As a beach-loving kid growing up near the Adriatic Sea in the Le Marche region of central Italy, Fabio Trabocchi liked to stick his head under the water, taste the brine and spy the sea creatures in their natural habitat of rocks, sand and swaying seaweeds. That’s one source of his inspiration at Fiola Mare, the superstar chef’s new Italian seafood restaurant on Georgetown’s waterfront at Washington Harbour. For the 40-year-old Trabocchi, an all-natural approach is best.
“It’s always been my dream to cook seafood for all the creative opportunity, for the lightness,” says Trabocchi, “and it’s also healthier.” On a tour of Fiola Mare, which he opened in late February with his Spanish-born wife and business partner, Maria, Trabocchi continues: “When this opportunity came up, with the view of the water from all the large windows and the park right outside the door, it made sense that here you can experience eating by the sea as we do in Italy.” With market reports in hand and trusted fishmongers on speed dial, the critically acclaimed chef has created an ever-changing menu, reflecting his passion for the finest sustainable seafood available worldwide.
The Trabocchis like to stay busy. In 2011, the couple opened in Penn Quarter the elegant Fiola, with a menu inspired by modern Italian cuisine. Last year, near Mount Vernon Square, they welcomed diners to the more casual Casa Luca, named for their 10-year-old son, who has taken an early interest in cooking. Restaurant two is, in the chef’s words, “my family-driven Italian with dishes my father cooked.” (For our region, Fabio Trabocchi will always be hailed as the cutting-edge executive chef of Maestro at the Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner, where he cooked for six years in the early 2000s.)
Fiola Mare is their most ambitious venture. At 7,500 square feet, with an additional 1,800 square feet of outdoor terraces, the contemporary 140-seat main dining room feels like a sleek salon on a mega-yacht. Soothing, subtle earth tones and curving banquettes create zones of intimacy in front of an open kitchen. Regular customers have laid claim to “their tables” on the Veranda, a glass-enclosed waterside dining room with a breezy nautical decor and sweeping views along the Potomac. For private dining, there is a 12-seat chef’s table and three other airy spaces, including one with its own bar and waterfront entrance.
But any table is the perfect spot for “Under the Sea,” one of the chef’s favorite presentations. Each component dazzles the taste buds. “You see the quinoa at the bottom? That’s the sand and the maitake mushrooms are moving seaweed,” says Trabocchi, who easily mixes playfulness with an intense drive for perfection. “Like when I snorkel, under my sea there are Scottish langoustines, red spot king prawns from Australia and sea urchins from waters off Catalina Island [California]. Then I add black truffle and foie gras, as there’s a lot of surf and turf where I come from. Together, the brightness is spectacular.”
At the “Market Counter,” diners choose seasonal whole fish, which chefs then grill to order and servers debone tableside. Not to be missed is brodetto, the classic Adriatic fish stew, as well as crudo (raw fish selections), marinated and preserved fish, risotto entrees and seafood-based pasta, the latter available in half-portions. Flagship Fiola fans will find on the menu Trabocchi’s signature ginger-laced lobster ravioli and rich baba al rhum with pear and vanilla cream. Adding to the vision, the gorgeous hand-molded, sea-inspired iridescent tableware is by Alison Evans Ceramics of Yarmouth, Me.
“The idea is a palacio in Venice, spacious yet cozy. Even if you are alone, there are lots of different ambiances,” says Maria Trabocchi, who delights in her front-of-the-house work, greeting and seating. “For me, I enjoy tremendously making customers’ memories.”
Washington Harbour, 3050 K St., NW
Georgetowner dining columnist Walter Nicholls is the food critic for Arlington Magazine and a former staff writer for The Washington Post Food section.