The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide.
Business inevitably mixes with pleasure at this Italian power magnate downtown. “When do you testify?” I overhear one woman ask another at the next linen-draped table. I lean in to eavesdrop, but the food in front of me, from chef Massimo Fabbri, is competing for my attention. Whole-wheat spaghetti is cooked just so, draped with a tomato sauce that smacks of summer and is embellished with nothing more than fresh basil and fruity olive oil — so Italian, the delicious simplicity. Slices of Iberico pork loin, dusted with espelette pepper and served with an orange swipe of piquillo pepper sauce, help fill the dining room as surely as Tosca’s proximity to both Capitol Hill and the White House. The only thing better than listening in on power players is the cloudlike combination of mascarpone cream and coffee draped in frothy Marsala zabaglione, at once cool, warm and luscious.
Ristorante Tosca: 1112 F St. NW. 202-367-1990. toscadc.com.
Prices: Mains $26-$52.
Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following was originally published April 15, 2015.
Tosca review: Go for the decor, stay for the pastas and desserts
Owner Paolo Sacco does.
Then remember how nearby construction hid the facade from easy view, just as scores of competitors moved in?
Sacco would just as soon forget.
But the guy’s a pro, and he has another restaurant from which to borrow, which is a short way of saying he put Massimo Fabbri, his executive chef at the formal Ristorante Tosca downtown, in charge of returning the crowds to Posto. As skilled as he is, Fabbri has his work cut out for him. Diners can be fickle, especially with so many restaurants calling to them.
Tosca wasn’t left on autopilot. Sacco filled the vacancy with a chef he was familiar with, Matteo Venini, who originally had been hired as a pastry assistant at Tosca in 2006, went on to helm Posto in 2008 and, for just five months, at Bond 45 in National Harbor.
Since Venini returned to where he started in September, the chef has put his own stamp on the menu, adding duck with foie gras sauce and lamb with polenta — and amuse bouches so big they could double as appetizers. Cured salmon, the most memorable of the welcomes from the kitchen, spoke to the influence modern Spanish gastronomy has had on chefs everywhere. Setting off the fish, imbued with citrus, were a foam of whipped burrata and concentric rings of lime jelly. The enhancements raise eyebrows but redeem themselves on the tongue.
It’s a bit of a letdown, then, to encounter first courses that tend to be routine (tuna tartare, beef carpaccio) or mere eye candy. After tasting the snow-white cauliflower panna cotta tricked out with cauliflower florets in several hues, a companion put down his fork and said, “Beautiful — but it has no taste!”
When I last reviewed Tosca, in the 2011 Spring Dining Guide, I praised it most for its pastas, a detail that holds true today. Honestly, if my position didn’t require me to explore the range of the list, I’d order pasta to start and pasta as a main course.
Venini’s potato gnocchi, sauced with goat cheese, are light as clouds and staged as if by Jackson Pollock, with splashes of beet juice on the canvas. Linguine provides an al dente net for sea treasures running to Manila clams and shrimp, their flavors touched up with white wine, sofrito and cured fish roe (bottarga). Scialatielli — picture spaghetti, but more square than round — finds a soul mate in rabbit ragu, fragrant with thyme. Most irresistible of all are the stamp-size ravioli swollen with braised short ribs and finished with a glossy reduction of red wine, herbs and chocolate, “my grandmother’s trick” for balancing flavors back in Northern Italy, Venini says.
Not to take away from the meat and the fowl, but few of them quicken the pulse like the pastas. (Definitely not the dense grilled veal chop, a $48 disappointment.) The best fish dishes are the simplest — say, Dover sole, simply grilled and framed with roasted potatoes tossed with garlic and rosemary.
France’s loss was Italy’s gain when pastry chef Catherine Flaherty decamped from Le Diplomate on 14th Street to Tosca last fall. Servers are quick to promote her rum-splashed sponge cake with pineapple-passion-fruit sauce, and it’s a fine version of the classic baba au rhum.
But the dessert I hold in the same regard as the pastas is ricotta cheesecake laced with fresh rosemary and garnished with candied pistachios and blood orange caramel sauce. Simpler pleasures beckon among the house-made ice creams and sorbets. If you don’t order dessert, you still get biscotti, which become downright intoxicating if someone bends your rubber elbow and insists on a shot of vin santo for dunking the biscuits.
Even before the chef swap, the owner had been thinking about ways to enhance the look of the dining room he had opened downtown 14 years ago — middle age in industry terms. Twice since 2012, Sacco has briefly closed Tosca to refresh the interior. A glance around the room these days finds a glass-wrapped wine display, frosted lights that suggest moons overhead, banquettes to break up the expanse, a Secret Service agent or two and — why hello, Caroline Kennedy! How’s Japan treating you? If they don’t come in the same numbers as they used to, power brokers still break foccaccia at this address. Isn’t that so, Justice Scalia?
The good life at Tosca isn’t inexpensive. A sybarite could easily shell out three digits for a soup to nocciole dinner with wine and cocktails. The restaurant makes itself accessible with a three-course, pre-theater menu for $38 six nights a week. The catch? The deal is offered between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.
Downtown doesn’t enjoy the cachet it used to in Washington, but Sacco is doing everything in his power to keep his stake there relevant. In his favor are an elegant backdrop, some terrific pastas and the occasional celebrity sighting. More formidable: a dining scene that looks nothing like it did when Tosca set sail.