Fabio Trabocchi with his wife, Maria, who’s often roaming the dining room; a veal chop with mushrooms, Jerusalem artichokes, and hazelnuts. Photographs by Scott Suchman
Graffiato, chef Mike Isabella's new Penn Quarter restaurant, had foodies buzzing for the better part of a year, as speculation ballooned about what sort of place the Top Chef contestant would whip up now that he had struck out on his own (he was previously at Zaytinya). But the most anticipated debut of the year has to be Fiola, which marks the return to DC of Fabio Trabocchi, the wunderkind chef whose magic with pasta and fish transformed a bland dining room at the Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner into the area's best restaurant in the mid-aughts. Washingtonians waited four years for Trabocchi.
Gone are the sacramental air, the grandly got-up sommelier, the multi-course prix fixe that could set you back four bills, easy, if you took a date. The kitchen at Fiola is framed by a massive stone wall with arched windows and pots of herbs sitting on the windowsills—I half-expected to see a grizzled Italian grandmother peering out into the dining room. The bathroom toilets have tanks stationed near the ceiling—you pull a chain to flush.
But the nostalgic impulse isn't total. The sound system pumps out soft techno, and there are leather-bound menus that smell like the seats of an expensive Italian sports car.
The food attempts to have it both ways, too. Mostly it succeeds.
Sometimes it succeeds brilliantly, as with a filet of black bass and charred calamari whose dressing—provided by a tiny pot of clams and tomato sauce—knits all the various elements together into a rich and satisfying whole.
And occasionally there are dishes that veer too far in one direction or the other, and you realize just how hard it is to synthesize a hearty rustication with a cool, clean sophistication.
Even as a work-in-progress, Fiola is already one of the most exciting new restaurants to debut this year. It's already the best Italian restaurant in the city. That might be enough to satisfy some chefs or restaurateurs, but I don't think Il Maestro returned to town with a goal any less than conquering the city a second time. He may yet, but Fiola will have to evolve from a promising first draft to a more polished second or third.