Food critic

The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2018 Fall Dining Guide.


Beet tortelloni at Sfoglina. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Sfoglina

(Excellent)

Fabio Trabocchi has fine dining covered with Fiola, seafood addressed with Fiola Mare and Spanish mastered at (be-still-my-heart) Del Mar. The task for Sfoglina, which now counts a cheerful dining room downtown as well as in Van Ness, is to offer a comparatively relaxed Italian experience. To that end, Trabocchi deploys flour and water. “Pasta embraces all ages,” he says of the signature lure at Sfoglina, the restaurant in his arsenal he thinks is the easiest to replicate. (Look for a third Sfoglina in Rosslyn next spring, and expect the same appealing red-and-white palette.) Carb-loading excursions to the current restaurants find rich lamb ragu draped over supple pappardelle, and goat cheese slipped inside ravioli sparked with lemon. Pasta might be the hook, but the kitchens do just as well with grilled spicy calamari, sage-scented veal cutlet under a blizzard of grated cheese, and tiramisu served as a parfait, one of a number of fine desserts rolled to the table on a trolley. Always pushing to improve, Trabocchi is adding to his staff next year an artisan pasta maker from his home region of Marche to teach the troops how to roll everything by hand. “No machines,” the standard-bearer promises.

3 stars

Sfoglina: 4445 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-450-1312. sfoglinadc.com.

Open: Lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner daily, weekend brunch (Van Ness); lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily (downtown).

Price: Mains $22-$32.

Sound check: 68 decibels / Conversation is easy (Van Ness), 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice (downtown).

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This review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide as No. 10 on Tom’s Top 10.


Squid ink and smoked paprika cannelloni curl baccala with lobster and peperoncino is the latest in a long line of inventive, playful pastas to grace the menu at Sfoglina in Van Ness. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

Sfoglina brings indulgence to the neighborhood

(Excellent)

With all its red and white lights, pillows and seating, this beacon in a restaurant desert stands ready for Christmas, Valentine’s Day or really, any occasion that calls for toasting. Sfoglina is the supposedly relaxed restaurant from tastemaker Fabio Trabocchi, although everything about it — the amuse-bouche that launches dinner, the pastas made in a room to the side, the oh-so-smooth staff, the relative hush — spells indulgence. The menu, orchestrated by Michael Fusano, is short but exquisite; even the arugula salad with curls of stone fruit prompts “Don’t you want to take a picture first?” Of recent pastas here, the most creative and delicious is a wide ribbon stained black with squid ink and stuffed with salt cod. The way the cannelloni is curled around lush lobster, the pasta appears to be a fish. No restaurant makes short ribs look more alluring than this one, which positions rosy beef, pureed potatoes and zucchini so they look like an art exhibition on their wooden board. Decline dessert and you still might find something sweet in your doggie bag. Lemon cake for breakfast works for me.

The Top 10 restaurants of 2017:

No. 10 Sfoglina

No. 9 The Salt Line

No. 8 ChiKo

No. 7 Tiger Fork

No. 6 Bad Saint

No. 5 Métier

No. 4 Minibar

No. 3 Himitsu

No. 2 Pineapple and Pearls

No. 1 Inn at Little Washington


72-hour beef short ribs with zucchini, polenta and salsa verde. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

Executive Chef Michael Fusano presides over the refreshingly hushed dining Van Ness dining room. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

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The following review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2017 Spring Dining Guide.

I swear, “casual” to Fabio Trabocchi means wearing Ferragamo without socks in a Ferrari with the top down. Did anyone really think the chef behind the luxe Fiola and Fiola Mare was capable of delivering what he promised — a neighborhood pasta house — in Van Ness? Expect to see truffles and handblown crystal lights in the new place (pronounced sfoal-YEE-nah). The pastas are rolled out in the morning in a small room off the entrance that turns into a private dining room at night. Among the prizes is spaghetti alla chittara topped with an egg and tossed with pancetta and escarole. Before and after there are “nibbles” (grilled calamari with romesco) and “not pasta,” including wine-poached branzino with olive oil mashed potatoes. The biggest luxury of all? Relative quiet, thanks to a dining room as well padded as it is well appointed.


The Piemontese 40-Yolk Hand-Cut Pappardelle Primavera screams “spring” with seasonal vegetables, extra virgin olive oil and garlic. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

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The following review was originally published March 15, 2017.

Sfoglina review: A pronounced expression of pasta and more, from Team Fiola

Catch the fake news from Fabio Trabocchi? The Italian empire builder (Fiola, Fiola Mare, Casa Luca) claims to have opened a casual place to eat in Washington.

The name of the newcomer is Sfoglina, and it specializes in handmade pasta, delivered on dishes that look like they came from some nonna’s cupboard. Any notion of casa sweet casa pretty much ends there, however. Sfoglina turns out to be almost as rich as its siblings. Consider the three-gram garnish of black truffles for $45, over winter, and a kids’ menu with its 20-month aged prosciutto.

Almost everywhere you look there’s a sign that Trabocchi and his wife and business partner, Maria, have fabulous taste. Picture handblown crystal light fixtures and custom-printed Italian wall fabrics. Sfoglina’s palette — shades of red and white, bordering on a Valentine’s Day card — is feminine, but not overly so.

