Like many people concerned with their body image, Ryan Fichter rang in the 2013 New Year with a weight-loss resolution. But unlike most folks, he stuck with his personal promise beyond day two. Now 20 pounds lighter, he’s proud of his determination and feeling great.
“I decided I was going to eat more vegetables, more salads, more Mediterranean-style,” says Fichter, executive chef of Rialto, a Venetian-modern, small-plate Italian restaurant that opened in Georgetown in September, replacing the nearly 50-year-old landmark The Guards. “I stopped eating after 9 p.m. and stopped chef-grazing all night long,” the Columbia, Md., native tells me as we share a selection of fine, all-natural charcuterie meats and four types of anchovies at the restaurant’s elegant, crescent-shaped white marble bar.
With the exception of the massive carved-limestone fireplaces, there is little in the 175-seat Rialto to conjure images of the former tenant. Wood paneling and dim lighting have given way to a bright color scheme with hints of turquoise, mural maps of Venice and an open kitchen with a distinctive, domed pizza oven covered with gold-hued glass tiles. On the lower level, in the former funky Gryphon Room, red and black velvet-flocked wallpaper gives the space the look of a fancy Euro-bordello – one with a glass-enclosed pasta-making station.
The owners are restaurateurs Ben Kirane and Moe and Joe Idrissi, the trio responsible for Bodega Spanish Tapas & Lounge and Thunder Burger & Bar, also in Georgetown.
Chef Fichter, a 1999 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and a fine-dining veteran at resorts from the Carolinas to Hawaii, emphasizes fresh seafood and vegetables on his Rialto menu. “We are trying to lighten up the heaviness associated with Italian food,” he says. “There are no oversized bowls of carbs.” Standouts include a simple but elegant seared branzino with lemon and his personal favorite: cuttlefish in ink topped with earthy cepe mushrooms. I’m a fan of the beautiful rustic free-form pizzas, which have an airy, bubbled, very eatable crust.
(For New Year’s Eve, Fichter has created a special six-course menu priced at $150 per couple, tax and gratuity not included, with two glasses of prosecco sparkling wine.)
One of the top-selling vegetable small plates is a cracker crumb-topped cauliflower dish, rich with raisins and almonds. The fruit enhances the natural sweetness of the cauliflower and the nuts bring texture. It’s a terrific recipe, one that helped this chef keep his New Year’s resolution.
Rialto, 2915 M St. NW, 202-337-1571,
(Cauliflower with raisins and almonds)
1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
2 medium yellow onions, sliced thinly
¼ cup golden raisins
¼ cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
For the topping:
1 cup Ritz crackers, crumbled
½ cup grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup rough chopped and a dozen whole almonds (Fitcher uses fine Sicilian “pizzuta” almonds, available at Dean & DeLuca.)
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
For the filling:
In a large pan over medium high heat, sauté the onions in the olive oil until they are caramelized. (This should take ten to fifteen minutes.)
Add the raisins and the wine and cook for 1 minute, allowing the alcohol to evaporate.
Add the cauliflower and cook until the florets have softened but remain al dente. Season with salt and pepper.Transfer the mixture to a baking dish.For the topping:
In a mixing bowl, combine the crumbled crackers, cheese, chopped almonds and the olive oil. Sprinkle the topping over the filling and bake until lightly browned. Crown before serving with the whole almonds and parsley.
What’s Cooking, Neighbor? visits with wine, food and entertaining professionals who call the Georgetown area home. Georgetowner dining columnist Walter Nicholls is the food critic for Arlington Magazine and a former staff writer for The Washington Post.