Philly's Most Hardcore Dining Experience Features 40 Courses of Abruzzese Cooking
Italians know a thing or two about feasting. (See: Feast of the Seven Fishes, Feast of San Gennaro, any Sunday night my family gathers for Nonna’s gnocchi). But there’s one legendary feast that makes all the others look like light snacks. La Panarda, an epic 40-course, 8-to-10-hour meal, hails from the Abruzzo region of Italy, and, at least since 2011, from the East Passyunk neighborhood of Philadelphia. On Sunday, January 27, Le Virtù will host its 8th annual La Panarda, and diners come prepared to Feast with a capital F.
Francis Cratil Cretarola and his wife, Cathy Lee, owners of the beloved South Philly restaurant, began hosting their own version of the meal as a way to double down on their commitment to the region’s culture and cuisine. “There’s nothing more quintessentially Abruzzese than La Panarda,” he says. Its exact origins are a little hazy, but it centered around the yearly animal slaughter, and according to Cretarola, the oldest continuously-running annual dinner started in 1657 in Villavallelonga, a mountain town in Abruzzo. “It’s a marathon meal, in a place where people have been poor forever,” says the owner. “They’re sort of thumbing their noses at poverty once a year.”
As they plotted that first dinner nearly a decade ago, Cretarola and Lee wondered if anyone would sign on for an entire day of dining, and fully embrace the convivial spirit of the dinner. It turned out they would. The event sells out every year, with visitors from Washington D.C. and New York and Rhode Island joining local regulars. After smoothing out some missteps in that first year (like serving individual plates to 40 diners for each of the 40 courses, pushing the event past ten hours), La Panarda has hit its stride. The meal is now served family style, with a calculated flow of courses, starting out light, getting heavier, then getting light again, allowing diners, in theory, to actually have a shot at finishing it. Short breaks are also encouraged, but guests are now ushered back in a little more strictly than in that first year to keep the meal moving. (Though not as strictly as they were in some Italian locales, where a guy with a gun used to shoot off a blank whenever someone didn’t finish their course.) Cretarola estimates roughly half of Le Virtù’s diners finish the meal, or at least taste every course.
With the event less than two weeks away, executive chef Damon Menapace is finishing up planning his first La Panarda dinner, drawing on some of past years’ menus, along with some recipes he picked up while traveling in the region last fall. On the menu: a simple, rustic lentil soup, polpette—one with mushroom, one with baccalà, one with lamb—a timballo with layers of duck ragù, porcini mushroom, and duck-filled tortellini, “lots of pastas” like maccheroni alla chitarra with lamb ragù, taccozzelle with pork sausage and black truffle, and smoked ricotta ravioli made with cheese imported from Abruzzo. There will be an octopus salad with fennel and shaved onion. Shrimp in spicy broth. Sardines with salsa verde. Local butcher Heather Marold Thomason from Primal Supply has been dry-aging beef ribs since November for the occasion, and for the finale, big platters of meat, including rib eye, skin-on roasted porchetta, and lamb shank over polenta. Plus, you know, some vegetables to round it out. The abbreviated list of dishes really drives home the mind-boggling undertaking of a 40-course meal—both to eat, and to prepare. But Menapace seems mostly unfazed. “None of it is overly fussy,” he says.”It’s lots of simple, bold flavors. It’s a slow, big family event.”
And that’s the whole point, says Cretarola. “We want to engender that kind of environment, where people feel about this place like they’re coming to somebody’s house. That’s what this region is about.”