One of the earliest interviews I did for Forest Hills Connection was with two longtime neighbors, Margery and Mel Elfin. They described an almost ideal life here, save for one thing – a lively, central place where people could gather and socialize, similar to an Italian piazza.
We still have no piazza, but in late 2016 we got an Italian-born celebrity chef. When Fabio Trabocchi opened Sfoglina, his fourth DC restaurant, in Park Van Ness, it quickly became a neighborhood sensation – a place of togetherness and celebration. The restaurant’s universally rave reviews have also made Van Ness a foodie destination.
When I recently asked Fabio Trabocchi if he, with his Italian eye, could think of more ways to enhance our neighborhood, he suggested that more beautiful coffee shops, salad bars and other upscale retail vendors could make it more of a social hub. He also emphasized that a vision allowing for a better interaction with Rock Creek Park could be something interesting to explore, and he praised neighborhood efforts to make Forest Hills and Van Ness more neighborly and appealing.
The James Beard Award-winning and Michelin-starred chef had always wanted to open a smaller, neighborhood restaurant focusing on pasta. So when his friend Mark Furstenberg (the owner of Bread Furst) suggested he consider a Van Ness location, he was interested. Then he and his wife Maria (his indispensable partner, frequently mentioned in our conversation!) realized that many of their customers who frequent their downtown locations come from this area. This made their decision an easy one.
“We wanted the patrons at Sfoglina to feel that the restaurant is an extension of their kitchen and to also have a place showcasing the craft of making pasta,” says Fabio. The restaurant’s name comes from an Italian word for a woman who is a master of making pasta by hand.
Fabio and Maria are very involved in conceptualizing and designing their restaurants and that was the case with Sfoglina as well. “Practically everything you see and touch in Sfoglina we designed or picked… we wanted to create a place that we ourselves would like to come to.”
In addition to the alluring, cozy interior and delicious food, an ingredient that makes Fabio and Maria Trabocchi’s restaurants truly special is exceptional hospitality. Passion for working for people and effort to make customers feel special was part of the magic formula that made their first restaurant, Fiola, a great success.
“There is a certain level of service that is important for us to give to our customers, and we do not compromise on that,” says Fabio. Now with four DC restaurants – Fiola, Fiola Mare, Casa Luca and Sfoglina (the fifth, Spanish restaurant inspired by his wife’s family heritage, Del Mar, is opening this fall in DC’s Wharf area), Fabio and his team have various systems in place to ensure quality. Special attention is devoted to the training of their staff and empowering them to do what it takes to make customers happy.
“We are never done with training our staff,” says Fabio. “It is like running a school – mini exams take place every day!”
As a child, this talented chef had other careers in mind. “I wanted to be a pilot, a musician, a painter… As a kid I was working as a carpenter – building pieces of furniture. My father was very talented and handy and he taught me carpentry, electrical work.”
Fabio’s father, Giuseppe Trabocchi, also taught Fabio to cook starting at the age of 7.
“My father was a farmer and then a truck driver, but regardless of the stage in his life and profession, he never lost touch with food and cooking. He shared his lifestyle and love of food with me. On Sundays he would do grocery shopping and cooking for the family. We were poor but enjoying the life and our family meals.”
Just as his father did, Fabio spends his Sundays cooking with his family. And just like his father, he has taught his daughter Aliche and son Luca to cook. It seems that Luca, especially, has taken to the craft.
“It is a way for us to stay close, but it is also good for him to see how much work goes into this business. He will appreciate it more.”
Near the beginning of our conversation I asked Fabio what turns him on creatively. By the end of our interview I could have guessed the response myself.
“Inspiration comes from my family and our own family heritage, our diversity, and things we love and care about,” he says.
Encouragement comes from his adopted city. “DC has always been very good to us – since the first time I arrived in the US as a 21-year-old who did not speak a word of English, but was able to get a job as a young chef. Here I met my wife (Maria is from Spain), my son Luca was born in DC, and our first restaurant was opened here.”
