Nine years can be hard on a restaurant, especially one that has been relying on the inherited mechanics of predecessors going back to 1992. Fabio Trabocchi says Fiola, his flagship Italian restaurant in Penn Quarter, is overdue for a makeover. “We opened with little money and a lot of hope” in 2011, says the chef, whose restaurant went on to garner raves from me and a Michelin star for the past three years.
Food flash: The James Beard award winner plans to close the fine-dining restaurant at the end of June and reopen it as something even more luxe in October. His ultimate goal is nothing less than “a world-class Italian restaurant.” If his previous work around the city (Del Mar, Fiola Mare, several branches of Sfoglina) is any indication, Washington can look forward to just that next fall. Well, that and some bug eyes and clogged arteries, but I’m getting ahead of the story.
Trabocchi isn’t waiting until the last minute to make changes. Last summer, he pulled the plug on lunch service, and already, he has assembled a team of talents, including executive chef Josh Kaplan and head sommelier Jennifer Foucher, to prepare for the next iteration of Fiola. I returned recently to take a pulse check and was pleased to find multiple ways to use the dining destination. The current Fiola lets you order from an a la carte menu in a supposedly casual Ezio Room to the left of the entrance. Customers seated in the main dining room, where pools of space surround the tables and a wall of stone is punctuated by windows into the kitchen, can build their own four- or five-course dinners from a range of dishes or leave the decisions in the hands of the kitchen via tasting menus that can run to seven courses.
If you’ve been to any of his establishments, you know Trabocchi has a problem with restraint. In his world, more always trumps less, and what you think you’re getting — even in the Ezio Room, designed for folks who prefer a few plates to a three-hour meal — always adds up to something greater when the extras are factored in. Dinner opens with a gratis snack from the kitchen (maybe chicken broth poured over a delicate cup of mushrooms, including last-of-season truffle) and a trio of house-baked breads; even if you decline dessert, three sweets show up, trailed by a little to-go bag with bite-size cookies, caramels and other confections. I realize some people love that sense of generosity, and who am I to ask a chef to cut back?
Ultimately, diners have to decide what strategy suits them best. Here are two ways to experience Italian bounty.
Dinner in the Ezio Room
The scent and the taste of just a few tablespoons of broth — that welcome from the chef — transport us to a distant forest. In reality, we’re ensconced in a small venue near the bar, dressed with white chairs, curtains the color of honey and a chandelier composed of dozens of clear glass globes. (Ezio is Trabocchi’s middle name.)
A highlight reel from the dinner that follows: Italian culatello, “the king of prosciuttos,” carved into crimson slices, coaxed into ruffles and accompanied by tigelle, a ringer for an English muffin; a snow-white ball of soft burrata, glossed with olive oil, speckled with spicy long pepper and set into a nest of thread-thin fried leeks; and dense and delicious duck breast, its surface crackling with ground coriander, star anise and other warm spices.
The wonderful advantage to deciding my own number of courses is the ease with which I can remember and appreciate the thought that went into them — the gold leaf winking from the burrata’s “nest,” for instance, and the sumptuous complexity of the duck. The latter is flanked with poached quince and seared foie gras; gaps in the plate are filled with a regal sauce cooked up from confit, cognac and red wine.
Perfectly sated, we decline dessert. Unable to take no for an answer, the pastry kitchen sends out small almond financiers, chocolate bonbons wrapped in gold foil, and blood orange fruit jellies. We sigh, smile — and somehow make the sweets vanish.
Dinner in the Main Dining Room
A confession. I don’t eat the way I used to, even a few years ago. One or two courses and a few bites of meat go a long way these days, and I’m more inclined than ever to fill up on fish and vegetables. But criticism is about transcending personal taste, and Fiola is one of the most indulgent restaurants in town. Throwing caution — plus my better judgment and a fitness resolution — to the wind, I sprang for the ultimate dining experience at Fiola. Let’s call it the Five Stages of Dining.
