Of bullying and bread pudding: My visit to Le Virtù on Passyunk Avenue

Being bullied in school

When I was in 8th grade, I was bullied by my friends. Strike that. Classmates *I thought* were my friends bullied me. The shift in voice from passive to active makes such a difference here, doesn’t it? It emphasizes the violent nature of the abuse. As is so often the case when girls bully other girls, however, the bullying was purely emotional. The impact of their emotional bullying manifested as physical illness in me. After perfect attendance in 6th grade, I missed a lot of school in 8th grade. Almost 20 days.

The note from my mom was always the same:

“Please excuse Jean Marie. She had a stomach ache.”

That was no lie. I would wake up every morning nauseous and ask to stay home from school. For a kid who loved school the way I did, that was an unusual request. My request was always granted. I would spend a couple of hours on the sofa, but by lunch I felt fine. It happened about once a week, and then it stopped. I can’t remember why it stopped. If they just got bored and stopped bullying me, or if I pushed back and demanded they stop. I seem to remember it was a little of both, but time and trauma have created a hole in my memory now.

What remained was my intolerance for bullying and bullies.

The internet is a weird and wonderful place, but it is also a place littered with bullies. When I was a kid, I could go home and find sanctuary in my family. Today’s kids—and even adults—have a harder time finding that safe space. Instead, the bullies follow them online and onto their computers and phones. Imagine opening your phone to hundreds of notifications about how much you suck. It would… well… suck.

Many counter-bullying strategies exist. Some suggest you should fight back. I’ve done that. It can work, but it can also backfire. If that fails, some suggest avoidance. I’ve done this, too. But truthfully, avoidance doesn’t help your self-esteem and can create resentment. If you see someone being bullied, most suggest reaching out to the bullied person by becoming an “upstander.”

Editor’s note: Yes, upstander is a word. Similar to a bystander, an upstander is a person who takes positive action against the bullying behavior.

Last week, I decided to become an upstander.

Reading a feel-good story on Twitter (yes, Twitter)

Recently, Helen Ubiñas of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a column about how South Philly restaurant Le Virtù was donating proceeds from its bread pudding sales to the Thomas family, a local family from Jamaica who are living in a Germantown church while their immigration case clears the system. This bread pudding recipe is special and comes from the Thomas family itself. Ubiñas’ column told the story of the descendants of immigrants helping recent immigrants. Then, she wrote an update that Di Bruno brothers had joined hands with Le Virtù—two businesses giving back to their community. It’s the kind of story you read on Twitter in between all the political garbage; the kind of story that makes you feel proud of Philly’s sanctuary city status; the kind of story that leaves you wanting bread pudding.

Located in the heart of South Philly, Passyunk Avenue is well known for its Italian restaurants. My standards are high because I lived in Italy and have done my fair share of Italian cooking. I don’t get down to Passyunk Avenue often, but I decided I would make a trip soon.

Soon came sooner than expected. Last week, Ubiñas wrote a Twitter thread updating the story once again. The restaurant was getting troll reviews on Google and being targeted by the Republican contender for mayor. The harassment was affecting their business. All because they were donating their profits to a family in need. At the end of the thread, Ubiñas asked Philadelphians to show our support by eating at Le Virtù.

Ubering down south (Philly, that is)

I decided to go that night. I didn’t have a reservation, although you can reserve a table on OpenTable. The traffic was horrible (as it often is on weeknights in Center City). My driver took me on a scenic tour of South Philly while we talked about its iconic awnings and he showed me a great place to get pho. It’s a good thing I didn’t have a reservation as the drive took longer than expected. But, it was a beautiful night for a detour. When I arrived, I said I was there for the bread pudding and settled into a cozy table outside.

Eating my way through Abruzzo

My table featured a fantastic view of a mural tribute to Abruzzo, Italy, the region featured on Le Virtù’s menu.

Editor’s note: You can find information on any mural in the city by visiting the Mural Arts map website.

I started with a limoncello martini. Le Virtù has an extensive wine list. The limoncello martini might seem an unusual choice, but for me it’s a sentimental one. I first had limoncello in Rome, when I toured Italy with Clemson art historian Dr. Evelyn Carol Voelker. The tartness of the lemon was the perfect way to enjoy a warm spring night.

I wasn’t particularly hungry, so I ordered only two dishes plus dessert (of course).

First was the Affettati Misti, which I thought was a small antipasto featuring salumi, marinated vegetables, and bruschetta. This is what I received:

 

My Italian is rusty, but I think Affettati misti translates to “giant plate featuring delicate slices of meaty heaven, cheese, and veggies.” Needless to say, I asked my server AZ to pack some to go.

Editor’s note: That is not the translation. It means mixed cold cuts. 

Second was the primo, the Pecorino Agnolotti. Agnolotti are folded pasta that resemble tortellini. These agnolotti were filled with sheep milk cheese and covered in a saffron butter sauce and parsley. We often associate Italian food with tomato-based marinara sauces from southern Italy or the cream sauces favored in northern Italy. This saffron sauce reminded me that Italian cooking is as diverse as its regions. Saffron plays a key role in Abruzzese cuisine because the Crocus flower grows in the L’Aquila region. Even though the sauce is butter-based, the flavor is light. It’s an excellent choice for a spring or summer pasta dish.

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I decided to skip the secondo and contorno dishes and went right for the dolci instead. Finally, it was time for the bread pudding and a cappuccino. I had no room left in my stomach, but I sampled the pudding anyway. I was not disappointed. The bread has a wonderful cinnamon flavor, and the caramel rum sauce adds just enough sweetness.

 

That night, I met Fred, who runs the restaurant. He was a kind and generous host. I had a wonderful chat with him about why the restaurant supports the Thomas family. The story is written into his very skin. A tattoo on his arm reflects his dual immigrant heritage: Scottish-Irish on one side, Italian on the other. Like so many Philadelphians, he and his family take pride in their immigrant roots and remember when their families were newly arrived. Times and immigration laws were different then, but people were not. People helped people. His family’s decision to help the Thomas family honors that legacy. He and his family and staff have decided to be upstanders for the Thomas family.

Becoming an upstander

You can be an upstander for both the Thomas family and Le Virtù restaurant by going to the restaurant and ordering the bread pudding.

Le Virtù is open for dinner only.

Monday to Thursday: 5 pm to 10 pm

Friday and Saturday: 5 pm to 10:30 pm

Sunday: 4 to 9:30 pm

Tuesday is BYO night (Wine only).

A few tips before you go

Tip 1: You can reserve inside tables on OpenTable, but if you want an outside table (and believe me you want an outside table), you have to call the restaurant at (215) 271-5626.

Tip 2: When the weather warms up, they show Italian movies outside on Wednesday nights. They usually start around 8 pm depending on sunset timing.

4 thoughts on “Of bullying and bread pudding: My visit to Le Virtù on Passyunk Avenue

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