Cast your ballot
Clockwise from left: A plate of
grilled mackerel elevates the
concept pub grub at Izakaya Seki.
At Fiola Mare, Chef Fabio Trabocchi
takes a liberal approach to tuna
tartare. Rigatoni and fennel sausage
ragu gets a dusting of Pecorino
Romano at Red Hen. Come hungry
for food, fashion and lounging at
the multitastking Maketto.
shrimp cake are served to a packed room of regulars. The
steaming-hot Cha Siu Bao buns are filled, pleasingly, with
freshly shredded pork, not the usual minced. And a sweet-
and-spicy peanut brittle with anchovies (a side dish, not a
meal-ender) lingered in my thoughts for weeks.
Washington is a river city, but it seldom feels like one.
Until I had lunch at Fiola Mare, I couldn’t recall a decent
meal I’d had within sight of the Potomac, and certainly
not one featuring seafood. Fiola Mare sits directly on the
water, down the bank from the Watergate apartments
and the Swedish and Saudi Arabian embassies. It’s a high-
rent district, and the ambience reflects it. Blue cushions
in polished wooden booths evoke epic Tuscan seafood
palaces like Lorenzo in Forte dei Marmi and the Romano
in Viareggio. And that’s just what Fabio Trabocchi has
created in tony Georgetown, adding American touches
like lobster rolls and Pacific Northwest oysters.
As I do on the Italian coast, I bypassed the $50 lobster
ravioli and $2,100 Burgundy to focus on simple flavors,
like briny razor clams from the raw bar. I’d never had an
Italian tuna tartare (which I have a hunch Trabocchi
invented), but this one included San Marzano tomatoes,
olives and capers apportioned so harmoniously I no longer want tuna tartare without them. The bucatini pasta
with king prawns and sea urchin is too rich for lunch,
perhaps. But that didn’t stop me from finishing it, with
help from a bracing vino bianco off an exceptional list.
The flip side of Fiola Mare is Red Hen, in the newly
gentrifying neighborhood of Bloomingdale between 2nd
Street and North Capitol. The restaurant’s space had
been vacant for two decades before it opened in 2013.
Now a warm, elegantly rustic ambience reigns, with
wood stacked above the kitchen for the stove.
Mike Friedman, yet another chef/owner, isn’t aiming
for authenticity. So the meatballs in his tomato sauce are
lamb, rather than pork or beef, because … they just taste
better. The Sicilian cauliflower is flash-fried frozen for 30
seconds and served with horseradish yogurt, neither of
which seemed logical until I tasted that compelling dish.
I drank Lambrusco and ate rigatoni doused in a ragu so
flavorful that the smell of it brought back memories, and
I’m not even Italian. But then, neither is Friedman.
Millions of Italians immigrated to America in the late
19th and early 20th centuries, most landing on the
Atlantic Seaboard. Working with their wives and, later,
sons and daughters, they opened pizzerias and pasta
houses, creating a hybrid cuisine that merged recipes
from the Old World with ingredients from the new. You
didn’t have to be Italian to cherish it. Raised in central
New Jersey, Friedman still does. What he does at Red
Hen is similar to what Langhorne and Luangrath and
Trabocchi are all doing, recreating the flavors of their
childhood with a deftness and warmth that make me
want to keep eating until they have nothing left to
serve. It’s just another of the tastes of Washington. And
best of all, there isn’t a politician in sight. [