main tradition-within-the-tradition is arranging ingredients into groups of seven, a sacred number for Catholics: seven beans, seven pastas, seven meats. "Some people rigidly hew to the importance of the number seven. Many, however, do not," says Cretarola. "There are almost as many recipes for [le virtù] as there are families who make it."
This is due, in part, to the dish's components being contingent on what was left over after winter. Back then, these ingredients were difficult to predict, so even within individual families, "the dish could change from year to year."
Le Virtù chef Joe Cicala makes his version with chickpeas and gigante beans, porchetta scraps and prosciutto butt, farro and broken spaghetti, brown and green lentils, meatballs, sausage, risotto rice ... and dozens more ingredients. The soup isn't entirely composed of leftovers; the Abruzzese have a long-standing agricultural tradition, so early spring vegetables also wind up in the pot. "The seamless blending together of these dried, cured and fresh ingredients was meant to symbolize and celebrate the seamless transition of the seasons — the continuation of natural, ancient rhythms," says Cretarola.
Le Virtù will serve its house take on its namesake dish during a special dinner on May 1, but you don't have to wait that long to try it. Cicala has provided an abridged version for the home cook — the full, 35-ingredient recipe is available on our Meal Ticket blog, if you're feeling intrepid. Just remember to share. It's traditional for Abruzzese to distribute portions from their le virtù pot to relatives, friends and neighbors.
"The failure to share a portion of le virtù could mean the breaking of friendship or a familial bond," cautions Cretarola. "This tradition continues in full force, even if surviving the winter has lost some of its drama."
Le Virtù Soup
1/4 pound diced guanciale
1 prosciutto butt
1/4 pound loose sausage (formed into little meatballs)
1 carrot, diced
1 onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1/4 cup brown lentils (Umbrian work best)
1/4 cup cannellini beans
1/4 cup borlotti beans
1 sprig rosemary, minced
1 sprig thyme, minced
1 sprig sage, minced
1/4 cup white wine
2 quarts chicken stock
2 quarts water
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
3 bay leaves
1/4 cup ditalini
1/4 cup broken spaghetti
1/4 cup broken fettuccine
In a large pot, sweat the guanciale over medium heat in a little olive oil to render its fat. Brown slightly and add the vegetables. Sweat the veggies over low heat until translucent. Add the white wine and reduce by half. Add the chicken stock, water, beans, herbs, seasonings and the other meats. Simmer over low heat until the beans are tender. Add water if needed to continue cooking beans. Add pastas and cook until al dente. Garnish with pecorino cheese and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serves six.