Dine: Le Virtu is a spring soup worth waiting for

Le Virtu combines ingredients of a hearty winter with the freshness of spring

Early spring's bounty debuted this week at just about every restaurant with a seasonal menu.

Michele Savoia, chef owner of Dish Osteria on the South Side, added nettle soup to the menu April 20, which he finishes with a pair of ricotta balls that "take the soup to another level." He also offered tagliatelle with Brussels sprouts, ramps, thyme, fiddleheads and the season's first morels, finished with black truffle cheese. The dish is selling briskly.

More casual restaurants also take advantage of pungent ramps and earthy morels. Kevin Hermann at The Porch at Schenley serves porcinis, ramps and morels with Alaskan halibut. And Sonja Finn at Dinette displays ramps on her Neapolitan-style pizza.

Although simple dishes are often the chef's choice to showcase these comely ingredients, a complex spring stew marks their arrival at Stagioni on the South Side, where chef Stephen Felder will assemble the seven-pot Le Virtu, a melding of 49 winter and spring ingredients.

Italian for "the virtues," its legend states the soup is made by seven virgins, each with her own pot filled with seven ingredients.

Mr. Felder joked that he has yet to find seven willing virgins with the time or inclination to cook in his small kitchen.

This weekend he's assembling the soup to offer in the restaurant Tuesday through May 4. It is traditionally served the first of May.

Mr. Felder will sell a bowl of Le Virtu as a special entree for $20, which comes with homemade bread. And with this kind of effort, it's worth every cent.

He learned of the stew while researching a spring wine dinner in "La Cucina," the regional cookbook of Italy.

As this year's test run, he made an adaptation of the soup for the South Side Soup Contest in February. Its colorful, rich ingredients and a complex broth made it hard to identify what made the soup so delicious, although the prevalence of pork certainly helped.

It did not win the contest, but it should have.

"I was pretty happy with how it came together," he said.

Le Virtu was reintroduced to American diners after Mark Ladner, the chef at New York's Del Posto, studied the 40-year-old book "The Foods of Italy" as a travel guide for a gustatory vacation. The book was written by a Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent, Waverley Root.

Bon Appetit, in a blog post about the soup, noted that Del Posto was the first Italian restaurant to earn four stars from The New York Times in more than three decades.

After Mr. Ladner's journey to Italy, Del Posto created a video about making the soup. It opens with a 30-second span that starts with pasta, then leads to beans, ramps, spring lettuces, radishes, cauliflower, leeks, carrots and herbs, followed by pig jowls, trotters and sausage.

The scene is set to circus music -- a nod to the soup's absurdity -- during which beans simmer, pork parts braise, vegetables are blanched and ingredients from pots are combined.

Mr. Felder follows the ritual of the soup three days before serving, when he makes chicken stock and braises pig ears, feet and jowls, preserving the liquid.

The same day, he soaks seven types of beans overnight before he cooks them. They include cranberry, cannellini, lima, marrow, rice, chickpeas and navy beans. If the weather had been warmer, fava beans and English peas would be part of the mix.

On day two, he makes pork meatballs and preps seven vegetables, of which ramps and spring mushrooms are highlights, along with stewed tomatoes, garlic, leeks, endive and dandelion greens.

Then on day three, he brings ingredients together and cooks off the pasta, which includes bucatini, farfalle and orecchiette, among others.

This may all seem fairly simple if time consuming, but the assembly of ingredients is what makes it complicated, a set of instructions Mr. Felder faithfully followed.

Once ingredients have been prepared, a pot labeled No. 4 filled with bacon and garlic goes into pot No. 1, with beans and greens. Pigs feet are deboned and meat goes into pot No. 1. Then pot No. 2 of greens and bacon go into pot No. 1 with stewed tomatoes. The seven pastas then go into pot No. 1. Meatballs are added last.

A map is a necessary part of the instructions, it seems.

The complexity of the stew is a spring cleaning of the pantry and the palate. Mr. Felder said it's apropos this year, with the tardy arrival of warm weather.

"It's a transitional dish that's brothy and meaty yet delivers the freshness of springtime."

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart. First Published April 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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