Pasta is the star of Fabio Trabocchi’s latest success, Sfoglina (pronounced sfoal-yee-nah). The Van Ness trattoria takes its name from the mostly female artisans in Italy’s restaurants who handcraft the foodstuff in endless shapes. “Pasta is the most Italian thing to do,” the chef explains. “That’s part joke and part absolute truth, but it’s in our DNA.”
It’s the fourth restaurant in the James Beard Award winner’s ever-expanding empire, which includes Fiola, Fiola Mare and Casa Luca. The spot has approximately 70 seats inside, complemented by another 20 or so on the covered patio. The best in the house are those at the counter overlooking the open kitchen, where cooks wearing driver black caps diligently work.
Trabocchi and executive chef Michael Fusano oversee the pass, managing the flow of food and signing off on each dish before it goes out into the dining room. Bone white with touches of burlap brown, the space exudes a casual Mediterranean sensibility, decorated with vintage Italian album covers in the back and striking handblown glass chandeliers throughout.
There’s a cozy six-person bar near the host stand, where guests can grab a drink if their table isn’t ready. Go for the Negroni. Aged for 40 days, it starts with a touch of sweet and settles on the tongue with a hint of bitter. The svelte Van Ness Manhattan is another charmer, balanced with orange bitters.
The concept is upscale, but straightforward, according to Trabocchi. Instead of a traditional bread basket, guests are given paper bags holding crunchy shards of cracker-like streghe, so they won’t bog themselves down with an excess of carbs. There are a handful of appetizers, designed to be lighter and flavorful, including a tumble of prosciutto ribbons with candied persimmons hiding in the gentle pink-and-white folds. Thin strips of red pepper stewed with orange zest and plenty of basil are a simple pleasure. My favorite? A small ball of buffalo-milk mozzarella speckled with olive salt sitting in tonnato sauce boasting a briny boost from preserved tuna, anchovies and capers. The soft cheese practically melts on the tongue, leaving just a whisper of flavor.
This is all just prelude to the half dozen pastas, which live up to their marquee billing. You’ll discover a trio of classics, including a rewarding rigatoni tossed in a thick sauce embellished with pancetta and a blizzard of grated pecorino and Parmesan. It’s the kind of dish that sticks to your ribs and warms your heart. Not unlike an Italian take on udon, tubular tonnarelli noodles are lavished with plenty of cracked black pepper to compensate for the richness of the walnuts and pecorino that provide the backbone of the dish’s flavor.
A standout seasonal selection is the ricotta-stuffed scarpinocc—a cousin to ravioli—tossed with brown butter and a slightly sharp barilotto cheese, which is balanced by the sweetness of sauteed pears. When in season, truffles are an optional addition to any pasta and are usually a more-than-worthy bonus.
There are a handful of entrees that don’t involve noodles. You only need a butter knife to slice through wagyu short rib, which is slow-cooked for 72 hours and finished on the grill to add a touch of smoke. Buttery bits of crispy bread with lemon zest and pancetta are scattered atop the oblong cuts. Sitting on polenta, it comes with extra-thick gravy—reminiscent of what you might find with a New England pot roast—and balsamic-braised cipolline onions as an acidic counterpunch.
Though it’s rich and decadent, it still possesses a homely simplicity.
That approach embodies the core of Sfoglina’s philosophy. It’s a restaurant where you go to find comfort. You won’t
4445 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202.450.1312,
Appetizers, $9-$15; pastas, $22-$25; entrees, $27; desserts, $9
Mon., 3-10pm; Tue.-Thu., 11:30am-10pm; Fri., 11:30am-10:30pm; Sat., 10:30am-11:30pm; Sun., 10:30am-9pm
Diners may request one of two tables for parties of up to eight when making a reservation. One is the Sfoglina Room (though not private dining), and the other is the walnut pasta table that hides a rolling pin and wooden board modeled after the one in Trabocchi’s childhood home where sfoglinas made fresh pasty daily.
Pastry chef Brandon Malzahn keeps the dessert menu tight. The caramelized white chocolate budino and the housemade soft serve are pleasant finales, but don’t leave without trying the lemon-laced hazelnut coffee cake inspired by classic Italian ciambella. Slices are freckled with crunchy bits of nuts and accompanied by a floret of whipped mascarpone.
Originally published in the March issue of DC