Young and hip: Teatro Goldoni prepares for an image makeover

Michael Kosmides is jacked up on caffeine these days. So much so that his left leg taps nervously as he speaks and he can’t quite wipe the grin off his 33-year-old face.

It’s hard to contain your excitement when you’re about to become the owner of the 7,500-square-foot Teatro Goldoni, an elegant, 12-year-old Italian restaurant on K Street frequented by lobbyists and fashion-conscious socialites.

Kosmides, co-owner of Ibar and Play Lounge, recently paid seven figures for Teatro Goldoni, but refused to offer any more specifics on the finances. “Lots of zeros,” he said. “It’s beyond zeros. I’ll keep Fabrizio off the street for a while, how’s that?”
Kosmides is purchasing the restaurant from its top chef and owner Fabrizio Aielli and his wife, Ingrid. The couple is relocating to Naples, Fla., where Fabrizio plans to open a new restaurant, and Ingrid an art gallery. The sale wasn’t easy, and Kosmides wasn’t an obvious choice. His youth left a questionable first impression. But he and Aielli share the same attorney, who “gave me some street cred,” Kosmides said.

“Fabrizio is a legendary chef,” the young owner said. “I’m getting my Harvard MBA in restaurants through Fabrizio.” Taking over an eatery is not so easy. “I don’t sleep well,” he added. “My head hits the pillow, all these thoughts go through my head.”
With longish silky hair and an olive complexion, Kosmides, who is Greek, doesn’t look like a member of political Washington. In a black, pinstriped Canali suit, no tie, he’s clean-cut — yes. But he’s more GQ than CQ, more Details than Washingtonian.

Born in Athens, Kosmides moved to the United States when he was 5 and grew up in northern Virginia. His parents are Greek natives. Kosmides owns a condo in Clarendon. He likely will never live in D.C.

“I’m simple folk,” he said.

Kosmides recently sat down for an interview at a special Chef’s Table inside Teatro’s exquisite kitchen, where Chef Nicola Amarune let us sample five courses of the restaurant’s old, beloved dishes in addition to the new. By the time we’ve just begun, Kosmides has already inhaled two glasses of Diet Coke; he proceeds to accept several refills throughout the meal.
This is the type of cuisine where no matter how stuffed you are, when the fifth course — a pistachio-crusted lamb chop with truffle-cauliflower cake and ginger-carrot sauce — arrives and is as divine as it is, you make room.

The fourth course, lobster risotto, is the restaurant’s signature dish and Kosmides’s favorite. I understand why. As he eats a small portion of the creamy, flavorful orange-hued dish with healthy portions of lobster meat, an instant smile and heavenly calm spread across his face. He explains that he only has to think about the risotto and his mouth waters.

Kosmides wants to be urbane, refined, but the spring-breaker in him cannot hide. “My friends and I are trying to be sophisticated,” he says. “We try it on but it doesn’t feel quite comfortable.” Still, he admits, “When it comes to food and wine, I’m very much a snob.”

His first point of business for the new Teatro Goldoni is a makeover, both in atmosphere and patronage. He wants the lighting softer — a female patron recently confided in him that the lighting didn’t make her feel pretty. He wants purse holders under the bar seats and “female-friendly” dishes such as lobster tail and Kobe beef salads added to the menu.
Most of all? He wants the crowd young and hip and ready to party.

Kosmides, who makes it a point to take periodic worldly jaunts with his tight-knit group of friends — to destinations like Miami’s South Beach, Manhattan, Barcelona, Ibiza, Las Vegas and Los Angeles — wants Teatro to be the new Café Milano, the place to “see and be seen” in Washington. By next spring the restaurant will boast of an outdoor patio, he says.

“It’s unfortunate that that’s the only option people have to see and be seen,” he says of Café Milano.

Nicolas Cage is a fan. While filming “National Treasure” last year he sat at Teatro’s Chef’s Table inside the kitchen for a month. Other celebrities who have visited Teatro include Tom Cruise and Warren Beatty.

Kosmides, who has in mind stars to bring in the door (he won’t name names), envisions an “adult playground” where movers and shakers ages 25 to 45 can come to dine by day in their stuffy suits. By night, he wants the ties unbuttoned and the cocktails flowing. He wants ultra-serious Washington to let loose — “the old man’s overbite,” he says, only partly in jest.
“My personal goal is to catch D.C. up to other cities,” he says. “Just a place where you can work a long day, then let your hair down with drinking and dancing.”

He laughs as he explains the phrase “adult playground,” which could have a very different meaning in a downtown Washington where no one wants to hear the word “scandal.” “Adult playground in a very good way,” he stresses.

Kosmides is serious about his fun. “There are people who are not afraid to spend a little money and have a good time,” he says.

He is not a veteran of the restaurant business, but he grew up in it with his father, a chef who owned Athena Pallas in Crystal City. He never planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and thought he’d steer clear of the restaurant business. In 1999 he started a real estate company. For seven years he and a childhood friend bought and flipped houses.

But back to the food. The third course is hearty. It strikes me as something you’d eat in late fall at a mountain cabin. It’s hand-cut mint tagliatelle and lamb ragu, Cerignola olives and shaved asiago cheese. The second, much lighter course consists of two delightful pistachio prawns stuffed with crabmeat, wilted arugula and roasted-tomato vinaigrette.

The first course is simple by comparison. It’s pan-seared Maine diver sea scallops with braised sweet corn, black Trumpet and English peas on porcini mushroom emulsion. Anyone who likes mushroom-flavored cuisine will adore this dish.
For the hip-at-large and those who want to splurge, why not try the $75 Kobe beef burger soaked in port wine? It’s served on a bun that’s young and fresh — indeed, the promise is that it’s fewer than two hours old.

If that’s not pricy and decadent enough, you can always add a bottle of Dom or Cristal — Kosmides, who plans to make Teatro the No. 1 restaurant in Washington, is counting on it.