for Best Chefs America
“We do food that’s a reflection of what we know and where we come from,” says Fabio Trabocchi, the Best Chef behind Washington, D.C. restaurants Casa Luca, Fiola, and Fiola Mare. “That's an important motivator. It creates a soul for the restaurant and a true story. It’s not engineered. It’s a true story.”
Trabocchi's food has been described as legendary since he was a 25-year-old cooking at London's Floriana. Since opening, Casa Luca, Fiola, and Fiola Mare have been consistently rated as top places to eat in D.C. by Washingtonian Magazine. Trabocchi executes exemplar Italian food in its many different faces — from the Sunday dinner table to modernist tasting menus.
At Fiola, Trabocchi's fine dining Italian restaurant in D.C.'s Penn Quarter, guests order off a menu separated into courses like: appetizers, pasta & risotto, flora, sea & land. Customers can choose any combination of dishes — from two to five with a dessert — for a set price. Each dish at Fiola is what Trabocchi calls personalized, elevated Italian, presented with a twist.
The heirloom tomato crostada is new on the summer menu at Fiola. Peeled tomatoes from a nearby farming cooperative top a housemade, flaky parmigiano-reggiano brioche tart, garnished with a fried squash blossom, radish blooms, and bright green Sicilian olive oil.
Trabocchi loves cooking with seafood. That's why Fiola Mare is dedicated to it. At Fiola Mare, he serves crudos, raw oysters, lobster, mussels, fish, scallops, and calamari on the Georgetown waterfront, overlooking the Potomac River.
To experience seafood at Fiola, try the ahi tuna crudo and kumamoto oyster appetizer, which arrives looking like a canvas of contemporary art. The ingredients are displayed so that guests can taste a different combination of flavors with every bite. Thick cuts of bigeye tuna are plated with taggiasca olive peels, quenelles of sorrel mousse, yuzu citrus, meyer lemon zest, trout roe, capers, and kumamoto oysters — a clean and plump variety from the west coast of Japan with cucumber and melon notes.
A team of waiters in white suit coats with a cursive F monogrammed on their pockets present dishes to customers in a well-orchestrated procession. The sommelier selects glasses of wine for the Grand and Premiere pairing. The Grand features rarer, limited availability selections. Some include wine from Trabocchi's private label that features winemakers from across Italy.
Pasta is the centerpiece of all of his menus. At Fiola, deep pocketed tortellini are filled with minced veal shank, crumbs of castelmagno cheese, and morel mushrooms braised in Madeira. The dish is topped with a brasato sauce, sweetbreads, and parmesan foam.
lobster ravioli at Fiola Mare (photo credit: Scott Suchman)
The lead pastamaker at Fiola has more than 15 years of experience crafting many different kinds of pasta in all different shapes. Her expertise advances the traditional to the professional level. Peer through the curtained windows in the stone wall on the back facade of Fiola, and you’ll see the staff hard at work on the line—rolling, filling, and shaping fresh pasta by hand and with an extruder. All desserts are made by corporate pastry chef Brandon Malzahn.
The Maria menu (named after his wife and business partner) is available at lunch at all his establishments. This three-course menu, priced under $30, is light, elegant, and flavor packed; prepared in a health-conscious Mediterranean
“There’s a demand for a fine dining experience at lunch," Trabocchi says. "We can offer a beautiful menu and high level of service, and it's a great value.”
And although brunch may not be an Italian tradition, it hasn’t stopped Casa Luca, his homestyle Italian restaurant, from earning the title of “Best Brunch Downtown” in DC by Bitches Who Brunch. Trabocchi spins classic Italian dishes to include familiar flavors that people crave on weekend mornings. He serves Sicilian mimosas made with blood orange juice, bread baskets stacked with coffee cake, lavash, and fresh croissants. Farm eggs accompany everything from porchetta to spaghetti carbonara.
“It’s inevitable that American food culture will impact what we do in our restaurants,” says Trabocchi about his decision to improvise traditional Italian food to suit his audience. “I don’t see it as a bad thing, as long as it’s balanced. There’s an acceptance for freedom if it makes people comfortable.”
Trabocchi also has two new concepts in the works: Sfoglina and Del Mar. Sfoglina is dedicated to the art of handrolled pasta that is slowly fading from fast-paced modern lives, even in Italy. Del Mar will be his first restaurant featuring food from an entirely different culinary region — Spain. Maria is Spanish. Trabocchi cooked there for two years, and has visited the country every summer since he met his wife 20 years ago.
“If I have two cuisines that are under my skin, they’re Italian and Spanish,” he says. “Of course, that’s respect to all other cuisines, but those are the two I’m touched by.”
Every detail Trabocchi incorporates into his restaurants — from the tableware to the Fiola emblem that’s printed on the chocolate tuile served with dessert —is designed to accomplish one goal: to provide customers with a memorable experience.
After many years, Trabocchi says he still loves what he’s doing. He attributes his success to his team and wife Maria. He loves promoting people within his restaurants, listening to their opinions, finding and honing their hidden talents. All this drives him as much as the accolades.
The process of creating restaurants is a lot of responsibility, but it’s also exciting — too exciting for Trabocchi to sleep most days.