While I don't go out to eat Italian food that often, I've been making a concerted effort to do it right when I do. This past year I've managed to hit Osteria and Amis, two restaurants from Marc Vetri, Philadelphia's most celebrated Italian restaurant maestro. Most recently, I visited Le Virtu, an Italian restaurant on Passyunk Ave. featuring dishes from the Abruzzi region of Italy. Le Virtu often gets mentioned alongside Vetri restaurants as an example of Philly's finest in Italian cuisine.
All three restaurants — Osteria, Amis, and Le Virtu — were fabulous, but my preference is Le Virtu, despite the fact that Le Virtu has the most limited menu for a vegetarian. Osteria is too large and bustling. Amis is cozy, but the service (similar to Osteria's) is so hawk-eyed and professional that it's hard to relax when you know the second you take your last bite of a dish, a server will swoop in and rearrange your tablescape.
Le Virtu has the coziness you've come to expect from Philly's cramped architecture (although, Le Virtu does have a large, outdoor, off-street seating area when the weather is fair), and a relaxed service that allows for breathing time between courses. The seating at Le Virtu is also well spaced, so you don't have to hear your neighbor's conversation. Le Virtu is comfortable.A basket of chewy, rustic bread is presented to the table alongside a large plate of olive oil for dipping.
The arugula salad with Bartlett pears, shaved Pecorino drizzled with a sweet mostocatto dressing is large enough for two.
The only vegetarian pasta on the menu was macherroni alla mugnaia. The menu described this dish as "hand-pulled, single-strand pasta, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, pepper, Pecorino." We were thinking pepper meant black pepper, and this would be a rather subdued dish. Oh, no! This was the spiciest Italian dish I've ever had. Almost low-level Han Dynasty spicy, which is quite spicy. Pepper here means a fruit from the Capsicum genus. Lovely pasta dish, but there should have been a warning.
Thankfully, there was a vegetarian pasta special of whole wheat pasta with pistachio pesto, so we had more than one pasta option. About as light as a whole wheat pasta can be, these broad, thin noodles were lightened by a bright (citrus?) pistachio sauce. I actually only finished half of this dish, it was so filling. (The large plates make all of the portions seem small in photographs, but I assure you the portions are not tiny.)
The Brodetto, a seafood stew of assorted creatures — shrimp, clams, oysters, octopus, fish — in a roasted red pepper and tomato broth was simple, yet so comforting and perfect.
All of Le Virtu's desserts sounded interesting — chocolate and chestnut-filled raviolis, anise and raisin beignets, apple olive oil cake, fried pastry dough with lemon curd. I was feeling like a classic chocolate semifredo that evening, and the chilled chocolate custard topped with whipped cream and the most delicate almond brittle did the trick. I only wished the puddle of salted caramel sauce the semifredo was stacked upon was more generous.
I will be back, Le Virtu, even though I wish your menu had more vegetarian options.
1927 East Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19148
BYO (wine only) on Tuesday night