Anticipation. Trabocchi seldom shows his hand ahead of time. When he labels something a Grand Tasting Menu, you know it’s a sign to buckle up and embrace the spectacle to come. Sure enough, the first course — a single briny Shigoku oyster topped with minced wagyu beef tartare and a black carpet of caviar — makes a diner wonder how the kitchen might top itself. Delivered in a raised cup of crushed ice, the cool marriage of sea and turf is no more than a tablespoon or so of food, but everything about it is clean, pure, indulgent. No less than champagne will do as a chaser. Vying for your attention nearby are spongy rosemary focaccia, soft country wheat and a pull-apart roll lit with cracked pepper and laced with grated cheese. The butter is French. The olive oil is from south of Sicily, with a fragrance that mimics sun-kissed green tomatoes. Of course you try them all. Of course you’ll later regret it.
Delight. Lightly seared foie gras tastes like a new luxury when it’s sliced as thin as paper and staged with three kinds of apple (poached, pickled, caramelized) and a sauce that resonates with charred lemon, duck jus and fried capers. A fragile pinwheel of fried bread escorts the second course of the night. One bite is not enough. And how good to see Trabocchi’s signature lobster ravioli make an appearance. I look up to see a fleet of servers, eagle-eyed as Secret Service agents, attending to diners’ needs. The pamperers include Foucher, recruited from the acclaimed Del Posto in New York. “It’s tricky with lobster,” she says. “You’d think burgundy with seafood, but then there’s ginger” in the seasoning. Her response is to pour a bright rosé from Campania.
Concern. The lobster is plump and sweetly fresh, but I detect only a whisper of ginger; the dumpling, thicker than I remember it, proves rich but blandly so. And the following branzino is far from the light interlude you might anticipate, given a base of shredded leeks cooked in butter and an add-on of oysters in a froth of zabaglione and prosecco. Neat touch: a shock of red on the plate, an emulsion coaxed from red king prawns and butter. Delicious? Yes. But also stuffing at this point. Every course seems to be borne on multiple beautiful plates, and the stemware is so light, you worry about crushing the wine glasses with just your fingers. I’m thinking one of the hardest jobs at Fiola is washing dishes.
Fatigue. A block of flesh? Now? Veal Rossini garnished with earthy black truffles looks straight out of a medieval banquet. I feel my arteries hardening as I lift the meat to my lips and (try to) savor the work that has been lavished on this fifth dish, set on a verdant ring of lettuce puree thickened with herbs and cream. Frankly, I’m half-tempted to raise my napkin and signal surrender. Instead, I place my knife and fork in the “done” position (talk about an understatement!) and pretend to be excited for the incoming cheese course. It turns out to be a fabulous knob of Piemontese goat cheese alongside an amber nugget of honeycomb, fragrant as an orange grove. No need to pretend, then.
Acceptance. Did you think that was The End? Ha! “We like drama here,” a server tells us as she pours liquid nitrogen around an intermezzo: a sparkling granita flavored with yuzu and fennel and framed for a few seconds in fog. Momentarily, I’m roused from my stupor, a sensation that lasts only until the first of multiple desserts arrives. Ten-year-old rum is splashed over a lovely layering of cake, apple confit and chantilly balls flavored with caramel and chocolate. Hell suddenly feels like heaven, thanks to pastry chef Claudia Barrovecchio, who’s also responsible for Fiola’s divine breads. Our eyes pop as the table is covered with fanciful little sweets with the grace of a jeweler showing off gems. Alas, every bit of stomach space is filled to capacity. We ask for the finery to go. A ball of foie gras ganache rolled in chocolate makes for a heady breakfast of champions the next day.
I’m compelled to ask Trabocchi: Has he ever eaten the whole $220 enchilada, so to speak? He pauses. Then he laughs. “Once,” he says. The chef knows where I’m going with the question. He blames the largesse of the seven-course spread on his Italian DNA. “We can’t help ourselves,” he says. Overfeeding people is his homeland’s way of expressing generosity.
I get it, I get it, Fabio. But I can’t be the only diner who would love to see in the future Fiola more vegetables and a lighter, tighter approach here and there. Already, his team’s cooking is great in small doses. Some trims might lead to better concentration — more gratefulness — in the dining room. Having done both this season, I’d much rather float out than roll out.
Fiola (Excellent) 601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-525-1402. fioladc.com. Open: Dinner Monday through Saturday. Prices: Ezio Room appetizers $18 to $26, pastas and main courses $24 to $54; main dining room tasting menus from $135 (four courses) to $220 (seven courses). Sound check: Ezio Room 60 decibels; main room 68 decibels / Conversation is easy. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can access the main dining room through a side entrance; two of the four restrooms are accessible.