La Panarda isn't about stuffing yourself – but after eight or nine hours of feasting on salumi, gnocchi, meatballs and lamb shank, you're going to leave stuffed. The epic 40-course meal at Le Virtù in Philadelphia is the restaurant owners' take on a 360-year-old tradition hailing from the remote Abruzzo region of Italy, where whole towns gather to tackle a marathon dinner that lasts through the night.
At Le Virtù, which serves the cuisine of Abruzzo year-round, the annual Panarda always sells out. This year, all 30 seats were snapped up in 35 minutes.
"There is no culinary ritual more intensely Abruzzese than the Panarda," says Francis Cratil Cretarola, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Cathy Lee. They held their eighth Panarda on January 27. "It's our annual recommitment to Abruzzese tradition – to getting down and dirty into the deep parts of the culinary tradition of the region where my grandparents are from. The reason it's worked so well every year is because everyone who's come has bought into the conviviality of the experience."
A dish served during La Panarda at Le Virtù — Photo courtesy of Justin Blasi
Records of La Panarda date back to 1657 when, as the legend goes, a mother in the town of Villavallelonga discovered her baby locked in the jaws of a wolf. After she prayed to Sant'Antonio Abate, the local saint of animals, the baby was released and her family hosted La Panarda in the saint's honor.
But the feast doesn't require a wolf-saint connection. Abruzzese landowners would host it during harvest time for the peasants who worked their land. Or, Cretarola says, a town might organize the festive meal as a respite from the mountainous region's harsh conditions.
It isn't peasants dining at Le Virtù's version, with tickets costing $375 plus tax and tip – or about $40 per hour of eating, drinking, and adjusting your waistband alongside newfound friends at a communal table.
Chef Damon Menapace, who took over the kitchen at Le Virtù last year, says he spent about three months "mentally prepping" for his first Panarda, and three days doing the actual prep work with his team. Day of, things were running smoothly. "It's calmer than I expected in the kitchen," the chef said, stopping by to check in with Cretarola and Lee. "I was thinking it would be crazy."