Fabio Trabocchi insists his new restaurant Casa Luca Vino E Cucina is a tribute to his roots in the Le Marche region, which also happens to be the land of truffles. “I grew up very poor and this is the food we had on our table,” he told me in a recent phone conversation. Now I’m not one to challenge a gentleman’s pentimento, but if you go by the dishes here, you will say the peasants ate very well…very well, indeed. Certainly I did on a recent visit.
Trabocchi who is far and away one of the most respected Italian chefs in the country has opened what he calls a “casual dining” experience, which is to say it is not the fine dining of Fiola, his first restaurant in Washington, DC, nor that of the Medici family table. On the other hand don’t expect massive platefuls of meatballs and spaghetti – – this is not your mamma mia’s kitchen.
Soft light bathes the high-ceilinged space, from the pendant lamps to the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking 11th Street. It is a contemporary Euro vibe with a nod to the past from blowups of old family photographs. Red accent walls and grape motifs dot the room on table runners hanging from wrought iron racks to linen lampshades sporting the restaurant’s logo. Half moon banquettes offer an intimate retreat much like they do at Fiola, while window tables and outdoor seating are cherished spots for people watching.
We cooled our heels with a lovely cocktail from celebrated local mixologist Jeff Faile, who has been jockeying back and forth between the two restaurants as the staff gains their footing.
The china here is worth mentioning as it is purposely and charmingly mismatched. While plates range from white china in classic 19th C patterns or 50’s modern, soup vessels are made from old wine bottles and delicate flowered saucers appear to have been plucked straight from auntie’s breakfront. It is what you would expect to see if you were in someone’s home in the country…in Italia, that is.
Begin with some bread. It is not to be ignored. The “Marche Classic Cheese Bread with Buffalo Butter” is a rich, glistening, cheesy, crust-topped mega-muffin served with a steak knife and an elongated pat of butter. The butter may be superfluous, but it is certainly the point. Do it justice. I can only assume the buffalo reference comes from the water buffalo from which mozzarella di buffala is made, but I’m a bit fuzzy on the menu’s translation.
Maria Trabocchi, Fabio’s beautiful Spanish wife, created the recipe for the restaurant’s gazpacho, one of the most delectable versions this epicurean has ever lapped up. Garden vegetables are finely diced and crunchy on the bottom half. Then the same combination of tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic is slightly pureed and floats on top. A tiny pool of aromatic olive oil rests on the surface to smooth out the flavors. It is perfection.
There is a listing of piccoletti to tantalize the diner. We could not decide on which alluring small bites to choose from and so requested a smattering of each, including a chunk of manchego in rosemary and olive oil and canestrato pecorino with a few rounds of fennel salami. The cazzimperio is a slice of toasted bread piled high with meltingly ripe tomatoes piled high with capers, fennel sprigs, olives, peppery pansies and a hint of garlic – a veritable blizzard of sensuous flavors. Little cups held jewel-like salads one of sweet corn, prosciutto and mint, another of heirloom tomatoes and stracciatella, the third of burrata and tomatoes with pesto.
A salad of tender greens, plums, peaches and cherries arrived adorned with colorful pansies and dressed with a whiff of vinaigrette that spelled orchard meets field in the loveliest way.
If you are looking for Trabocchi’s renowned gingered lobster ravioli, which I have written about before on these pages, you won’t find it here. These are rustic regional pastas fatta in casa. Expect some to be earthy and unrefined like smoked gnocchi with duck ragu and cremini mushrooms – – not terribly summery for my taste but a well known Le Marche dish – – or soupy like Campanelle in Brodetto with prawns. Grilled scottadito, defined as “finger burning” on the menu, are smoky, juicy, fat-laden lamb chops that beg to be picked up by the bone and gnawed over but only if dining al fresco beneath a trellis of grapevines, not supplied here.
Grigliata Mista di Pesci is a dish that embodies summer holidays whiled away along the Italian coast. Mixed grill of locally caught seafood is found most anywhere along the sea, be it Adriatic or Mediterranean. And for me Trabocchi’s way with seafood evoked sun-filled days spent seaside and starry nights of dining on the beach in sight of pastel-colored fishermen’s boats. For this dish gorgeously tender octopus, briny head-on shrimp, golden-seared sea scallops and the daily catch are grilled over a wood fire and tossed with fresh bay leaves, rosemary, parsley, olive oil and charred lemon halves. Ahhhh. La dolce vita! Could life be any sweeter than this?
After much to-ing and fro-ing we settle on three desserts (all in the name of research, dear readers, because we are stuffed to the gills). We are steered towards the Ciambellone di Nonna Palmina, a hazelnut coffee cake sounding more like a breakfast treat. The surprising combination of caramel gelato and vin cotto to pour over the cake, assure us it is not. Sicilian Cassata is a colorful concoction of pistachio and orange semifreddo, a firm ice cream, with baby meringues and strawberry-campari sorbetto decorated with the ubiquitous pansies as is the Luca Macedonia –stone fruits and the sorbetto of the day. Each dish is beautiful in a carefree way as if tossed together with flower petals gleaned from the kitchen garden. If this is how the peasants are eating these days, I wonder what it’s like to be a duke!
Casa Luca adheres to its casual definition by offering nearly two dozen wines at $28.00 a bottle with a few selections by the glass or carafe including the Tuscan Donna Laura Sangiovese the restaurant keeps on tap. But go for the limoncello with strawberry, one of four varieties of vin dolce, or one of five grappas from Poli, produced by a 5th century Veneto family since the 1800’s. And buon appetito!
Get Your Mad Men On
Craft Cocktails is writer Brian Van Flandern’s latest homage to the hand-crafted cocktails enjoyed pre-Prohibition – – a period between 1920 and 1933 when talented bartenders fled to Europe in droves, Eliot Ness and “The Untouchables” chased mobsters and moonshiners, and a hatchet-wielding Carrie Nation ransacked her way into speakeasies all under the guise of the Volstead Act banning “intoxicating liquors’ throughout the U.S. Given today’s fascination with these throwback cocktails, it’s difficult to fathom what it was like to live in the shadows just to get a little drinkie pooh.
In his follow-up collection Van Flandern, who has been named one of the “Top Ten Hotel Bartenders in the World” by Travel and Leisure Magazine, selects a few fellow bartenders from New York’s top craft cocktail lounges to join in the fun by contributing some of their recipes to the “mix”. Death & Co., PDT (Please Don’t Tell), Employees Only and Clover Club in Brooklyn are the four bars that meet his approval for innovative drinks, retro-chic ambiance and high standards of service. Mr. Van Flandern is very particular…and that should come as no surprise to those who have sampled his creations at the Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle Hotel; The World ship, the private residential luxury liner that plies the high seas; and Per Se, where he fine tuned his art at Thomas Keller’s Michelin three-starred restaurant in New York City.
Filled with quirky-charming hand-written recipes naming the exact liquor brands along with specific instructions on how to achieve the perfect drink, Craft Cocktails is written as a companion guide to Vintage Cocktails, an earlier book in the same vein, that featured a revival of elegant handmade cocktails by the noted mixologist. Lavish photographs of the finished and garnished cocktails in period settings and in Baccarat crystal glassware are by Harald Gottschalk.
So get your shakers and stirrers out, and as the uncompromising Mr. Van Flandern would say, “Bottoms up!”
Photos by Jordan Wright