The menus of the rustic-meets-refined Vernick Food and Drink and the Abruzzo-in-South-Philly Le Virtù are worlds apart. But when it comes time for dessert, these two diverse restaurants have something in common: Angela Ranalli heads up the pastry programs at both, with a roster of American-inspired meal enders at Vernick and Abruzzese dolci at Le Virtù.
A life in pastry seems almost a given for someone who spent her childhood baking and selling cannoli and sfogliatelle at festivals with her mother and brothers and sisters. But Ranalli’s path was a roundabout one. Stints baking wedding cakes in Cape May and at Philly’s scenic Water Works were interspersed with time spent studying interior design and living in Florence, making a living body painting at clubs and selling hand-painted tiles on the street.
Her entrance to Le Virtù seems like a fated one. After spying a Craigslist ad for servers, Ranalli did a bit of detective work, learning that Le Virtù owner Francis Cretarola’s roots were in Teramo, the same Abruzzese province Ranalli’s family came from. Although there was no “pastry chef wanted” in that particular ad, Ranalli decided to try her luck.
Much like the story of how chef Joe Cicala found his way to Le Virtù (via another Craigslist ad), there’s something serendipitous about how things happen at this East Passyunk spot. Ranalli quickly realized that the desserts she grew up with were just the way to end a meal of Cicala’s house-cured salumi and hand-cranked pastas. The experience is strikingly Italian and refreshingly unpretentious.
At Le Virtù, Ranalli embraces the Southern Italian tradition of using olive oil in place of butter in many of her desserts. In a pistachio semifreddo, the oil shines through with grassy flavor. Drizzled onto a crunchy lemon granita, the oil makes perfect sense.
Ranalli’s second pastry gig was another fated encounter. Moving to Philadelphia, chef Greg Vernick and his wife Julie became quick regulars at Le Virtù and approached Ranalli. Vernick was looking for a menu of homey desserts, reimagined takes on classics like doughnuts and Boston cream pie. Ranalli came through with a menu of never-dainty desserts designed for optimal shareability. A blueberry pie could easily serve two but is good enough to warrant a no-share policy, and she finishes the smoked-chocolate parfait with a biscotti a necessary Italian touch.
Lest anyone think that designing the dessert menus at two of the city’s most inventive restaurants is enough for Ranalli, it’s worth a mention that in her spare time she reads tarot cards, predicts future events by way of coffee grounds and wine sediment, and travels to Italy with the Le Virtù crew several times a year to explore indigenous dishes and keep the inspiration fresh.