First Bite: Casa Luca, a thoughtful spinoff


Casa Luca chef-owner Fabio Trabocchi with son Luca, 9, who lent his name to the casual new osteria near Mount Vernon Square. (Amanda Voisard/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Seemingly every dish at Casa Luca, the casual spinoff of the modish Fiola, comes with a bite-size story.

Take “Maria’s” gazpacho, named for the Spanish wife of chef-owner Fabio Trabocchi and based on her mother’s high standards. The pale orange soup is mostly heirloom tomatoes, pureed to a creamy state with cucumber, bell peppers, olive oil and a hint of garlic: the perfect foil to wilting weather.

“I like the purity of this one,” the chef says of the gazpacho. The liquid salad is as beautiful as it is luscious, served in a tumbler cut from the base of a water bottle and set on a vintage china saucer.

Consider, too, the restaurant’s sunny monkfish Milanese. Trabocchi remembers the dish, generous with lemon zest in the bread crumbs, as his father’s way of getting his children to eat fish.

The chef’s family in Le Marche, Italy, is recalled in outsize black-and-white photographs on the walls of the breezy osteria, which gets its name from Trabocchi’s 9-year-old son. When Luca’s not in school or playing soccer, he likes to help out in the kitchen, plating desserts or, better yet, assisting the dishwashers. (His father thinks the attraction is “the power of water and hoses” rather than actual cleaning.)

The chip off the block makes occasional appearances in the dining room; look for the guy in the mini chef’s jacket.

Casa Luca is a thoughtful place to eat. Pastas of rice and corn are offered for those who can’t enjoy the house-made wheat shapes.

Although there’s much to admire about Casa Luca, warm in shades of orange and illuminated with handsome drum-shaped lights, not every dish is one I want to revisit. Fritto misto is a mixed landscape of seasonal vegetables that looks better than it tastes, and despite a generous application of gremolata, the grilled pork chop is a snooze.

Any meal is better with some grilled-to-order bread, however. The flat, saucer-size crescia sfogliata looks plain yet tastes sublime. (Lard in its many layers helps.)

I have no qualms about dessert, either. Pastry lead Tom Wellings churns out true-tasting ice creams, sometimes pairing them with seductive summer fruit, and a hazelnut coffee cake that encourages you to linger at the table. The latter confection comes with a tiny pitcher of syrupy vincotto for drizzling on the cake and a rich scoop of caramel gelato. The dessert also should include a warning: Beware of flying forks.

1099 New York Ave. NW. 202-628-1099. www.casalucadc.com. Dinner entrees, $16 to $28.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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