Simply Delectable

At Thompson Italian, savor the seasonal main dishes … but always leave room for dessert.

Thompson Italian Restaurant, Arlington, VA

Photography by Scott Suchman

Although she adored Julia Child and worked her way through the chef’s signature cookbook while growing up in Arlington, Katherine Thompson first followed the path her parents preferred: a degree from William & Mary and then a dot-com job in Seattle. However, a vision of life as a chef kept calling. 

Thompson Italian Restaurant, Arlington, VA

When Thompson found and devoured Alfred Portale’s Twelve Seasons cookbook, she abruptly shifted her path and applied to the Culinary Institute of America. Upon graduation in 2004, she landed jobs at some of New York City’s finest restaurants and met her husband, Gabe Thompson, who is also a chef. With partners, they launched a successful series of Italian-inspired restaurants in the city, including dell’anima and L’Artusi.

However, the challenges of life in New York with two small children made them rethink their future. On a visit to Katherine’s parents in Arlington, they realized that they wanted their kids to see trees more regularly and be able ride their bikes in the street. The family moved to Northern Virginia in 2015. “It’s such a nice community,” Katherine says. 

Gabe was the head chef at a downtown D.C. venue until they found the perfect spot to open Thompson Italian, their dream restaurant in Falls Church. Katherine enjoys the irony that Thompson is not an Italian name and that neither of them have Italian heritage. Gabe hails from Texas, but they both appreciate the simplicity and freshness of Italian food. She describes their style as “American seasonal food with an Italian perspective on it.” 

In his zesty salads, house-made pasta dishes, and meat and fish offerings, Gabe focuses on “salts and acids and how they play off each other,” explains Katherine, who tries “to incorporate [those ideas] into my desserts as well.”

One of the joys of their Virginia location is the long growing season. The couple can occasionally be spotted at the Falls Church farmers’ market scouting ingredients. They also source most of their food locally. The salami, lardo, and pancetta they serve, for example, comes from Terra di Sienna, a traditional Tuscan salumeria located outside of Richmond. 

Thompson Italian opened to rave reviews in August 2019, welcoming diners with a casual, family-friendly vibe that included colorful touches from Katherine’s artist father, a bar, and a patio. But they enjoyed only a few months of packed houses before the pandemic shut down in-person dining. Like others, the Thompsons pivoted to take-out, offering whole cakes, family servings of pasta, and themed boxes—and their following has only grown. “We are really lucky to be in a residential neighborhood, and in a neighborhood that supports us,” says Katherine. 

In New York, Katherine saw many pastry chefs move toward fancy foams and “weird” ingredients in their creations. That’s cool and fun, she says, “but my desserts fall more to the simple and homey.” She strives to make them “delicious and approachable, not intimidating.” Her much-touted olive oil cake is topped with crème fraîche mousse, Maldon salt, and a raisin marmelleta (a raisin/caramel treat that includes lemon juice and zest and Grand Marnier). “I’m constantly thinking about flavors,” she adds.

Katherine’s desserts usually have a seasonal flair, too. During the holidays, she served an eggnog panna cotta, and in January she turned to citrusy flavors, including a rich and creamy vanilla panna cotta topped with macerated blood oranges. She enjoys experimenting with tiramisu possibilities, like a Black Forest version with chocolate custard, cherry mascarpone mousse, and kirsch liqueur. 

Additionally, Katherine sometimes appropriates some of her mom’s beloved recipes, then adds her own vibrant touches. (This fruit pavlova is an example.) “I am more often than not inspired by my mom’s cooking,” says Katherine, adding that the two love to banter about their cooking experiences.

When you sample Thompson Italian’s offerings, Katherine advises “not to fill up on Gabe’s food,” but to save plenty of room for dessert. After indulging in a few of her treats, I second that. ThompsonItalian.com


For recipes for several of Thompson’s desserts, click here. This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue.

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