“Are you the wife?”
Maria Trabocchi gets that question a lot. Six days a week, Maria — blond, 5-foot-9 before she slips a foot into her high-heeled ankle boots, as tan as if she’s just flown back from Tulum, Mexico — flits between the dining rooms of Fiola, Fiola Mare and Casa Luca, the trio of Washington restaurants she owns with her chef-husband, Fabio. For the record, yes, she’s the wife. But she’s more than that. He may rule the kitchen, but Maria reigns over everything else.
Such as deciding who on this Saturday night will score one of Fiola Mare’s coveted tables overlooking the Potomac in Georgetown and which of the expected 350 diners she will gratify with a stop-by. And, on occasion, which corner of the restaurant would make the ideal perch for a watchful Secret Service agent.
Tonight, she does this clad head-to-toe in Ralph Lauren, with a crisp scarf knotted around her neck and a watch practically the size of a salad plate on her wrist. (In her early days in Washington, Trabocchi, 44, was a brand ambassador for both Lauren and Cartier.)
“I’ve always loved clothes. I’m very European in that sense,” Maria says with a lilt that betrays her upbringing in Madrid. “People remember me for that reason.”
People also remember her because she’s a throwback to a different era of restaurant hospitality.
Going out to dinner these days can be an exercise in humility. Frequently, the hostess is a 19-year-old who looks up from her computer screen only long enough to inform you that it’s going to be two hours before you’ll ever see your table. She’ll text you when it’s ready.
By contrast, Maria and a handful of other women running the front of the house at popular restaurants are taking their cues from the dining world’s great longtime hostesses, while imbuing their establishments with their own up-to-date glamour and warmth.
First among those legendary hostesses was the late Elaine Kaufman, the irrepressibly brassy New Yorker who liquored up and mother-henned a generation of writers and artists at her eponymous Upper East Side bar for nearly 50 years before her death in 2010. On the West Side, Le Bernardin’s perfectly coiffed Maguy Le Coze has stood at the front of her house for decades, even though she also employs a maitre d’.
In New Orleans, there’s Ella Brennan, who was just 18 when her brother bequeathed to her the restaurant job he didn’t want — operating the family establishment, managing every detail from the menu to the mood. She went on to turn Brennan’s into an icon of American dining and then built more than a dozen other restaurants. In Washington, a number of presidents — and former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger — paid visits over the decades to Ayesha Abraham, the late doyenne of Middle Eastern cooking at the erstwhile Calvert Cafe (now Mama Ayesha’s).
Among those following in their footsteps today is Anne Marler, frequently front and center at Washington’s four-star favorite Komi and its hip Thai sibling, Little Serow, where she has put her stamp on everything from the mismatched dishware to the quirky printed dresses that staff members wear.
There’s also New York’s Vicki Freeman, who runs the floor at Chelsea’s popular brunch haven Cookshop, the Southern-themed Hundred Acres and Vic’s, with her husband, chef Marc Meyer, in the back.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘I just want to open an Elaine’s,’ ” Freeman says. “You can’t open an Elaine’s, because you’re not Elaine. Elaine didn’t set out to open an Elaine’s.”
But here’s what you can accomplish: “Everybody loves to go a restaurant where someone knows you,” Freeman says, and that “gives you the kind of table you like.”
This is what Maria Trabocchi does.
“She’s an absolutely natural talent with people. She knows how to engage people, how to make people feel a certain way,” Fabio Trabocchi says. “The meal we provide is certainly important; it needs to live up to expectations. But more people go to restaurants for the complete experience. And nowadays, it’s harder to find a place where you are actually made to feel comfortable, made to feel special, almost at home.”
Just after 7 p.m., the tables at Fiola Mare are nearly full. Due to arrive at any moment is a birthday party of four dozen 30-somethings.
“We need everything to look flawless, as if it just happened,” Maria whispers.
It does not, of course, just happen.
Hours earlier, Maria had pored over every reservation at the couple’s three restaurants, deciding where she’d spend the evening, flagging the bold-faced names.
Running the front of the house today is less about intuition than it was in Elaine’s era. Now, it’s about Googling your guests, filling your hard drive with copious notes on dietary restrictions and predilections. Wine drinker? Odds are, Maria’s fleet of well-dressed waiters is keeping tabs on your preferred varietal.
Right now, Maria has just enough time to make a beeline to a trio of older diners, to help them settle into their seats.
“She’s the highlight of the place,” announces Charlotte Schlitz of Chevy Chase, Md., to her friend, who has just flown in from Milwaukee. It’s the hostess’s cue that these guests have been here before. She ratchets up the charm.
“I will stop by later to make sure you’re not behaving,” she promises. She probably can save herself the trip: They’ve already ordered a round of Scotch sours.
“Hi, Maria! How are you?” A woman in a chic floral wrap-dress and chunky earrings greets the hostess back at the door. The women love her the most. This guest will be holding court at the big round table tonight, but she’s saving the extra seat, she tells Maria, just for her.
Maria may take the woman up on her offer and have a glass of wine, but first, the birthday girl wants to get Maria’s opinion of her outfit. Another table also has requested that she come over. The other guests, “they get jealous,” Maria says empathetically.
So she makes her rounds to crack jokes, to apologize for the noise, to extend birthday and anniversary wishes. She leans in, resting her hands on the back of a chair or the edge of the table.
She knows that she is as close as the diners will get to being greeted by the chef. She is, after all, the wife. But “I don’t hit every table every night,” she confesses. “Mentally, it’s exhausting.”
Maria and Fabio met in 1994 at the now-defunct Milanese restaurant Bice. The glamorous diplomat’s daughter from Spain was working at the front of the house between business classes at American University. It was the first U.S. job for the young chef from Marche, Italy. He didn’t speak a lick of English; they communicated in a halting mix of Spanish and Italian.
They moved overseas in 1997 to further his career and married in 2000, returning a year later to work at the swanky Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, Va. It was there that Fabio made his name, eventually netting four stars at the helm of the restaurant Maestro, while his wife settled into a guest-relations gig. The pair had two children, Luca, 11, and Aliche, 14.
Maria spent a few years at home with the kids before the couple decided to open Fiola — fortuitously, they landed the exact building once occupied by Bice — but she says that she never intended to become the face of the restaurant or the two others they have opened in quick succession.
While Fabio hammered out the menu and worked out the kinks in the kitchen, it made sense for her to look out for their investment. Maria took over reservations and greeting guests. Eventually, diners began to relish her warm welcome. “I was never part of the plan,” she says. But Fabio “couldn’t do it alone.”
“We were a mom-and-pop operation,” she adds, “and I needed to be the mom.”
At 9:15, there’s some slightly excited shuffling, and Maria scurries off to talk with Fabio, something she does repeatedly over the course of a night. A moment later, a very tall man with an earpiece appears, his eyes fixed firmly on White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who has settled into a banquette with her daughter. And there, at once, is Maria.
Later, she jokes that the Secret Service must have fully vetted her by now. “Do you think they have me on the wall, like ‘Scandal’? Fabio? Me?”
It’s a lighthearted moment on a night that requires disappointing more diners than Maria would like. One after another, couples arrive to find every seat in the house taken. When a walk-in who is offered a seat at the bar complains that it’s too loud, it causes the rare crack in Maria’s veneer.
She apologizes and welcomes the woman to return another night, but as she turns away, you can see the quickest flick of her eyebrow — a wince.
Some diners, you’ll never please. “It’s so frustrating,” Maria says. “Sometimes, I have to let two go to preserve the comfort of the others.”
She has the house to think about.