During a time in my life when I worked on a mountain farm near Bologna, I ate all kinds of off-the-map food. The farmer was a professional cellist who raised crops and made wine. Dinner consisted of rustic fare like minestrone, squash risotto, and rabbit grilled over an open fire. The wildest thing I ate that summer was a plant: agretti.
The farmer treated the grassy fronds with reverence. When he came back from the market with a fistful, it was an event.
Agretti are a seaweed-like green that grows wild in parts of Italy. Their season is ephemeral. A heartbeat's delay, and you might miss the strands coated with salt, the cook’s best olive oil, and maybe a trace of vinegar. Agretti also go by barba di frate, or “monk’s beard.”
I haven’t seen agretti since summer 2010.
Until now. They are on the menu at Virtù Honest Craft in Scottsdale.
The best thing I ate all week, sadly, was not agretti. The greens landed on the dinner menu days after I ate at Virtù. Chef Gio Osso sources his agretti from a Santa Monica farm. He has knowledge of Italy’s unbelievably strange and developed fringe vegetable culture, having looked from the best vantage: an Italian farm.
Osso was born in New Jersey. Every summer, his family returned to Calabria, the far southern Italian region of his parents. They stayed on a family farm by the sea.
“We had a little farm a hundred yards from the beach,” he says. “We had the best seafood, plus anything grown on the farm.”
His uncles went fishing at night. From the shore, he could see the small lights of their boats gliding somewhere in the constellation of mariners. When they moored after sunrise, there was fresh fish.
Osso learned the foods of the land and sea. Because the land was Calabrese, he came to know the Calabrian chile, a stout crimson pepper that spices many local dishes. You will taste that Calabrian chile in the oil that laces Virtù’s artful octopus dish. You will spy it sitting whole in a slash of salsa verde on fried eggs over pork ragù with polenta.
The polenta with pork ragù, heady as a rough red wine, was by far the best thing I ate all week.
That ragù and that polenta go together like day and sun. Mascarpone textures the polenta with a silkiness and creamy depth. The pork ragù hews closer to an intense, long-stewed cacciatore than what you think of when you think of tomato-based sauce. The pork flavor is potent. Wild. Thrilling. Capable of launching the dreaming mind to faraway places.
“That style of pork ragù my mom used to make when I was a kid,” Osso says. “She’d do a big bowl of polenta, and serve that big ragù over the top.”
If the family had leftovers, Osso’s mom would often serve them with frittata or eggs on Sunday. At Virtù, he serves his own version for brunch.
Osso uses simple, thoughtful ingredients and uses them well. The pork is from Niman Ranch. “What we do is get these long-bone pork chops in. We French the bones so we get the rib meat. We turn that into a ragù.” The ragù is made from just pork, tomato, wine, garlic, and tomato paste.
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Virtù is open for brunch on weekdays. If you go then, you can taste the pork ragù with polenta, one of the best Italian dishes I’ve eaten in the Valley.
But if you go for dinner soon, try the agretti. Don't let your hopes snowball, for this is a humble, salt-of-the-earth green. And after dinner, if you try some, please let me know how it was.
Virtù Honest Craft. 3701 North Marshall Way, Scottsdale; 480-946-3477.
Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.