The Magic of Sfoglina

Fabio Trabocchi’s nostalgic appreciation for the past with an eye to the future.

Sfoglina squid ink linguine with seafood. Photos courtesy of Sfoglina Pasta House

Growing up in the Marche region of Italy in the 1970s, young Fabio Trabocchi would follow his father into the garden on Saturday mornings with his sister, filling their baskets with whatever was ready to harvest—sun-warmed eggplant and vibrant tomatoes, fresh herbs and leafy greens. Then their small working-class family would spend hours cooking together, Trabocchi and his sister picking herbs at the table while his father rolled out sheets of pasta.

Now a Michelin-starred chef, Trabocchi says his upbringing encouraged him on his path. “I loved the gathering, the happiness it brought to the family, our shareable moments around a table,” the chef muses. “That’s hospitality at its core, the meaning of nurturing one another.”

As soon as he could choose a path for himself, Trabocchi began his pursuit of the culinary arts, studying at Istituto Alberghiero Panzini in Senigallia and training under the legendary chef Gualtiero Marchesi in Milan. Trabocchi juggled two jobs—one to pay his expenses, and one to better learn his craft.

By 2001, the chef was beginning to make a name for himself internationally, and he was recruited to helm Maestro, a restaurant located in The Ritz-Carlton at Tysons Corner. There, Trabocchi ran the kitchen while his new wife, Maria, tended to the front of the house. The menu was split between classic Italian dishes and modern interpretations, and it would garner Trabocchi recognition as one of America’s best new chefs by Food & Wine magazine, as well as several James Beard Award nominations, including a win in 2006 for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic.

Sfoglina Prosciutto

This was where Trabocchi began to establish the style that would be synonymous with his restaurants for the next 20 years. “We need to have the fundamental knowledge of how regional cuisine and traditional dishes play a role in all of the regions of Italy. I like to evolve those recipes into a more modern setting without losing their identity,” Trabocchi explains. “Sometimes I refer to this approach as a nostalgic appreciation for the past with an eye to the future.”

Scott Suchman

Sfoglina, Washington, DC

Tortellini of Butternut Squash, Parmigiano & Sage (pink plate) and Sardinian Culurgiones

After earning his first Michelin star in 2009 at Fiamma in New York, Trabocchi returned to D.C. in 2011 to open Fiola. There, the menu reads like a love letter to his hometown, with dishes like Childhood, an Emilia Romagna-style tortellini in rich broth, and For Rome, a Beaver Creek pheasant saltimbocca with figs and guanciale. The menu also flirts with his chosen home in Virginia, with its native Rappahannock Olde Salt oysters and Chesapeake Bay crabs.

Over the next decade, Trabocchi opened five additional restaurants in Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, Miami, and Venice, Italy. With so many chefs under his command, it’s important to Trabocchi to convey his vision, collaborate, and trust his chefs to execute. “I really never stop thinking about food and how we can evolve our menus. We have to keep using our creativity to come up with new combinations, new textures, new flavors. I work closely with every chef in every kitchen,” he says. “We’re learning from each other. We’re constantly evolving our knowledge.”

Sfoglina Pasta House

At Sfoglina Pasta House in Rosslyn, Van Ness, and D.C., one of the chef’s newest concepts, the atmosphere is sophisticated but cozy, with exceptionally attentive servers in full command of the floor and the guest experience. The term “sfoglina” refers to someone who has devoted their life to the art of pasta. Master Sfoglina Simonetta Capotondo, from Ancona, Italy, in Trabocchi’s home region, helped train Sfoglina’s chefs to roll out fresh pasta as flat and wide as a bedsheet before cutting and shaping it, all by hand. 

The result is dishes like Fabio’s Ravioli San Leo, a menu fixture inspired by Trabocchi’s hometown and featuring plump, delicate goat cheese ravioli nestled in a garden bouquet of tarragon, parsley, and chive blossoms. Pappardelle, made with earthy Einkorn flour, cradles a sultry bolognese with fire-roasted tomatoes. Weightless potato gnocchi seem to float in their earthy porcini crema, topped with a subtle drift of Parmigiano Reggiano. 

Grand Chocolate Cake

From Sfoglina’s rooftop terrace, an unmatched view of D.C. stretches in all directions. Lush white couches create semi-private nooks for enjoying a pre-meal cocktail or moonlit dessert. Sfoglina’s signature chocolate cake is three exquisite layers of chocolate and gianduja, a rich chocolate and hazelnut paste that puts Nutella to shame. 

The past year has brought an onslaught of change for Trabocchi. After a reportedly amicable divorce in 2019, Trabocchi was alone at a helm that he once shared with Maria. At the beginning of 2020, the restaurateur employed 600 individuals in six restaurants, but on March 12, that came to an abrupt and unfortunate halt. “It was the worst day of my career as a restaurateur,” Trabocchi says. “I had no choice but to furlough about 550 employees. Some of them worked for us for years. Some of them had grown their careers with us, starting as dishwashers. In one day, everyone was furloughed. We had no choice.”

Just one week after the furlough, however, Trabocchi announced the launch of the Fabio Trabocchi Disaster Relief Fund, which aimed to cover living expenses for the furloughed staff. “Thanks to the generosity of our investors,” Trabocchi says, “we were able to distribute $260,000 in grants to our workforce so they could pay for medicine, rent, and groceries.” Moreover, he says, “We reinvented ourselves to introduce takeout and operated takeout exclusively to provide a revenue stream,” before eventually reopening five of his six restaurants.

Scott Suchman

Sfoglina, Washington, DC

Spaghetti Chitarra Cacio e Pepe, Walnuts & Basil

Like many restaurateurs, Trabocchi has had to stay nimble. In addition to adding takeout, Trabocchi adapted his business model to provide pantry staples, prepared meals, and catering to his customers under the name Fabio at Home. And in September, he introduced Fiola 2.0, a three-course pop-up in collaboration with Chancellor’s Rock Farm, an environmentally sustainable farm that partners with American Farmland Trust and the Smithsonian’s Virginia Working Landscapes. 

For Trabocchi, the connection to the farm, which is operated by Tony Everett and Kathryn Brock Everett, recalls his earliest and most important memories of food, tagging along in the garden behind his father. Planning and harvesting this year’s crops with the Everetts, says Trabocchi, has been a pivotal experience. “It has pushed us in new directions for Fiola as a restaurant.” 

Although his roots are in Italy, after 20 years of building a family and a business in the U.S., Trabocchi became a U.S. citizen in the fall of 2020. The timing, he says, just felt right. “It’s a tumultuous time right now in our country and in the world. We have significant challenges, but fundamentally I believe in the ‘American dream,’ and this is my home.” 

This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue.

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