If Massimo Fabbri needs validation, all the novice restaurateur has to do is walk through the wood-beamed dining room of the fledgling San Lorenzo any night of the week. If his experience is anything like mine, every table and bar stool will be claimed, mostly by occupants registering serious satisfaction. Having put in his time at lobbyist favorite Tosca, where the chef enjoyed a 17-year run, garnering three stars for his refined cooking, Fabbri figured it was time to strike out on his own.
His maiden effort, in the quarters vacated by Thally in Shaw, comes loaded with sentiment. The new establishment is named not just after Fabbri’s 4-year-old son, Lorenzo, but also the Tuscan native’s favorite neighborhood in Florence, Borgo San Lorenzo; the patron saint of chefs; and a favorite Italian singer, Lorenzo Cherubini. Top to bottom, the setting oozes style, from the chandelier made from olive branches to the turn-of-the-century photographs of the chef’s hometown on down to the Tuscan tiles on the floor.
Grateful for his time at Tosca, the 39-year-old Fabbri wants his customers to know San Lorenzo is something different — chiefly, more accessible. “I want to tell D.C., thank you for what you’ve done for me.” The menu reflects his upbringing in Tuscany and emphasizes moderate prices (moderate being a relative term in a city where the median household income is one of the highest in the country at over $75,000). To keep prices in check, instead of forgoing prime ingredients, he says he “scaled down a notch.”
Crudo demonstrates the fresh approach. Fluke is Fabbri’s choice of raw fish. The delicate, sushi-grade, near-translucent folds of fish are decorated with bright bits of cherry, orange and parsley and wholly refreshing in the sauna of summer.
The antipasti don’t do many backflips to impress you. Indeed, the starters will be familiar to anyone who has eaten in an Italian restaurant in the past five years, and a bit of a letdown to diners who like their grissini crisp and their arugula salad less of a salt lick. (The skinny breadsticks accompany winy prosciutto; the biting greens are splashed with a lemon dressing.)
The better salad — a zingy toss of tomatoes, pieces of bread moistened with their juice, fennel, cucumber and onion — is classic Tuscan. And if you’re not up for raw fish, roasted calamari is dressed for success with Brussels sprout petals and red pepper puree. Best of all at the moment are fiori di zucca, fried squash blossoms stuffed with truffled goat cheese and served with a tangy tomato sauce.
As much as any category, pasta helps fill seats at Tosca. The same holds for San Lorenzo, where all the noodles are made on site and I’ve yet to find anything less than very good. Tender cubes of gnocchi are draped with a pesto that shouts “basil!” in every mouthful, and yolk-yellow pappardelle benefit from a delicate, herby rabbit ragu. Risotto has been offered simply, with little more than Parmesan and lemon juice in the swirl, and as a saucy canvas for seafood, including mussels and shrimp linked with lobster essence.
Carmine’s this is not. The pastas are restrained in size. Think of them as hearty starters or light main courses — part of the chef’s strategy for keeping costs down and (sermon alert) an admirable step toward bringing restaurant portions in line with a sensible diet.
If you’re the kind of diner who orders whole fish for its head-to-tail allure, I have some dismaying news: The “whole” roasted branzino arrives without its head. Fabbri says experience has taught him that a lot of customers don’t like to look an entree in the eye. Yet another reason: General manager Michael Nayeri, who scene watchers might recognize from his tenure at the late Galileo downtown, let his boss know there was insufficient room in the long, narrow dining room for a server to fiddle with the fish tableside. Whatever the reason, a stuffing of potatoes, tomatoes and olives elevates the branzino.
It wouldn’t be a Tuscan restaurant without Florentine steak, and the kitchen comes through with three pounds of grilled, deftly seasoned sliced T-bone on a bed of rosemary — but nothing else. Sure, it’s fragrant meat enough to stuff two or more, share a few slices with the neighboring table and seriously spoil any pooch at home. But for $126, a buyer might expect a side dish to be thrown in. Baby potatoes in liquid Parmesan will set you back another $10. Still, the beef is luscious.
Dessert is the bailiwick of Catherine Chappel Flaherty, who left Tosca shortly before her new boss did in November and previously worked at Le Diplomate and elsewhere in the area. Panna cotta shimmies, as it should, and speaks to the season with strawberries. Whimsy comes by way of some balsamic caramel and tiny croutons made with olive oil poundcake. Crostata is flaky, per expectations, and graced with whatever fruit looks good, plus a scoop of house-churned vanilla gelato. Dreamiest of all is the fluffy, lighter-than-most cheesecake, sweetened with honey and a black raspberry compote.
Time might smooth a few wrinkles. Attendants are sometimes too eager to please. Diners are asked repeatedly, by everyone on staff, if everything is to their liking, often interrupting conversation in the process.
As it happens, everything is not to my liking. I’ve yet to finish a cocktail here — love the stemware, if not the imbalance it contains — and one night’s veal Milanese was cooked to a scary shade of brown I last recall seeing on the crazy tan lady in “There’s Something About Mary.”
In the rear of the restaurant, a private room for 16 seats overflow customers and makes the best landing strip. Set off with velvet curtains and an upholstered wall displaying a photograph of a Tuscan beach, it’s a refuge from the din up front, which at prime time is as loud as a garbage disposal.
None of that is likely to thin the crowd. From my front-row seat on a recent Monday, I watched more than a dozen hopeful diners politely turned away at the door, and this before 7:30. If you want in on a neighborhood gem in the making, you’d be wise to reserve.
1316 Ninth St. NW.
Open: Dinner daily.
Prices: Appetizers $12 to $14, pastas and main courses $11 to $26.
Sound check: 83 decibels / Extremely loud.