I say good taste “almost everywhere” only because of the near-Trumpian fetish for branding at Sfoglina, where the light shades, the bread bags and even some of the pillows carry the name of the restaurant, a reference to the Italian women who specialize in making pasta by hand. If anyone should know that less is more, it’s the stylish Trabocchis.

To the side of the foyer is a room with a single cherry wood table, created for rolling out pasta, up to eight or so shapes a day. At night, the space transforms to a private room for eight diners. The venue is one of the city’s cozier spaces, thanks to windows that let you see outside and a doorway that frames the party beyond.


Fresh homemade pasta includes Beet Tortelloni folded by Yansy Santos. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

The design of the room helps manage the volume and keep conversation easy. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

Sfoglina is one of the few restaurants of my acquaintance to equip itself with a pronouncer, in the form of a small sign at the host stand (it’s sfoal-YEE-nah; the “g” is silent). The name might be hard to get out, but the idea is easy — too easy — to swallow. From a menu that resembles a clipboard, only prettier, diners compose a meal from categories spanning nibbles, small plates, pasta and “not pasta.”

The kitchen’s idea of a snack is much like the owners’ idea of informal. The “nibbles” are substantial enough to qualify as a first course, and so pretty, they really ought to be in pictures. The most soothing dish is soft polenta swirled with crisp, caramelized mushrooms and sharpened with Parmigiano-Reggiano, at once primal and perfect. The best nibble for sharing is tender grilled calamari, draped with romesco sauce. One visit, dinner commenced with a gift from the chef, a creamy knob of buffalo milk mozzarella on a pool of tonnato (tuna) sauce, a dish I was happy to see later on the standing menu. This is a kitchen that understands octopus, which it seasons with lemon zest and espelette, and thinks to pair it with artichokes, roasted and pleasing in their tangy tomato sauce.

You’re probably here for pasta, the selections divided between classic and seasonal and representing multiple regions of Italy. Abruzzo is flagged by spaghetti alla chitarra, a fine nest of square-cut (“guitar”) spaghetti topped with an egg and tossed with wilted escarole and bits of pancetta. Pierce the egg, and you’ve got something akin to carbonara.

Sweet bites of lobster and tender octopus lend their charms to an Amalfi-inspired bowl of casarecce, short, tubular-shaped pasta that catches a lobster-and-tomato sauce tweaked with Calabrian chiles and smoked paprika. If there are two or more of you, the best strategy is to order three pastas for $65 and eat them family-style, portioned out at the table by a server.


Spaghetti cut on a chitarra is served carbonara-style with pancetta, escarole and an egg. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

One of the prettiest pastas in the bunch, beet-tinted goat cheese ravioli set on a pool of sage-garnished fondue, arrives with a wrinkle: sliced pears, so hard they almost crunch. But they’re a minor distraction amid a bevy of major attractions. (Another disappointment is the replacement of the original chive crackers, hollow and delicious, with sourdough bread.)

“Not pasta” translates to a handful of very good main courses, among them wine-poached branzino served atop crushed, olive-oiled potatoes that wouldn’t taste out of place at Fiola Mare, the elegant seafood specialist in Georgetown.

Sfoglina, guided by executive chef Michael Fusano, 38, formerly of Casa Luca, also makes the finest short ribs I’ve encountered outside a home kitchen. The meat is domestic Wagyu, cooked to blushing, lavished with fresh herbs and served on a puddle of polenta. The unusual color of the short ribs is explained by the way they’re prepared, sous vide, for 72 hours at a low temperature.

Proof that Trabocchi doesn’t take himself too seriously and recognizes a good trend when it comes along (or gets revived) is a twist on soft-serve ice cream, typically offered in a couple flavors. Vanilla and chocolate gelato, served as a big, creamy swirl with salted caramel sauce, is kid stuff done in adult fashion. There’s also a citrusy hazelnut cake treated to whipped mascarpone, and a silken panna cotta topped with dark chocolate sauce and airy chocolate beads. Refrain, then, from carbo-loading up front.


A Melograno mocktail is garnished with fresh flowers. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

A lemon and hazelnut cake comes garnished with whipped mascarpone on the side. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Dinner comes with a welcome accompaniment: peace, if not quiet. Sfoglina plays background music, but it’s never so loud you can’t hear your tablemates. Helping to absorb any noise are swags of fabric overhead and a tufted banquette, one whose back stretches to the ceiling. The result is a better appreciation of the food, for the simple reason it doesn’t have to compete with anything other than maybe your companion’s fork.

As at all the Trabocchis’ establishments, the service at the baby of the bunch is super-smooth. Here comes the dapper general manager Gian Mario Cabiddu to press the flesh, and there goes the dashing restaurant manager Sam Lindenberg to fetch the perfect wine with some red-sauced gnocchi, so light the little pillows almost melt on the tongue.

Am I recognized here? I am. Have friends unknown to the staff shared with me similar tales of doting attention? They have. Sfoglina tends to treat everyone like premium members at the club.

The branding throughout the restaurant leads a diner to wonder if the owner wants to expand the concept beyond Van Ness. “It’s quite possible, yes,” says Trabocchi. “We’re quite happy with the early results.”

While the chef has made no commitments, he’s open to another Sfoglina somewhere in the DMV, news that the next neighborhood should greet with YAY.