Some knew a little bit about "la panarda," a culinary custom that dates to 1657 and hails from Italy's mountainous and rustic Abruzzo region. Some eaters had willingly undergone the multi-hour feast when Le Virtu held its first panarda last year. Some, however, knew little about what they were getting themselves into.
When asked why she was taking part, Media Realtor Pat Gildea said innocently, "Our friend Allison [Coia] invited us to it on Facebook."
Coia, an Aston-based personal chef and Le Virtù regular, responded, "It's a once-a-year opportunity. Growing up Italian, this is holiday eating." It was the first panarda for both women, and, like the rest of the attendees, they paid $200 apiece for the experience, which included sampling, or, in some cases, swigging, eight varieties of vino from Abruzzo's esteemed Cantina Frentana wine cooperative.
Although the 200-buck price was nothing to sniff at, Le Virtù co-owner Francis Cratil-Cretarola called the cost "a bargain." After all, $200 divided by 40 comes out to $5 a plate, not counting wine.
Why would a restaurateur do it, then? The meal, said Cratil-Cretarola, wasn't about making money: It was a way to pay tribute to the Abruzzo region, to "keep the blood flowing in our restaurant," he said, and to thank Le Virtù's loyal patrons, who, by the way, had maxed out the guest list just two days after the event was announced.
Cratil-Cretarola, a historian and writer who's lived in Abruzzo with wife and co-owner Cathy Lee, kicked off the meal by ringing a sheep's bell. He called the panarda "a curious little feast" and said it originated as a way for wealthy landowners to reward the people who worked their land. "It was [the landlords'] way of throwing them a bone," he said, explaining that more than 350 years ago, when "meat was not on the menu for regular Abruzzi," such a meal, which would include lamb, mutton and pork - and would often last two full days - was a rare treat.
He then wished the eaters good luck.
They'd need it.
The lunch-slash-dinner started off seamlessly enough, with a single plate containing delicate fried artichokes, olives stuffed with porchetta and cheese, baccala fritters, and glasses of bubbling Pecorino Spumante Brut.
But just 30 minutes later, things took a turn for the serious. Dishes stopped arriving four items to a plate and started appearing individually. There was a stew of cuttlefish and spring peas; tiny prawns on a savory, herb-touched puddle of pureed chickpeas; fragrant shellfish stew; roasted turbot filet atop green olive-studded mashed potatoes; and baccala with olives, capers, potatoes and tomatoes.
A little after 6 o'clock, the foodies - many were tweeting the meal, and most were photographing each plate - walked outside to get some air.
By 7, after chicken "brodo," housemade sausage over Abruzzi lentils, pork stew with faro and pasta e fagioli, diners who'd never met before were talking politics and family issues. Some got a little loud. Some were struggling to string sentences together.
Center City-based engineer Paul Hughes and graduate student Claire Robertson-Kraft were Panarda first-timers who also came on the advice of a pal. More than a dozen dishes in, Hughes was feeling some pain.
"We didn't realize the magnitude of our decision," he said. Would he be able to make it to work tomorrow?
"Before I came, I said yes," he replied. "Now I'm saying no."
But not everyone was willing to cop to feelings of fullness. Well after 9 p.m., after eating salad courses and six crostini and five plates of housemade pasta, Center City resident Andrew Heckenberger, a panarda second-timer who came with buddies from his bocce league - and was one of the very few participants who finished everything on his plates, two years in a row - defiantly declared, "I'm feeling great."
Heckenberger's buddy Joe Evancich had been the first guy to take a seat at one of the two long tables. Dish after dish, Evancich dutifully ticked off each item on his paper menu. Then, he was tapped out.
"Thirty-two. That's all I could do," he sighed. He departed well before dessert was served.
"Joe was all talk," Heckenberger said after his friend fled. "He talked and talked and talked about the panarda all year long. And he left first."
By the time 10:30 p.m. rolled around, the three men in Gildea and Coia's group had disappeared, too. And the women were leaning back in their chairs, grateful for their expandable clothing.
By the third-to-last "stanza" - which consisted of porchetta-wrapped rabbit, roasted duck, whole roasted pig (whose head was placed on a side table, for any eater who wanted to partake of face meat), sliced steak and roasted lamb - Coia confessed the panarda was much more than just another Italian holiday meal.
"I didn't even want to chew," she said, "And I've never had a problem, ever, eating."
Still, the remaining gastronomic athletes soldiered on. After all, those creamy Abruzzi cheeses, pizzelle, panna cotta, apple crostata, potato-and-raisin pastry and Italian hot chocolate weren't gonna consume themselves.
Carciofo alla giudea (jewish-style artichokes)
Frittelle (fritters) di baccala
Olive all'ascolana (porchetta-stuffed olive)
Suppli al telefono
Primo servizio di apertura
Stewed cuttlefish with spring peas
Gamberi (prawns) in padella, chick pea puree
Brodetto of assorted shelfish
Whole roasted turbot with fingerling and green olive mash
Baccala in umido with potatoes, olives, capers and tomatoes
Secondo servizio di apertura
Chicken brodo, poached pallotte, “strachetti di cacio e uova”
Cotechino e lenticchie (sausage, winter spices, lentils)
Farrotto n'ndocca n'docca (farro, pork stew)
Pasta e fagioli
Terzo servizio di apertura
Roasted baby beets, gorgonzola, pine nuts, celery
Charred spring onions, burrata
Pecorino canestrato with chestnut honey and pears
Primo servizio dei piatti forti
Crostino of black truffle and guanciale (pig's cheek)
Crostino of n’duja (spicy, spreadable salame)
Salame nostrano (house-made salame) with eggplant oreganata
Capocollo with sweet and sour onions
Spalla (cured pork shoulder) with caponata siciliana
Secondo servizio dei piatti forti
Fettuccine con ragù d'agnello (lamb ragu)
Taccozzelle with sausage, porcini, black truffle, saffron
Maccheroni alla chitarra in sugo teramana (pallottine)
Chestnut gnocchi, wild boar ragu
Granita di limone
Terzo servizio dei piatti forti
Coniglio (rabbit) “in porchetta”
Anatra al forno (oven-roasted duck)
Tagliata di manzo (sliced steak)
Agnello arrosto (roasted lamb)
Primo servizio di credenza
(Artisanal sheep's-milk cheeses from Anversa degli Abruzzi)
Juniper smoked ricotta
Secondo servizio di credenza e confetteria
Pecorino panna cotta, montepulciano poached pears, mosto cotto, pine nuts
Heirloom apple and rosemary crostata, goat’s milk yogurt gelato
Italian Hot chocolate and biscotti misti
On Twitter: @LaMcCutch