The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2019 Fall Dining Guide.
Food critics are terrible at keeping secrets. It’s our job to dish about discoveries. Admittedly, my latest, from couple Katherine and Gabe Thompson, is hardly classified. All of Falls Church seems to want in on the place, charmingly decorated by Katherine with a nice assist from her artist-dad, the talent behind the pink neon in the bar and the paintings that double as sound sponges. The menu reads like a lot of other Italian spots but tastes more exciting. Fritto misto comes with hits of fried lemon and basil. Pork meatballs prove both fluffy and fiery. Pastas are rolled out in-house and include a winy lamb ragu over ricotta gnocchi that’s sure to call my name on the next brisk day.
Perhaps you don’t want pasta. Chef Gabe delivers (again) with grilled arctic char over something seasonal, and the best hanger steak and smashed fried potatoes in Northern Virginia. (Creme fraiche spiked with fresh horseradish makes a killer condiment for the meat and spuds.) The couple are equals in the kitchen, where pastry chef Katherine turns out some of the most sublime cannoli, stuffed with housemade ricotta, and olive oil cake, treated to spirited golden raisins, for miles.
If the service in these early months is tentative, it’s at least pleasant. Thompson Italian also manages to welcome families and dates. Think crayons and cocktails.
Thompson Italian: 124 N. Washington St., Falls Church. 703-269-0893. thompsonitalian.com .
Open: Dinner Wednesday through Monday.
Price: Mains $15-$29.
Sound check: 74 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published on Sept. 25, 2019.
Falls Church is lining up for Thompson Italian. You should, too.
Twice now, I’ve eaten dinner at Thompson Italian at 5 p.m. Even for someone from flyover country, that’s considered practically a late lunch. Yet whenever I’ve tried to book the place since it opened in August, the only available slots, even weeks out, have been opening time or past 9 at night.
Did I mention the restaurant is in Falls Church?
Gabe Thompson swears he’s not playing hard to get. The chef simply wants to hold back on reservations to allow for walk-in customers. Which turned out to be 150 diners on a recent Friday. In a restaurant with about 100 seats, counting the bar.
I approached the place with skepticism. Thompson last cooked at RPM Italian in Washington, a flashy dining room that gave me few reasons to return after my review three years ago. Yet now, he and his wife and co-owner, pastry chef Katherine Thompson, are offering fresh takes on familiar Italian dishes in a space designed with guests’ comfort in mind. (Those white panels on the ceiling look nice, but they’re more for the ears than the eyes.)
Every other table seems to have garlic bread on it. Make sure yours scores some, too. House-baked focaccia, cloaked in Parmesan and pungent with the stinking rose, is a loaf to love. Dunk a slice in the accompanying tomato sauce, and you have a springy pizza. Fritto misto gathers tempura-crisped calamari, lemon slivers and fresh basil in a heap that’s by turns supple, tangy and bright, depending on what your fingers fish from the dish. The chef’s fluffy and fiery pork meatballs might reignite your interest in the appetizer, as common on menus these days as red capes in Gilead.
The Thompsons bring to the table plenty of experience with Italian food, having launched Dell’anima in New York in 2007 and moved on to L’Artusi, Anfora and L’Apicio there. Initially, the couple scouted Arlington, where they live, for their newest venture. High rents expanded their search, and neither chef has looked back. “Falls Church has charm to it,” says Katherine, an Arlington native who recalls seeing “Dirty Dancing” at the nearby State Theatre before it became a concert venue.
Now and then, you might look up from the deliciousness on the table and admire the view. Katherine designed the space, formerly Argia’s, and it’s a charmer done up with handsome blue wainscoting and booths the color of butterscotch. Her father, a former art instructor, is behind the bar’s pink neon sign spelling out “pasta power” and the dining room’s clever “paintings” of a lemon, vase and espresso pot. Behind the images, done with markers: acoustic fabric to soak up sound. It still gets loud here — bare tables, wood floors and hungry kids will do that — but the noise seems more muffled than in similar settings.
Want some salad? Yes, you do. Cucumbers cut into chunks and tossed with pickled shallots, torn mint, cashews and a crumble of smoked pecorino are as much fun to eat as the three-ring circus sounds. Kale is presented as a garlicky mound of confetti scattered with toasted bread crumbs that sound off like Pop Rocks in your head. Cups of butter lettuce provide a soft landing for minced olives, toasted hazelnuts and a sunny lemon crema.
All the pastas are rolled on site. Those I’ve tried have been a treat, cooked so the pasta retains some chew. Lamb ragu draped over ricotta gnocchi is lusty with winy shredded meat, caramelized onions and rosemary. A server warned me about the punch in the gemelli with shrimp, wild-caught from the Pacific off Mexico and delicious: “It’s our hottest pasta.” Sure enough, the sauce, fueled with Calabrian chiles and red pepper flakes, throws flames.
Maybe you don’t want pasta. The kitchen offers a handful of alternative main courses that will make you happy to have them. Arctic char atop field beans, tomatoes and salsa verde is like the last day of summer. You want it to last longer than it does. The only thing I would have changed about the ropy hanger steak, served in ruddy slices alongside a little field of fried smashed potatoes, would be a heavy hand with salt back in the kitchen. (For better or worse, garlic is deployed a lot here, too.) Otherwise, I could have polished off the meal, which came with a ramekin of creme fraiche sharpened with fresh horseradish. Side dishes include broccoli, charred from the grill and full of flavor. Anchovies, lemon and Parmesan help.
“Do you have crayons?” I overheard a woman ask a hostess on her way to a large table, soon to be filled with what appeared to be three generations of family. (Yes, ma’am. Etch A Sketch and Uno, too.) But serious cocktails are sharing the place with sippy cups, grilled octopus with chicken tenders. Thompson Italian is the uncommon restaurant that can double as family time and date night. The owners are listening to all the feedback, too. Portions have gotten bigger since Day 1, says the chef. Tentative service is made up for with enthusiasm. The Thompsons have an asset in general manager Kristen Carson Hamilton, a cheery veteran of the esteemed Rose’s Luxury and Little Pearl on Capitol Hill.
Katherine Thompson came to pastry only after graduating first in her class at the Culinary Institute of America in 2004 and a “terrifying” debut job as a food runner at Per Se in New York. “I tend to not like desserts,” she says. “They’re either too sweet or overcomplicated.”
Her response — her handiwork — is (mostly) the opposite. Crisp cannoli, filled to order with housemade ricotta and candied orange, and chocolate budino, dark silk lightened with vanilla cream, put my table’s conversation on pause while we inhaled them. The market is flooded with so many olive oil cakes, I’ve wondered if Bertolli is behind the push. Thompson’s version is moist but not the least bit heavy. Each slice is crowned with creme fraiche mousse and a little well of macerated golden raisins. Thompson says she can convert raisin-haters, and I can taste why: These are plumped with Madeira, Grand Marnier, lemon zest and vanilla. The only ending that tastes out of place is the dense chocolate-hazelnut torta, sweet as fudge.
Thompson Italian leaves me conflicted. As much as I’d like to keep it my secret for longer, the right thing to do is to write up the place, for more people to enjoy. Falls Church, make way for the rest of us, per favore.