Fiola Mare brings the Adriatic to Georgetown

W hen Fabio Trabocchi announced his plan to open a third restaurant in Washington, after the fizzy Fiola in Penn Quarter and the casual Casa Luca downtown, the Italian chef said Fiola Mare on the Georgetown waterfront would allow him to invest in his personal taste. “If you ask me what I prefer to eat and cook,” he said two years ago, “it is always fish. Fish in combination with pasta.”

His passion became my passion after the seafood specialist’s launch in February, as I made return trips for bucatini, creamy with lobes of sea urchin and coral-colored prawns that explode with sweetness, and spaghetti strewn with tender clams and ignited with slow-burning Controne chili peppers that let the pure flavor of the clams shine.

With his trademark panache, Trabocchi has delivered a taste of the Adriatic to Washington and infused a tired part of town with a rare pairing: sparkling fish and a room with a view. Almost overnight, the $5 million restaurant became the Numero Uno dinner destination for A-listers, among others, the first lady.

Strolling into Fiola Mare is like boarding a beautiful yacht, with white leather stools ringing the marble bar and sea-blue seats arranged on stained wood floors near the riverfront windows. The biggest of the four dining rooms is where you want to dock if you’re the sort of diner who likes to see the people who make your food (the kitchen is long and open) or catch a glimpse of the Potomac River or Kennedy Center. Friends of the house are sometimes welcomed with a chive-flecked parfait of plump raw oysters gilded with frothy prosecco zabaglione and capped with a wafer-thin cracker holding glistening spoonbill caviar. Others pay $22 for the appetizer, which marries sea, salt and foam in every spoonful and reveals Trabocchi to be one of the city’s most immoderate practitioners of his craft.

The chef’s penchant for dazzling guests with an arsenal of rich ingredients in vivid combinations surfaces in every menu category. The $18 house salad, Colors of the Garden, ought to be recast as Technicolors of the Garden, so fetching was the spring bounty of radicchio, asparagus, citrus and field of pansies I encountered. Nowhere else is burrata presented as sumptuously as it is here, where the buttery, cream-filled buffalo mozzarella sits in the dimple of a large white plate, ringed in a garden of green and blue herbs and petals with basil pesto and wearing the thinnest of croutons. Trabocchi and team, featuring executive chef John Melfi, also go for Baroque with “Under the Sea.” The catch is cast as if by Jacques Cousteau, with prawns, lobster and branzino — plus seared foie gras, sea beans and steamed quinoa — rising from a pool of Parmesan dashi. The chef says he was inspired to create the showstopper by “what you see when you snorkle” and by the frugality of Italian grandmothers, who know Parmesan rinds as flavor boosters.

Equally impressive is brodetto, the Italian equivalent of bouillabaisse. It’s chockablock with more fish and seafood than appear in a season of “SpongeBob SquarePants,” each prawn, mussel and periwinkle tasting true and richer for garlic and espelette in their broth. Throw in some bread, smoky from the grill, and a glass of chilled rosé, and suddenly you’re feasting in the Mediterranean.

This is food that dares you not to pay full attention to it.

Trabocchi, who grew up near the Adriatic Sea in the Le Marche region of Italy, is a terrific chef whose sterling credentials date back to the three-star Gualtiero Marchesi in Milan, where he began work at 16. Surely I’m not the only diner who still misses his four-star feats at the late Maestro in Tysons Corner (in a spot that will soon play host to America Eats Tavern by José Andrés).

But Trabocchi is also like the writer who pads his prose if only because he can. I leaped when a waiter announced the arrival of soft shell crabs one night, only to find the first-of-season delicacy ... where exactly? The sweet seafood was masked by a cover of olives, capers, piquillo peppers and blood orange segments. Hamachi sashimi tasted similarly overdressed. Come to think of it, a number of dishes would be improved by eliminating an accent or two. As straightforward as it reads in print, roasted wild turbot on crushed smoked potatoes gets as busy as the Beltway when remaining white space on the plate is occupied by pearl onions, a balsamic reduction and a froth flavored with potato skins.

Only when I order something “simply grilled” — branzino, Dover sole, red snapper — from the trove of whole fish on a bed of ice alongside the kitchen do I leave feeling as if I’ve eaten in relative moderation. But then, temperance has never been the Trabocchi way.

Fiola Mare is far enough away from Trabocchi’s flagship restaurant, Fiola, that the chef can serve several of the latter’s specialties without worrying about competing against himself. Welcome — and, by all means, order — lobster ravioli, its natural richness foiled with ginger and chives.

When you get the tab, keep in mind you’re paying for a postcard view in addition to a fleet of staff steered by a top-tier captain. Trabocchi stocked his latest restaurant with some of the most charming servers in the city, and recently added an ace sommelier to the equation. Jennifer Knowles brings to Fiola Mare the same smarts and spirit she demonstrated at the beloved Inn at Little Washington. From the bar come winning cocktails, foremost Spring Garden: vodka shot through with ginger syrup and lime juice and made refreshing with cucumber granita. This being Fiola Mare, flower petals float on the surface.

Unlike so many other kitchens, this one doesn’t flag when the subject turns to sweets. Fiola Mare’s tarta limone is a gorgeous Italian riff on lemon meringue pie, while its yeasty baba kirsch comes with cherries so boozy, they could qualify as cordials. A slab of dark chocolate terrine with the texture of fudge is made elegant with vivid green grace notes of Sicilian pistachios and mint crusted in sugar. Purchased desserts are trailed by gratis bon bons, exquisite one-bite chocolates and other treats — a case where more is in fact more.

Trabocchi’s latest attraction overdoes it here and there, but this much is for sure: Everyone sails first-class.

3 stars

Location: 3050 K St. NW. 202-628-0065. fiolamaredc.com

Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday,
5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekends.

Prices: Dinner appetizers, $18 to $150 (for caviar service), pastas and entrees, $18 to $60.

Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

THE SCOOP

Location: 3050 K St. NW. 202-628-0065. fiolamaredc.com

Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday,
5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekends.

Prices: Dinner appetizers, $18 to $150 (for caviar service), pastas and entrees, $18 to $60.

Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

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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