Italy's finest

What a difference a couple of years can make.

Writing in this space in December 2007, this reviewer joined what was then a rather noisy chorus lamenting the dearth of quality Italian cuisine (or really any Italian at all, apart from Jumbo Slice) in the nation’s capital. The Washington, D.C., metro area could boast of a relative glut of just about everything else, it seemed — from tapas to pho, mezze to bulgogi — but its one glaring lack lay in the limited locations at which one could hope to mangiare qualcosa squisita (eat something exquisite). Heck, Baltimore, home to an actual Little Italy, was putting its hoitier-toitier neighbor to the south to shame.

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Fast-forward those three and a half years, and the landscape looks a lot different. For whatever reason, high-end Italian now abounds in Washington. In the McPherson Square/Metro Center locus alone you have Potenza, Bibiana and Tosca. A few blocks up 14th Street, Posto’s doing a bustling business. A bit farther afield, in Eastern Market, there’s Acqua Al 2. And now, all of them new to Penn Quarter circa this spring, Mike Isabella’s Graffiato, Enzo Fargione’s ELISIR and Fabio Trabocchi’s Fiola are competing in the battle to win hearts and stomachs and wallets.

The trick has become how to stand out amid this suddenly crowded field. For Trabocchi, formerly of the late, great Maestro and a recent returnee to Washington, the solution is to hew largely to cuisines characteristic of a broad swath of northern Italy, from his native Le Marche region up to Milan, combining those traditions with locally sourced ingredients, wherever available, and letting the freshness of the flavors sing. Simplicity, cleanliness, refinement in its restraint — that’s Fiola’s battle plan.

Appropriately, it’s an MO that extends to aesthetics. With its emphasis on straight lines and muted colors (burgundy and deep gray dominate), and its spartan adornment (a large modernist painting hangs at stage-center of the dining room, but that’s pretty much it), Fiola pulls off a tall task indeed, offering up a space that feels somehow both sumptuous and pleasingly unfussy. As my dining companion remarked, it’s the kind of place you’d feel equally at home celebrating an anniversary or stopping in for a solo lunch in the midst of a hectic workday.

In either case, you’re not likely to be disappointed by Trabocchi’s menu. Ample but tidy enough to home in on the tried-and-true, the selections here appear, at first blush, to have come from a standard-Italian playbook: antipasti preceding a selection of pastas giving way to meaty main courses. But sprinkled throughout you’ll find some oddball offerings that give the lie to that initial impression: the jumbo lump crab in one spaghetti dish, the beef tartar, the grilled Spanish octopus.

Oh, and foie gras. As our server put it, “That’s pretty French, but Fabio just couldn’t resist.” Neither could we. It’s a decadent decision in virtually every way — $26 for an antipasto isn’t exactly a recession-friendly asking price — but also one you’re not likely to regret. Served atop bread steeped overnight in port wine, flecked with the flavor of Sicilian pistachio and topped with a porcini cream, it’s a delicacy that, as conceived of at Fiola, is not to be missed. 

It’s also easily the richest of the antipasti, most of which recall first courses you’re likely to see while, say, vacationing at Lago di Como. The slivers of melon you’ll find in the Gabagool and Melone are just about the freshest thing this side of Sardinia, sheened lightly in oil and balsamic vinegar and served atop a bed of capicola, ready to be wrapped. It’s a salty-sweet commingling that’s likely to transport anyone who’s been instantly back to rolling Tuscan hills or cafés along a piazza — and so it’s something of a shock to discover the creation is Berkshire-sourced. Hey, if Trabocchi wants to Buy American, more power to him.

Which is not to say you’re likely to be thinking, or should even really care, about the provenance of your main course. That’s a testament to the skill with which Trabocchi has fashioned his dinner menu, the ease with which he works in seemingly any medium. Fiola — like the finest establishments in the old country — is as comfortable grilling up a simple veal shank as it is doling out some subtly spiced pastas, as in its element with beef as fish. On one trip, we throw our waiter into what seems a moment of genuine existential angst when we ask him what’s better, the Brasato or the Bue?

We go with the Brasato, or short ribs, though from the unflagging quality of every other main course we’ve had here (the veal with wild mushrooms and prosciutto, tortellini stuffed with cotechino sausage and sage, and the grilled sea bass) it’s probably fair to say the steak wouldn’t have disappointed. In any event the ribs are a revelation. Slow-cooked over 72 hours in a tannin-heavy Barolo reduction, the hunks of Kobe beef arrive ready to succumb to the slightest touch of a fork, the tangy zip of the marinade pointing up, and not undercutting, the robust, smoky quality of the meat.

No, Fiola isn’t cheap, and yes, having a slate of worthy competitors so close by in Penn Quarter is going to give the restaurant a run for its money. But inasmuch as the place’s mission is to serve up absolutely top-shelf authentic Italian fare in environs as relaxed as they are rich, Trabocchi’s newest venture is already a wild success.