Tosca: Italian king


 For anyone who has worked in Washington’s political circles for a few years, chances are if you walk into Tosca at lunchtime on a weekday, you’ll spot someone you know, perhaps munching on carrot-infused pappardelle with rabbit ragu alongside his or her business partners.

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Tosca has a long list of high-profile regulars, including former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Podesta Group’s Tony Podesta, Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf and former Bush adviser Nick Calio. If these names don’t ring a bell, you might consider saving a couple hundred dollars and having lunch elsewhere. But if you did, you would miss out on an array of Washington’s very best Italian dishes, including the trademark pappardelle, pink snapper tartar with black Moldon salt or tortelli filled with creamy Robiola cheese.

The chef considers the orange-tinted pappardelle, which could serve as a hearty appetizer or light main course, one of his specialties, and with good reason. A warm glow of fresh carrot spreads over the palate after one bite of the broad, silky-smooth pasta. The dish is studded with ground rabbit, an ideal preparation for a meat that can often be tough and stringy — and as a result is rarely served in American restaurants.

The snapper tartar, an appetizer, is a pleasant harmony of soft pink fish — served at room temperature with a gentle whiff of the ocean — and light green cucumber sliced into long strands with a mandolin. The restrained addition of the black salt complements the mellow flavors perfectly.

The tortelli, a cousin of the better-known tortellini, is stuffed with rich Robiola — think slightly tangy goat cheese — and radiates the taste of black truffles. It is simply one of the most flavorful pasta dishes you will ever try.

But without question, Tosca is primarily about business. The bold, stylized logo on the restaurant’s window conveys pure power, even to an out-of-town dinner companion who joined me recently to sample the restaurant’s tasting menu.

The interior offers varied terrain for deal-making: a raised platform running along the middle of the dining room for power brokers who like to be noticed; an upholstered alcove at the back for quiet conversation; tables off to the side under a low ceiling of what appear to be floating panels.

Pristine monochrome carpet covers the floor, absorbing sound to allow for hushed conversation, and gauzy drapes shroud the window, giving the restaurant an air of privacy and intrigue.

Daschle, who narrowly missed becoming Health and Human Services secretary earlier this year, likes to sit in the middle of the restaurant along a railing where the floor is slightly raised and no one can miss him, according to our waiter.

The quiet alcove in the back (table 50), however, most often hosts couples enjoying anniversary dinners or other occasions, according to our server, belying its appearance as some kind of a business deal-making booth.

Despite the popularity of that table among some couples, Tosca is not an ideal place for a romantic dinner. Its diffuse lighting and impersonal décor, which may call to mind a high-end hotel restaurant from the 1950s or ’60s, is relaxed and dignified, but it is not intimate. This is just the right atmosphere for patrons who are looking to put their clients and partners at ease but still keep them at a comfortable distance.

Paolo Sacco opened Tosca in 2001, but it has only recently come into its own as one of Washington’s premier political hangouts. The renovation of Chinatown and Penn Quarter has encouraged a migration of new powerbrokers farther east of the White House, putting them between 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and Congress and close to Tosca, which sits at 12th and F streets NW.

Tosca has also become more popular as the fortunes of the Democratic Party have risen. As Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has ushered in a new era of fresh food and recyclable flatware at the Capitol, healthy eating has come into vogue and steakhouses have taken on a hint of musty Republicanism.

Tosca’s clean lines and minimalist setting strikes a clear contrast with the dark, old-fashioned booths and dusty taxidermy of the Capital Grille, a restaurant that reigned supreme during former Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) heyday.

Chef Massimo Fabbri favors tiny, interesting garnishes such as dried lobster eggs and artfully strewn microgreens in a salad that gives lobster meat a satisfying pucker in the form of pickled celery root.

The restaurant also excels at traditional hearty dishes with an unusual element: carefully seared foie gras topped with subtly sweet balsamic vinegar. The twist? A bed of braised green lentils flavored with white truffle butter.

Venison chops cooked to tender pink come with a red beet puree and brussels sprouts that complement the meat’s earthy, slightly alkaloid flavor.

 Many of the dishes stick to the classic preparations of Italian high cuisine, though Fabbri tries a few bold experiments, with mixed results. A risotto with Raschera, a cow cheese from Tuscany, and a pine nut-anchovy pesto breaks the Italian culinary tenet of keeping cheese and anchovies separate. The result tastes good enough, but somehow the mushy meshing of flavors slides into the realm of comfort food.

However, the chef’s modernized tiramisu, with liqueur-soaked ladyfingers swimming in a martini glass of delectable cream, is fantastic. Crunchy coffee-flavored balls strewn on top of the warm confection provide a satisfying textural contrast.

Ron Bonjean, a former Republican leadership aide who was spotted enjoying tuna in the well of the dining room last week, said Tosca has emerged as the hot new political dining venue.

“You’re still going to have steakhouses that people like to go to, but Tosca’s smack right in downtown,” he said. “It’s a quiet restaurant that serves healthy food, and everyone goes there because it’s close, and they know they’ll see their friends.”

The in crowd usually consists of lobbyists, public relations executives and other political gurus. Proximity to Capitol Hill is less important these days since the 2007 passage of the congressional gift bans, which bar lobbyists from buying lawmakers fancy meals. Instead of spending lunch “educating” members of Congress, Washington’s powerbrokers discuss business among themselves and their clients while they sample some of the finest Italian cuisine in Washington.