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Tosca returns to business downtown with a fresh look and new chef

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Unrated during the pandemic

Downtown Washington feels buzzy again, and cicadas have nothing to do with it. Ashok Bajaj plans to open the French-themed La Bise where his Oval Room used to be, Dauphine’s is drawing crowds with a taste of New Orleans, and Secret Service agents have returned to guarding VIP charges at Tosca, whose 20th anniversary in April went untoasted because of the pandemic. A longtime lobbyist favorite, the Italian dining room reopened ahead of Memorial Day with a fresh look and a new chef, Phil Marzelli.

Owner Paolo Sacco signals the change in tone. The dapper host has dropped the tie from his uniform.

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“When the pandemic hit, I felt it might be a few weeks, or a month event,” says Sacco. When he realized the crisis wasn’t going away anytime soon, he reorganized terms with his landlord and made plans to “start all over.” While the layout of the restaurant is similar, the space was gutted to create “a more jovial, less corporate” ambiance in an effort to attract a new audience, says Sacco, who relied on the ideas of his significant other, designer Martha Vicas.

The lounge, splashier than ever with floral wallpaper and dusty-rose stools and green leather tiles, is the most noticeable enhancement. Sacco removed the cloakroom nearby, making way for a bar that now extends to the front windows. In the lighter-than-ever dining room, carpet has been replaced by what looks like stained oak, and a new 30-seat private dining area acknowledges a need for what we once avoided: meeting and party spaces.

“It feels like a new restaurant,” says the owner. “We’re learning as we go.” Seven of Tosca’s 10 pre-pandemic waitstaff either left the industry or opted not to return. I attribute a server pouring wine into my water glass to opening night jitters. And I chalk up the shorter menu to the dining world’s new reality. Finding and training staff is a challenge for restaurants of all stripes.

Marzelli, 31, knows he has to do some juggling. On the one hand, regulars let Sacco know they hoped to be reunited with some of Tosca’s signatures, including agnolotti del plin and the veal chop with its elegant protruding bone. On the other hand, a chef with any ambition wants to put his own stamp on a place.

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Enter some of the most arresting Italian appetizers in the city. First among equals is the soft-centered burrata, imported from Puglia and presented in a shimmering emerald pesto whose perfume wafts across the table, enchanting noses as well as eyes with African blue basil. An argument could also be made for the pale pink hamachi crudo, yellowtail loin treated to a lemon brine before the fish is sliced and arranged in a refreshing cucumber dashi dappled with pickled Fresno chiles. Neither dish will be unfamiliar to anyone who dines out with regularity, but both stand out as exemplars of good taste.

The chef, a second-generation Italian who last cooked at the W hotel but whose credits include the downtown branch of Sfoglina and Casa Luca, both owned by Fabio Trabocchi, cooks as much for the eyes as the tongue. “Presentation is important to me,” says Marzelli. A bowl staged with pickled strawberries and confit cherry tomatoes is set before whoever orders the gazpacho, a stream of pureed strawberries (green as well as red), tomatoes, onions and cucumber poured tableside. The summery soup is best eaten with the bun-shaped, rosemary-fragrant focaccia, which the menu reveals is “not vegetarian.” (The bread’s distinctive richness comes from lardo.)

Among the carry-overs from the pre-pandemic Tosca is pasta maker Rosa Cuadra. Her tender agnolotti enclose the chef’s heady short rib filling, smoother than before with whipped butter and intensely flavored with cheese and the braising liquid from the meat. Parmesan filings and a reduction of veal stock kissed with butter finish the dish, a singular sensation that I enjoy most in winter but would have no problem dispatching in summer. Spaghetti with clams — meaty Manila and firmer middleneck — is cooked so the pasta retains some bite. Chiles and confit tomato add spark and sass to the dish, which would be better with less salt.

All the pastas can be ordered in half portions. Half is not enough of the creamy risotto, to which a heaping spoon of lemon zest and olive oil is added just before it leaves the kitchen with a topper of wild calamari, zesty with espelette pepper.

Sacco calls Tosca’s veal chop, nearly a pound of thick-cut grilled meat, “an obsession of mine.” The chef seems to be of the same mind. Marzelli takes the time to air-dry the chop before curing it with salt and eventually placing it in a marinade that imbues the veal with the flavor of orange and herbs. Once offered as a special, pricey Dover sole is now available throughout the week. The delicate fish, served on shaved fennel, sports precise hatch marks from the grill. The subtle smokiness plays well against the main course and its partner, a bright salsa verde.

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The dolce to remember is a sundae: scoops of ricotta gelato in a glass globe accessorized with dark Amarena cherries, candied citrus and elegant shards of cannoli “chips.” Ask for spoons all around; everyone will want in on the fun.

This is food that prompts little whoops of pleasure and encourages discussion. Know what that means? You might have to ask someone to repeat something. Laughter has been in such short supply for so long, however, I’m not going to rain on the parade with a sound check.

Tosca might be more relaxed than before, but you’ll still see linens on tables and a few men in suits — tighter than before, perhaps, but a sign that old ways are either hard to break or offer a sense of normalcy after more than a year of the opposite. For some of us, just watching Sacco seat and greet again is a little miracle.

He seems to be thrilled to be back, too. Like he says, “I’m kissing again!”

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Tosca  1112 F St. NW. 202-367-1990. Open: Takeout, delivery and inside dining 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $16 to $22, main courses $26 to $60. Delivery via DoorDash. Accessibility: No barriers at the entrance; restrooms are ADA-compliant.