This review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2017 Spring Dining Guide as No. 2 on a list of the year’s 10 best new restaurants.
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.
4445 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-450-1312. sfoglinadc.com.
Open: Lunch Tuesday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch weekends.
Prices: Appetizers $9 to $15, pastas and entrees $22 to $28.
Sound check: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy.
More of Tom Sietsema’s top 10 new restaurants
This 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.
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.
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.
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.