In 1970, Christianne Ricchi was an 18-year-old art student from New Rochelle, N.Y., who went to Florence, Italy, to learn to paint, but soon discovered that her vocation was in the culinary arts rather than the visual arts.
That was a fortunate choice, not only for her personally and professionally, but for legions of Washingtonians who have discovered the pleasures of authentic Tuscan cooking at the restaurant she opened here in 1989 with her Italian chef husband, Francesco Ricchi.
They met in 1971 while she was working at his mother’s trattoria in a tiny village outside of Florence, and were married in 1975. Christianne and her husband ran the trattoria for 14 years before they moved to Washington.
patrick g. ryan
|I Ricchi executive chef Christianne Ricchi spent 17 years working at a trattoria in Italy.|
“He was the only banker here who was known for having an interest in financing restaurants. There weren’t many quality Italian restaurants here at the time, but he liked our plan and gave us a loan. We were undecided about a location but he told us he’d only give us the money if we opened on 19th Street, so we did,” she recalled.
They opened for business in January 1989 in the space previously occupied by the Bread Oven, in a building that houses the staff of The New Republic.
One month later, they had a stroke of luck that virtually guaranteed their success. White House speechwriter Victor Gold chose I Ricchi for his birthday celebration and brought along President George H. W. Bush, his wife, Barbara, and 11 other guests.
“We didn’t learn the president was coming until that afternoon when the Secret Service came by,” she said. “We served pasta with rabbit sauce and skewers of various grilled meats, and the Bushes loved it, and became regulars. It made big news, even in Italy.”
Christianne, whose blonde good looks and outgoing personality match the restaurant’s sunny golden hues, Tuscan murals and terra-cotta floors, takes her title of executive chef seriously. She presides over a team of male chefs, some of whom have worked for her for 15 years, in the open kitchen with the oak-burning oven where breads, roasted meats and seafood are cooked.
She makes every effort to duplicate the classic Tuscan cuisine that she fell in love with in Italy. “I wanted to use the original recipes I learned at the old trattoria” in Tuscany, she said. “We really work at maintaining authentic Tuscan country-style cooking. We make everything in-house — our pastas, breads, gelato. We grill over oak embers and don’t use any gas or electric heat.”
Regulars include former Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.), former Connecticut GOP senator and Independent Gov. Lowell Weicker and former deputy attorney general Webster Hubbell — all spotted there recently, as were as the Clintons, New Republic owner Marty Peretz and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
While the kitchen aims for authentic “Cucina Rustica,” it makes adjustments for the American palate. “Italians eat a lot of bread with their meals, but it tends to be saltier, so we make our bread without salt because we found very quickly that it was too salty for the American palate,” Christianne explained. “Tuscans like their vegetables very well done and when they order steak, they always want it rare.”
August was the perfect time to test I Ricchi’s culinary reputation, as the restaurant extended the Washington Restaurant Week promotion by offering a three-course lunch menu for $20.03 all month. My guests and I sampled the menu on three different occasions, feasting on such Tuscan staples as ribollita (thick Tuscan vegetable and bread soup), breaded scallop of veal with arugula and plum tomatos, and luscious lemon-lime Bavarian cream with raspberry sauce.
I’m a big fan of risotto, and I Ricchi makes some of the best I’ve ever had. My favorites are risotto with mixed wild mushrooms; with sun-dried tomatoes and fontina cheese; and with fresh artichokes, green peas, homemade sausage and mozzarella, each of which I or my guests had during August.
I Ricchi’s homemade pastas are to die for, with dishes like the panzotti florentini — pockets of pasta stuffed with roast veal and spinach napped with Florentine tomato sauce — or the tagliatelle with mushrooms, white truffles and peas in a light cream sauce, which will make you think you’re sitting on the Piazza del Campo in Siena, watching the famous Palio horse races.
I Ricchi is located directly across the street from the Palm and just up the street from Sam & Harry’s, but I Ricchi’s bistecca all’arrabbiata — grilled, aged black Angus New York strip steak seasoned with red pepper, fresh herbs and extra virgin olive oil — holds its own with the best that either of these steak emporia offer.
“Tuscany is known for its beefsteak and grilled meats,” says Christianne, who occasionally eats at both of the restaurants and says it’s good for business to be in the same neighborhood. “We pride ourselves on our meat and that’s where we need to compete,” she adds.
I Ricchi means “the rich” in Italian, and it’s helpful if you are when the bill comes, especially if you’ve ordered one of the more than 300 selections of classic Italian wines on the restaurant’s carefully selected list. While there are moderately priced wines, there are also bottles that run into the hundreds of dollars. Service is almost flawless, and although the Muzak can be annoying at times, the noise level is a welcome relief from the boisterous Palm.
Despite its steep prices, I Ricchi is cheaper and more convenient than traveling to Tuscany. And maybe even the son of the man who helped launch I Ricchi’s long, successful run will turn up one of these days. “We’re still waiting for the president and his wife to come,” Christianne said.