The D.C. area restaurant scene experiences an Italian renaissance


Fabio Trabocchi opened Fiola in the District’s Penn Quarter section last month. But first, he had a challenging rent negotiation with the landlord. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)

Browsing the local restaurant guides, it’s hard not to notice the wealth of new Italian entries, whether it is the fast-casual Vapiano in Bethesda or the white-tablecloth Galileo III in the District’s West End.

Ten Italian restaurants have opened in the last 14 months, including Casa Nonna in Dupont Circle and Socci in Crystal City. And there are at least four more on the way: Mike Isabella’s Graffiato, Elisir by Enzo Fargione and two casual concepts from New York-based Fireman Hospitality.

Is the Washington area destined to become the next Little Italy? Doubtful, area retail specialists say. It lacks the traditional Italian enclaves of a Chicago or New York, where immigrant neighborhoods spawned a brood of ethnic eateries.

What the region does have is a batch of ambitious restaurateurs with a passion for food from their ancestral home. Some were waiting for the economy to turn before venturing into the market, others were simply stalled by hiccups of construction, but they’re all cropping up one after another. Be it coincidence or serendipity, these eateries are creating, at least the appearance of, an Italian renaissance.

“It seemed that we ebbed, for whatever reason, after Paolo’s and Primi Piatti opened. Those were not only well received downtown, they were sexy and familiar,” said Transwestern retail broker Bill Miller. “With all of these guys opening, it’s sort of about time.”

Fabio Trabocchi, who debuted the 160-seat Fiola in Penn Quarter last month, started talking to the landlord in January 2010 about leasing 678 Indiana Ave. NW for his casual bistro. Negotiating the agreement, he said, had its challenges. No tenant improvements were offered to build out the space, but rent reductions were made. Trabocchi, renowned for his time at Maestro in McLean, declined to go into specifics.

“Negotiations are crucial in defining the life of the business,” he said. “If you are paying very expensive rent, you have more chances to be in the red when times are not so great. We have a good relationship with our landlord and have found a balance. ”

For a central location such as Penn Quarter, retail broker Tom Papadopoulos said tenants can expect to pay nothing less than $45 a square foot; near the Verizon Center that price jumps to upwards of $100 a square foot.

“Restaurant space is hard to come by in the city,” he said. “Landlords are able to pick and choose, and they’re looking for moderately priced, hip and cool restaurants.”

There is certainly room in the market for mid-priced Fiola, where entrees range between $26 and $30, and the less expensive Fiorella Pizzeria E Caffe. Slated to open at National Harbor later this month, the eatery promises more than 30 artisan, thin-crust pizzas.

It is the second restaurant for Fireman Hospitality at the harbor, where the group launched Italian steakhouse Bond 45 in January of last year. The two restaurants will be joined later this year by seafood bistro Redeye Grill, currently under construction. Fiorella was supposed to open a few weeks earlier, but the 150-seat restaurant needed more work.

Staying on target with the launch date has been a challenge for Mike Isabella too. The former head chef at Zaytinya and “Top Chef” contestant was aiming for a May debut of Graffiato, but June is looking more feasible. Converting the 1940s print shop in Chinatown into a casual dining room, adding plumbing, telephone lines and all, has become a chore.

“It’s time and money,” said Isabella, who has spent about $1.2 million on the project. “At the end of the day it should pay itself back. Who doesn’t like pasta? Who doesn’t like pizza?”

Danielle Douglas covers the banking industry for The Washington Post.
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