Fiola Woos Washington Power Lunchers
by david hagedorn
When Congress is in session, the epicenter of power in Washington—at least during the hours of 11:30 am and 2:30 pm—shifts from Capitol Hill to Penn Quarter’s Fiola, where chef Fabio Trabocchi and his wife, Maria, play hosts to the nation’s top politicos.
Trabocchi’s high-style, low-pretense Italian specialties are certainly draws—he has earned numerous accolades, among them Best Chef Mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation in 2006 and Best New Restaurant of 2012 by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington—but it takes more than excellent cuisine to garner Fiola’s clientele of movers and shakers in such a short period of time.
Perhaps some of the lure is due to the fact that Fiola looks like no other restaurant in town. The place, as designer Griz Dwight intended, evokes an Italian villa outfitted to be contemporary and luxurious in a decidedly masculine way. Chocolate leather side chairs and leather-upholstered banquettes make up the bones of the décor, which is accented with sleek rosewood tables and stone walls in the dining room. Overhead, a stunning finishing touch: a gently curved, underlit ceiling shimmers with gold leaf and spider-glass chandeliers effervesce like Champagne bubbles.
And it doesn’t hurt that the Trabocchis embody as much élan as their décor. Fabio is tall, handsome, and neatly goateed. He wears tailored white seersucker chef coats while at work, and wraps himself in Ermenegildo Zegna when stepping out for public events. Fabio’s stylish sensibility and sophisticated eye are part of his makeup, wife Maria jokes. “He has expensive taste and loves Italian brands. Only his wife is Spanish!”
The European personification of a Ralph Lauren model (though she favors MaxMara), Maria oversees the dining room with a breezy charm and the poised authority of a proprietress. She took time off from her duties to have lunch with me one afternoon before the family’s annual summer trip to Majorca. Over bright samples of tomato, melon, and peach gazpachos; majestic veal chop Milanese with zucchini flowers; a panzanella; and a bold bucatini with prawns, crab, Manila clams, and chilis (her favorite), Maria discussed the lay of the land at Fiola.
Table 33, tucked by the staircase and below the bar, offers a good view of the dining room. Table 62 (where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius dined together recently) is a roomy banquette with a large oval table; all eyes entering the dining room automatically focus there. We sit at Table 46, a deuce that allows both of us to survey the goings-on as she reviews the menu’s highlights. To keep herself from being seduced by the constant stream of temptations paraded before her at Fiola, Maria devised the Light Menu, a three-course $24 lunch offering that has become wildly popular.
Pasta is never out of favor. Fabio’s sophisticated renditions of simple dishes, such as pappardelle with tomatoes, burrata, and basil, or spaghetti with cheese and pepper, are top sellers. Knobs of lobster remain the stuffing of legend in the chef’s signature ravioli.
“But once the [congressional] staffers and members get to know me,” says Maria, “they start asking for simple pastas with tomato sauce—homestyle food. It’s like home here to them because they come so often.”
Asked if it’s difficult to juggle the onslaught of powerful politicos who regularly jockey for position at Fiola, Maria answers, “Just because you’re a celebrity doesn’t mean you’re a celebrity to me,” she states without a trace of arrogance.
“I tell them I’m very sorry, and we’d love to see them next week.” Still, this is Washington, and some VIPs are more VIP than others. “The royal family of the United Arab Emirates—when they text me and say, ‘Hey, we’re coming. We [need a table for] 10.’ I can’t say no.”
As we’re talking, a congressman’s chief of staff and a lobbyist stop by the table to say hello. Maria greets them warmly, then subtly sweeps the room with her eyes to make sure all is well before returning to our conversation. “You notice they didn’t seat anybody next to us?” she asks. “That’s because they knew we wanted privacy. We are really tuned in to our guests.” (And that’s why the staff doesn’t blab on Twitter the moment a notable leaves, as other restaurateurs do.)
“Private” at Fiola, however, does not necessarily mean subdued. “When they ask me for a quiet table, it’s something I cannot promise. We’re an Italian restaurant,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s not quiet.” 601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-628-2888
photography by greg powers
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.