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Behind the Scenes in Italy With Le Virtu’s New Chef

Joseph Voller is learning the ropes in Abruzzo

Chef Joseph Voller at Ristorante La Bilancia

Francis Cratil-Cretarola and Cathy Lee have been traveling to southern Italy for years, learning recipes and techniques for their two East Passyunk eateries, Brigantessa and Le Virtu. They’re back in the Abruzzo region now, this time with a new chef in tow. Joseph Voller just joined the team as executive chef at both restaurants and Cratil-Cretarola and Lee are giving him the grand tour.

“Chef Voller needs to understand not only the flavors of the region, he needs to understand the cultures that form the bedrock of all we do,” Cratil-Cretarola says. “Honoring the cuisines of Abruzzo and deep southern Italy in Philly requires some imaginative adaptation, and that's impossible without first-hand knowledge of the philosophies that inform the original cultures.”

Voller, who replaced Joe Cicala, went to the Art Institute’s Culinary Arts school in Philly and was most recently at Eno Terra near Princeton. But his cooking background isn’t strictly Italian — and he definitely didn’t have experience making Le Virtu’s hand-pulled maccheroni all mugnaia before this trip, which took Voller, Cratil-Cretarola, and Lee through trattorias, fine-dining restaurants, organic farms, and the workplaces of olive oil, cheese, and winemakers in Abruzzo and along Italy’s southern coast.

The town of Loreto Aprutino in Pescara province, where olive oil is produced, was the site of Voller’s first mugnaia lesson:

The travelers snapped a photo of the village of Anversa degli Abruzzi, seen from the road above the Sagittario gorge. Voller, Cratil-Cretarola, and Lee trekked to La Porta dei Parchi, “The Door of the Parks,” and Valle Scannese, two organic farms located on either side of the gorge known for their cheeses. Le Virtu adopted a sheep from La Porta dei Parchi and Cratil-Cretarola and Lee have been visiting the farm since 1999:

This isn’t Antonella, their adopted sheep, but it probably looks fairly similar:

Sheep milk ricotta and Navelli saffron ravioli at Ristorante La Corniola, located above Pacentro in a village called Pescocostanzo in Abruzzo’s Majella National Park:

The village of Pacentro, also in the Majella National Park:

Wine tasting at Cataldi Madonna winery in Ofena, Abruzzo. Le Virtu carries five of these wines:

A lunch of budelle d’agnello (stuffed lamb intestines grilled on skewers with rosemary sprigs) at the winery:

Chef Voller at Ristorante La Bilancia, where in 2004 Cratil-Cretarola and Lee first discovered what became Le Virtu’s mugnaia dish. Voller forms a “doughnut” using three types of flour with guidance from La Bilancia co-owner Antonietta, who’s been making mugnaia at the restaurant for 42 years:

Rolling out the mugnaia:

A view from the San Giovanni Winery, which occupies a cliff and beach over the Gulf of Salerno. Brigantessa carries two of its wines:

Meatless "meatballs" and beef involtini the chef tasted at U Curdunn in the town of Locorotondo:

Cratil-Cretarola, Lee, and Voller are staying at Borgo La Petraia, where Voller helped chef Mario Stellato at Borgo La Petraia’s restaurant, Food, prepare dinner. Their hosts will be visiting Philly in November to do a pop-up dinner at Le Virtu:

Borgo La Petraia:

The seaside town of Polignano a Mare, Puglia:


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