Maria Trabocchi is as tired of loud restaurants as the rest of us. Her fourth Italian enterprise, Sfoglina, created with her chef-husband, Fabio Trabocchi, is designed with conversation in mind. Although the tables go uncovered, much of the rest of the decor — linen panels on columns, swags of fabric overhead, a sofa whose tufted back reaches the ceiling — absorbs noise like sponges.
“We wanted to make this an extension of our dining room at home,” says Maria of the 80-seat arrival to Van Ness, an area of Northwest Washington with lots of money but few choice places to eat. Sfoglina (the “g” is silent) is a celebration of pasta; in Italy, a sfoglina is a woman who specializes in making it, often by hand and using a rolling pin. A room off the entrance features a custom-designed cherry wood table upon which different pastas are produced by day. Come dinner, the space, dubbed the Claudia Room for the chef’s sister, morphs into an intimate nook for fortunate patrons.
If some of the nibbles and starters sound familiar, they taste fresh in the hands of chef Trabocchi. His roasted Sicilian red peppers blossom with orange zest and flowers, and his fiery ’nduja comes with chive-speckled streghe: hollow, finger-length crackers that originated in Bologna. Bakers used to test the heat of their wood ovens by slipping sheets of dough into the fire, says Trabocchi. A burned piece was called a strega, or “witch;” what didn’t burn became a snack, sometimes accompanied by a glass of wine. The history lesson is nice, especially when you can eat it.
Classic pastas are priced at $22. Hat-shaped tortelloni filled with ricotta, bright with a bouquet of herbs and sunny with lemon, pick up texture with toasted almonds and richness with a wash of butter. Seasonal pastas cost $25 and currently include tender agnolotti del plin. The stamps are filled with braised beef and Swiss chard; in Piedmontese fashion, the pasta is anointed with a sage-brown butter sauce. Sixty dollars scores you a tasting of three pastas, offered family style. Don’t get too attached to a shape or flavor combination, as the collection changes daily. (Not that spring morels will be a letdown after winter truffles.) A children’s menu for “Young Italians” embraces prosciutto that has been aged for 20 months and pappardelle with tomato sauce.
A category called “Not Pasta” brings together a handful of main courses of the same high quality offered at the owners’ other Washington attractions: Fiola, Fiola Mare and Casa Luca, that last the former home of Sfoglina’s day-to-day chef, Michael Fusano. Branzino poached in white wine, lemon and rosemary and served on olive oil-enriched crushed potatoes, as lovely as it is luscious, suggests expense-account dining. The vessels for ferrying food from kitchen to table alternate between white casseroles of the sort any Midwesterner would recognize and china that looks plucked from the cupboard of an Italian grandmother.
Shades of red infuse the setting, accented with alluring handblown crystal light fixtures from Mallorca, Spain, where Maria was raised. ‘The restaurant is a girl,” she says, explaining the cherry and rose colors. Poppies in the design salute Fabio’s native Le Marche, Italy, where the flowers proliferate.
Wasn’t Sfoglina promoted as an informal restaurant? Maria Trabocchi insists that it is just that. “For us,” she says, “this is casual. This is who we are.”
At least the couple is consistent. For them, nothing less than first class will suffice.
4445 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-450-1312. sfoglinadc.com. Pastas and main courses, $22 to $26.