The culinary and family magic continues with Sfoglina and Van Ness, and Fabio and his team feel the positive vibes. “We feel well received and warmly welcomed in Van Ness/Forest Hills area, and we are grateful for that,” stressed Fabio at the end of our conversation.
Read further for Chef Fabio’s tips for travel in his home region in Italy, and his wife Maria shares their family’s recipe for a delicious Sunday breakfast.
Fabio Recommends: The Marche region of eastern Italy
Marche sits between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea. It’s not as well known as Toscana or the Amalfi Coast, but, according to Fabio, has a great deal to offer visitors. These are his personal recommendations:
Food and drink:
Uliassi is a Michelin two-star seafood restaurant in the small coastal town of Senigallia along the Adriatic Sea. My friend Mauro Uliassi opened it 22 years ago, doing all the painting and plumbing himself, and now it’s one of the best restaurants in Italy. Mauro and I met as teenagers cooking in Le Marche; it’s great to see him doing so well after all these years.
Caffe Meletti in Ascoli Piceno is one of the oldest cafés in Italy. It’s famous for its anise liqueur, sometimes called anisette on this side of the world. They make everything Marche-related, especially for the holidays – from panettone to small pastries that they’ve done for the past hundred years. They also have a lot of historic art on the walls that makes it particularly special.
Urbino is a Renaissance walled town on a hilltop. Its Palazzo Ducale was the first such ducal palace built in Italy, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The panoramic views of the Sibillini Mountains and the Riviera del Conero from the Public Gardens in the Piazza Nuova are the pride of Osimo, my birthplace.
The town of Sirolo is perfect for travelers looking for a more low-key slice of the country. Sirolo has seven featured beaches, some of which are only accessible by boat.
At the outdoor Theatre of Macerata, take in an opera under the stars at the neoclassic “Sferistero” outdoor theatre, home of the Sferistero Opera Festival every summer.
Spend Christmas in Loreto. For about two weeks before Christmas, the main square in Loreto hosts a living Nativity, called a presepe vivente. It’s been perfected over many years, so it’s a beautiful sight.
Maria Trabocchi’s Tortilla Española
The Trabocchis began cooking with their kids when their children were just 4 or 5 years old. According to Fabio, in this way kids will get a sense of contributing to the meal and will likely eat the food they prepared! So if you have picky eaters at home, bring them to the kitchen countertop, give them some dull utensils and enlist their help in cooking this tasty breakfast!
Serves 4 or more as an appetizer or as an entree with a light salad
5-6 extra large eggs
4 large Idaho potatoes
1-2 cups extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
Optional: 1 small Spanish or Vidalia onion, large dice
1. In a large bowl beat together the eggs and salt. Set aside.
2. Peel and cut the potatoes into 1-inch cubes. Season them with salt.
3. In a wide skillet, heat the olive oil with the potatoes, onion (if using) and the clove of garlic. There should be enough oil in the pan to almost cover the potatoes. Remove the garlic from the pan if it becomes brown.
4. When the potatoes are just cooked, remove them carefully from the pan with a slotted spoon, drain them well, and add them to the egg mixture.
5. Pour the oil from the skillet and carefully set it aside, leaving just enough in the skillet to coat the bottom.
6. Heat the pan over medium-high heat.
7. Add the potato-egg mixture to the skillet, and move the pan around to help prevent the tortilla from sticking. Use a heat-proof rubber spatula to help flatten and shape the tortilla.
8. When the bottom is golden and the middle has started to firm, place a flat plate over the pan, and invert the tortilla onto the plate. Slide it back into the pan and continue to cook on the other side.
9. When the tortilla is golden, remove it to a plate. Cut into wedges and serve with a light salad, or cut into small squares and serve as a tapa with some aioli.
Maria’s notes: I say the onion is optional because the kids don’t like when I add it, but I do! You could also add sobrasada (a Spanish sausage), red peppers, eggplant or crab meat and that would be delicious too. For something truly decadent, make a tortilla sandwich on crusty bread slathered with aioli.