South Philly's Italian gem, Le Virtù, is known across the city for its luscious Abruzzese cuisine: beautiful pastas, expert salumi, and sumptuous seafood. But the dolci that top off the menu may be the best section of the menu. Pastry Chef Angela Ranalli crafts creative desserts that sing with flavor without being cloyingly sweet or predictable. Thoughtful, well balanced combinations like lemon cream, white chocolate ganache and basil shortbread (Delizia al Limone), and almond panna cotta in brown butter Marsala sauce (Panna Cotta di Mardorle), gracefully combine tradition and innovation. We caught up with the self proclaimed "sweet aphrodisiac maker and food mystic" on a summer afternoon to catch up about her past, present, and future.
The Daily Meal: So, what brought you/keeps you in Philadelphia?
Chef Angela Ranali: I grew up in South Jersey, but I always loved the city. My parents brought us to Philly just about every week, whether it was to people watch on South Street, (in the punk rock days), or go shopping at the Italian Market. If I ever skipped school, it was never to sleep in, it was always to spend a day in the city! I’ve moved so many times, but I always found myself being drawn back here. Philly has really become a hot spot for restaurants, so I feel like I’m kind of in the right place at the right time. Italy is my final destination for sure though, but it would be crazy to move right now, at the height of the culinary movement in Philly.
When did you make the decision to follow pastry, versus being a savory cook, or pursuing another line of work altogether?
I was always made a living doing something creative. Before deciding to stick with pastry, I tried a few things…I taught an after school children’s art program, was a scenic painter for a theater company, freelanced as a street artist in Florence, Italy, selling hand painted tiles, and even body painting in nightclubs. Once my son was born I realized I had to adjust my bohemian lifestyle and went back to what I knew since childhood, and what I knew I could make a living at, baking. My mother always said, “People will always have to eat, so you’ll always have a job in the kitchen.” I hate admitting it but, maybe mothers ARE always right!
I’m not really a huge dessert fan. (Shhh!) I totally prefer to eat savory food over sweet, but I think at the beginning it was the art of pastry that attracted me. I always had my hands in flour and sugar, and I felt I could sculpt something out of that stuff.
Why do you think baking and pastry intimidates people? Even accomplished chefs on cooking competition TV shows seem to get flustered by the prospect of dessert.
Most chefs are used to the spontaneity of cooking, being able to adjust the spices or consistency of a dish at any time during the cooking process. They can just throw in another pinch of salt or add some broth to the pot if they need to. When you’re baking, you pretty much get one chance to mix it up correctly, before that oven door closes and all you can do is wait, and hope it turns out right. It’s more of an exact method of cooking since you really do need to measure everything, and savory chefs may not be used to the fact that just a few grams of an ingredients can seriously affect the outcome of their dish.
Some sweets can be a bit heavy in the heat of summer. What treats do you like to whip up when it's too hot to turn the oven on?
One of my favorite, simple, summer desserts is a lemon curd parfait. It’s a light and lemony cream, prepared completely on the stove top then chilled for a bit, spooned into a mason jar, alternating with layers of whipped cream and crushed amaretti cookies.
Where around time do you like to eat on your day off?
Vintage, and Jamonera are a two of my favorites for wine and small plates. Nomad Pizza has the best pizza in the city in my opinion, and I love La Calaca Feliz for tacos and tequila. If I am off the same day as my husband, one of our favorite things to do is take a walk to the Italian Market and stop by Di Bruno Brothers to pick up some cheese, salami, olives, and a crusty loaf of bread then hit Giordano’s for some fresh fruit and vegetables, grab a bottle of wine, and just relax at home.
Anything we should be looking forward to at Le Virtù for the rest of the season?
I’ll be making the addition of a few interesting desserts to our late summer menu including Green Tomato Crostata and Ricotta & Fichi d’India Tart (prickly pears). I have also started to offer dessert classes at Le Virtù, one Sunday per month, with August’s class focusing on grilled desserts. I will be continuing them throughout the fall and over the holidays. It’s a lot of fun and very hands on.