An early look at Fabio Trabocchi’s Casa Luca

July 3, 2013

To understand why Fabio Trabocchi named Casa Luca after his 9-year-old son, you have to understand the chef's own childhood in Le Marche, Italy, where almost every weekend the young Trabocchi received an education in Italian cooking from his father.

Mario and Fabio Trabocchi: It's a family affair at Casa Luca. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Maria and Fabio Trabocchi: It's a family affair at Casa Luca. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

Trabocchi's father, Giuseppe Trabocchi, used to be a sharecropper until the practice came to a halt after large agricultural companies started swallowing up farms owned by wealthy landowners, the chef told me during a preview of Casa Luca. The casual trattoria will open to the public on Friday, July 5, in the former Againn space at 1099 New York Ave. NW.

"A lot of the sharecropping families had to get out and reinvent themselves at the time," Trabocchi said. "So my father, age 32, was no longer a farmer. He had been a farmer all his life.”

His father worked various jobs, though mostly as a truck driver, Trabocchi recalled. No matter what work he performed, however, his father would retreat back into the natural world of plants and animals on the weekends. "He missed the land, and he missed being a part of it," Trabocchi said. "Every weekend he went back to the farm."

Trabocchi shows off the family photos hanging in one of the rooms at Casa Luca. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Fabio Trabocchi has turned one of his dining rooms into a family scrapbook, complete with shots of Luca feeding a lamb. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

On Saturdays, Giuseppe Trabocchi would get behind the wheel of his car and venture into the countryside, often bringing Fabio along for the trip. They would visit Giuseppe's former sharecropping friends, who had become butchers or grocers. Some had even purchased land and remained in farming. They were all Fabio Trabocchi's first culinary teachers.

"The friends of my Dad would take me by the hand, and they would say, ‘You’re going to pick that tomato because it’s ready, not that one,'" Trabocchi remembered. "It was not meant to be leading toward a culinary [education].... It was just a way to spend a weekend and reconnect with the land."

The James Beard Award-winning chef behind Fiola and the forthcoming Fiola Mare was about Luca's age when he received his accidental education in Italian ingredients, Fabio Trabocchi recalled.

His father would then take those ingredients back to the family home in Osimo and transform them into a feast. Giuseppe would start cooking early on Sunday morning, well before his children had climbed out of bed. "By the time I woke up there was the smell of sauce in the kitchen," Trabocchi said. "There would be fresh pasta dough sitting on the table in the kitchen, and everything was ready for after Mass.”

XXX Trabocchi, father of the chef, has a place of honor in Casa Luca: Overlooking a main section of the dining room. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
This 1960 photo of Giuseppe Trabocchi, sitting on the motorcycle, has a place of honor in Casa Luca: It overlooks a main section of the dining room. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

Giuseppe — the father who inadvertently taught his son about Italian cooking through his own love of the land — now has a place of honor in Casa Luca. A 1960 photo of Giuseppe, sitting on a motorcycle, hangs over a section of the main dining room. It's the same dining room where Fabio Trabocchi and his chef de cuisine, Erin Clarke, will serve food inspired and informed by all those meals back in Le Marche.

"Most people have a mentor in their lives," Fabio Trabocchi said. "For me, my dad was a mentor, even though he didn't know he was one."

Giuseppe Trabocchi, the chef's first mentor, died last year.

Luca is more than a name on the marque. He's also an occasional presence in the the kitchen. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Luca Trabocchi will be an occasional presence in the kitchen. "He reads cookbooks, and he likes to be in the kitchen," Fabio Trabocchi says of his son. "And he's got the same work ethic that I got from my father." (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

In large part, Casa Luca is an homage to Giuseppe as well as Fabio's contemporary classroom where he can pass along lessons in regional Italian cuisine to his own son, who has already taken a shine to cooking. About 70 to 80 percent of the dishes, Trabocchi said, are grounded in classic recipes of Le Marche, which Giuseppe often prepared at home.

"I’m more doing exactly what my father used to do," Trabocchi said. "Making sure [the dishes] taste good and that the ingredients are good. I’m not trying to make it fine dining. Not here.”

So as dishes move from kitchen to dining room, the knowledge behind those plates will move from father to son, just as it did all those years ago in Le Marche. “It’s 'casa' as in 'home,' and Luca is the link of the third generation," Trabocchi said.

Added Luca's mother, Maria Trabocchi: "It’s about the family. ... We do the same at home. On Sundays, we cook all day. We hang out. If we go anywhere, we go together.”

Elbow maccheroni, with prawns, shellfish brodetto, spicy eggplant funghetto. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Elbow maccheroni, a classic from Le Marche, is a dish with prawns and eggplant in a spicy tomato stew fortified with shellfish broth. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Spicy Calabrese 'Nduja in the bowl in the foreground. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
The charcuterie at Casa Luca includes spreadable spicy Calabrese 'Nduja (foreground) and  Wagyu beef bresaola. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
The main dining area features light fixtures made from linens from a family-owned factory in Marche. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
The light fixtures in the main dining room are made from linens produced at a family-owned factory in Le Marche. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
The glass fixtures over the tables by the windows were made by hand from a plant in Mayorga, Spain, where Maria Trabocchi was raised. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
The glass fixtures over these tables were made by hand at a plant in Mayorga, Spain, where Maria Trabocchi was raised. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
(Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Pane di formaggio, or cheese bread, is a holiday staple in Le Marche, typically served around Easter. The yeasty bread, prepared with a pecorino dough, goes well with many Le Marche dishes, the chef said. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Dessert by XXX (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Tom Wellings, pastry chef at Fiola, will handle the desserts at Casa Luca, too. This one features a sugary brioche bun called maritozzi, which ferries a scoop of pistachio and a scoop of burnt-honey gelato.  (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Trabocchi as a boy. He says he's only drinking water. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Fabio Trabocchi as a boy. The chef says he's drinking water only. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Donna Laura wines on tap. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Casa Luca will offer several Donna Laura wines on tap. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Casa Luca: Named for the chef's son, inspired by his father's meals. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Casa Luca: named for the chef's son, inspired by his father's home-cooked meals. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)
Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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