4445 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20008 (http://www.sfoglinadc.com/)
Our first encounter with chef Fabio Trabocchi was last summer at his original, and superb, restaurant Fiola. When I heard about his latest entry into the D.C. dining scene: the pasta-centric Sfoglina, I was intrigued. Sfoglina, the Italian word used to describe the traditional female pasta makers who roll out pasta sheets by hand, rightfully spotlights different pasta varieties throughout its menu. Spending a recent evening out with the family noshing, expectations may have been a little high given our previous Trabocchi restaurant experience. And while it may have been impossible to match the luxury of the original, we found the newest addition to Van Ness a welcome change to the neighborhood.
Driving up to the restaurant, what is most apparent is the lack of dining options on the block. Outside of the wonderful Bread Furst bakery (which does not offer dinner), Sfoglina stands alone. The interior of the dining room, long, narrow, and filled with pillow-back banquettes, felt like the nicely appointed home of a friend. The other showstopper: a long bar (about a third the length of the restaurant) with a wooden base and marble top overlooking the open kitchen.
Once sat, service was reasonably prompt, but definitely a step down from the perfection of Fiola. In particular, the personable and warm service that was so prominent during our previous experience was inconsistent here. I would have also appreciated a little detail (we had to inquire about the specifics of a special menu being offered) beyond the written menu descriptions. Speaking of the menu: offerings are limited (full disclosure: we were dining prior to Valentine’s Day, so a special menu may have caused a lack of choices). Seven pasta dishes is an excellent place to start, but an entree section with just one meat and fish offering is begging for more.
Once the food started arriving, I’m quickly reminded of how a well run kitchen can
overcome mediocre service. Grilled Spicy Calamari highlighted tender pieces of the squid,
freckled with charred bits from the heat of the grill. The sauce, while providing a nice kick, was not overpowering. Burrata provided for a creamy canvass for olives, hazelnuts, and toasted breadcrumbs. And while the cheese alone was a bit one-note, eaten alongside the house-made crackers, it made for a nicely rounded bite.
At Sfoglina, pasta reigns supreme. As expected, Potato Gnocchi does justice to its name, with light, fluffy potato dumplings, and a rich cream sauce. An overdose of mushrooms may scare away those fungi-files, but the dish is simple and solid. Likewise, Spaghetti Chitarra is a perfect rift on a simple carbonara: salty from pancetta and parmesan and creamy from an egg. The only knock would be an overcooked poached egg resting on top of the dish. It is nevertheless a delicious umami bomb. Also on the menu: Smoked Paprika Casarecce – with the spice mixed directly into the pasta dough – and topped with luxurious lobster and tender octopus.
For the carb-averse: Beef Short Ribs “Cacciatore” had tender short ribs in a savory sauce including pancetta and Cipollini onions. It’s an Italian take on pot roast, only so much better. Take note: the menu states the dish can be shared family style, but it’s a moderately-sized (delicious) entree for one. When it comes to sides, stick with the smoked flavor of the Pan Roasted Cauliflower. Sprinkled with salty parmesan, and cooked beautifully, it stands tall as opposed to the Polenta Cake, which fails to provide textural contrast, and is vastly overpowered by the flavor of the smoked Scamorza cheese it’s topped with.
Desserts provide for a perfect ending to the meal. Caramelized Chocolate Panna Cotta provides a wobbly custard with the classic combination of caramel and chocolate. It is outdone by a surprise birthday cake layers dark chocolate cake and chocolate ganache: rich, decadent, and delicious. But the real stunner is Nonna’s Lemon and Hazelnut Cake. Citrus notes are wonderfully balanced with the earthiness of hazelnuts, the cake is well-baked, and whipped marscapone lightens the dish. It provides for a sweet reason to return.
Similar to our experiences with Chef Wolf in Baltimore, Chef Fabio Trabocchi’s D.C. empire is delicious and ever-growing. Though living up to the expectations of a nearly perfect Fiola [and the illustriously-reviewed Fiola Mare] is a difficult task, Sfoglina pushes out pasta dishes with tasty abandon, and provides for much needed offerings in Van Ness. Bottom line: while it has room to grow before getting out of the shadow of its older sisters, Sfoglina offers some of its own homey charms, delightful pastas, and tasty desserts.
Atmosphere: A moderately sized restaurant with a long, narrow dining room, a wood-paneled and marble-topped bar, and pillow-appointed banquettes and chairs. Sfoglina has the feel of a friend’s house party with nice touches of class throughout. Service is solid, if a bit detached, and pales to the superb wait staff at its 3.5-star big brother.
Noise: Moderate. Although it’s not quite as hushed as fine-dining Fiola, the dining room has a homey feel which allows for easy conversation.
Recommended Dishes: Grilled Spicy Calamari, Potato Gnocchi, Spaghetti Chitarra, Beef Short Ribs “Cacciatore”, Pan Roasted Cauliflower, Nonna’s Lemon and Hazelnut Cake
Reservations: Accepted. Dinner on a Sunday evening was reasonably booked up, and given the limited options in the neighborhood, it’s a good idea to grab yourself a reservation.
$$$ – $50 to $100 for dinner for two