Le Virtù: Intense Italian Where a Newspaper Used to Be

Before it was a handsome South Philly Italian restaurant, Le Virtù (1927 E. Passyunk Ave.) was the home of a small community newspaper—and even though this bit of trivia excites us just a tad (after all, we are reporters…), it has nothing to do with why we enjoyed our recent visit.

Le Virtù is a pleasant standout, even amidst a sea of Passyunk Avenue competition.

Instead of the expected bread and butter, each meal here starts with an offering of fried dough stuffed with mozzarella and sage. This small plate proved to be just as memorable as any of the dishes we ordered that night; the crispy dough nicely warm with a hint of sweetness, and the cheese savory and perfectly spiced. It set the tone for the meal, as well—this is not conventional or light faire.

In other words: dieters, chicken parmesan lovers and Buca di Beppo connoisseurs, beware. This is a whole different—albeit authentic—kind of Italian cuisine experience.

Le Virtù’s menu is comprehensive and reasonably priced, with a heavy focus on cuisine from the Abruzzi region of Italy. The wine list is impressive in both its variety and selection of affordable bottles, and we were pleased to learn a portion of every wine sale is donated to PAWS. The meat and fish offerings (which climb up into the low $20s) are the priciest options, with dishes of lamb, steak and duck artfully presented and served with a vegetable of the chef’s choice.

But it’s the hand-cut pastas that are the primary reason folks flock to Le Virtù.

While the appetizer list, with options like white wine and garlic mussels, and grilled lamb skewers sounded appealing, we started our meal by splitting an entrée portion of Ravioli al Cioccolato Ripieni di Coniglio, savory cocoa pasta ravioli filled with braised rabbit and grated amaretto cookies in butter-sage sauce. What sounded like an overly strange combination of flavors wasn’t too sweet or complex, even for an unsophisticated palate. Each bite was rich and harmonious, intended to be savored.

For those uninterested in sharing, we were told that most entrees are also available in appetizer portions. Simply ask.

We selected two entrees, Fagottini Ripieni di Asparagi e Zucchini and the daily special, a pasta carbonara with bits of pork. The fagottini dish was easily the most beautifully presented meal we’d seen in ages—its three crepe pouches carefully constructed with much attention to detail, and placed atop a layer of a thin-yet-rich tomato sauce. The flavors were as delicate as the pouches themselves, the zucchini, asparagus, mozzarella and parmesan each shining through and nicely shared the stage, with no ingredient stealing too much of the spotlight.

The carbonara portion was generous, especially considering the intensity of the dish, which is traditionally prepared with cream, cheese and egg. The thick spaghetti pasta practically melted in our mouths, and the meat was neither too salty nor too subtle. The dish was delectably creamy, if almost a bit too heavy.

The service was as warm and inviting as the atmosphere, comfortable but not overly casual, down-to-earth but not lax. This is the kind of restaurant at which one can wear jeans and a T-shirt or a jacket and tie, and not feel out of place. A front bar showed the Flyers game, and seemed the perfect waiting spot for diners who stop by on busy weekend evenings.

In warmer weather, al fresco dining is available—something we’re very much looking forward to on our next visit.

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